In Jane Austen’s writing we encounter many military men: Colonel Brandon, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Captain and General Tilney, Lieutenants Wickham and Denny. In her tales we often read of how these men purchased their commissions, but what was the motivation for doing so and how did the process work?
In the Regency era, social status was closely related to career and wealth. An Army officer or Navy officer was considered a gentleman. Thus a man could gain an element of “respectability” that they might not hold by virtue of their birth. Moreover an officer’s status was considered higher than that of other gentlemanly professions: the church, the law and medicine.
Why were commissions purchased?
Our modern sensibilities tend to be uncomfortable with the concept of buying a commission. In the Regency era, the system was viewed differently. They believed that since men had to pay for their rank, men of fortune and character that had a real interest in the fate of the nation would be drawn to the military. Moreover, since they ‘owned’ their commission, they would be more responsible with their ‘property’ than someone with nothing to lose. Private ownership of rank also led to perception that since officers did not owe their rank to the King, they would be less likely to be used by the King against the people.
Purchase of commissions also served a practical purpose. The price paid for a commission served as a sort of nest egg for the officer, returned to him when he ‘sold out’ and retired. Thus there was no need to provide pensions for retiring officers.
Purchasing a commission
Reforms set in place by the Duke of York in 1796 set in place certain requirements for potential officers. Candidates had to be between the ages of 16 and 21 years of age, able to read and write and vouched for by a superior officer. Once these were fulfilled, the required sum of money would be deposited with an authorized Regimental Agent who would submit the applicant’s documentation for approval. Depending on the regiment, officers began their careers at a ‘Subaltern’ rank of Ensign, Second Lieutenant or Coronet.
How much did a commission cost?
Commissions were expensive, full stop. One had to be wealthy or have wealthy friends from which to borrow in order to afford a commission. Prices varied depending on the regiment and rank. (Keep in mind the reference point of £50 a year as minimum wage.) Subaltern rank ranged in price from £400 with the Infantry to £1050 with the Horse Guards. Lieutenant Colonel ranged from £3500 to £4950.
When an officer served long enough to be eligible and wished to purchase a promotion to the next level of rank, he would pay the difference between his current commission and the next rank. After 1795, a Subaltern (Lieutenant and below) had to serve at least three years before becoming a Captain; at least seven years in service (two as Captain) to become a Major; and nine years in service to be a Lieutenant-Colonel. Advancement above the rank of Colonel was by seniority only. Advancement was only possible if there were vacancies in the desired ranks and junior officers could spend several years without advancing.
Gaining a commission without purchase
If an individual could not afford a commission, there were non-purchase ways of obtaining a commission. A man could become a “Gentlemen Volunteer.” To do so, he would apply to the Commanding Officer of a regiment to serve at their own expense in the hope of filling a non-purchase vacancy when (and if) it occurred.
It was also possible for a man to be promoted from the ranks due to valor or meritorious service. The death, disability, or retirement, of another officer might create a vacancy that needed to be filled immediately. Other openings came with the establishment of new Regiments, or the expansion of existing ones. These alternatives were much more common in times of war.
For more information see:
A Background on War. Regency Collection:
Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine. Entry into the Officer Corps
Boyle, Laura.(2001) Jane Austen Centre On Line Magazine. Prices of Officer’s Commissions
Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .
Holmes, Richard. (2001). Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket . W. Norton & Company
Southam, Brian (2005). Jane Austen in Context Janet M. Todd ed Cambridge University Press
by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved