An Officer and a Gentleman pt. 2

The Militia-A Different Breed of Officer

In Austen’s Pride and Prejudice we encounter a military regiment temporarily stationed in Meryton. These men are members of the militia, not the regular army (discussed in the last post.) While at first blush, there may seem little difference between the regular army (the Regulars) and the militia, the differences are striking and significant.


What was the Militia?

The militia served as a peace keeping force on home soil. History had taught that a regular army could be a great threat to civil liberties, so the virtues of the militia were sometimes overstated. In theory, they suppressed riots,  broke up seditious gatherings and if needed, repelled invading enemy forces. Unfortunately, the militia was a dubious peacekeeper. It was not uncommon for its members to sympathize with their rioting neighbors they were sent to subdue. Moreover, their lack of training made them amateurish compared to the regulars.

Joining the militia 

Parliament controlled the size of the militia. Though considered a volunteer force, all Protestant males were required to make themselves available for militia service. The King required the Lord-Lieutenant,

Flag with union jack, crown and sword.

Flag of the Lord Lieutenant

usually a local nobleman, each county to gather a force of able-bodied men between 18 and 45 years of age to fill the quota for his area. Militia service required a five to seven year commitment to service on home soil with no chance of being sent overseas. Only clergymen were exempt from service. If a man did not wish to serve he could pay a substitute to serve in his stead. The going rate started at £25. (Keep in mind our comparison of a minimum wage job bringing in £50 a year.)

Most militia officers were drawn from the local gentry and were led by a colonel who was a county landowner. Officer’s commissions were not purchased as they were in the regular army. Officer ranks was directly related to the amount and value of property they or their family held. For example, to qualify for the rank of captain a man needed to either own land worth £200 per year, be heir to land worth £400 per year, or the son of a father with land worth £600 per year. A lieutenant needed land worth £50 a year.

In practice it was difficult to find officers, particularly lower grade officers, for militia service. So the property qualifications for lieutenants were often ignored.  It was in this way that George Wickham could become an officer despite not having a property owner in his family. While this leniency allowed many to join the ranks of officer who would not otherwise have such an opportunity, it did bring down the perceived status of the militia officer.

Life in the militia

Service in the militia carried little threat of front line duty. Officers had a great deal of leave and often enjoyed a busy social schedule provided by the local gentry. Since all officers were supposed to be property holders of some measure, they were all considered gentlemen and afforded the according status.

Brighton beach sketch

Brighton beach sketch from early 1800’s

 In summer the militia’s regiments went into tented camps in the open countryside to engage in training exercises. Camps were located throughout the southern and eastern coasts, the largest at Brighton.

Military reviews, held on open hillside or common land,  made thrilling entertainment for the local residents. They included displays of marching, drilling, firing at targets and even mock skirmishes often for the benefit of a visiting general. In the winter, the militia quartered wherever accommodation could be found for them in the nearby towns and villages. Accommodations were paid for by the soldiers themselves.


Public attitude toward the militia

All in all the militia was not popular. Inhabitants resented assessments of equipment and money to cover the needs of the militia. Men resented being drafted to serve and were apt to do everything they could to avoid their military training.

As a peacekeeping force, they militia had little to do but drill. With so much free time on their hands, they developed a reputation for a wild lifestyle of parties and frivolity. Since the militia moved often, officers had a great temptation to run up bills and leave without paying them. As a result innkeepers and tradesmen disliked them and often protested the militia quartering in or even passing through their town. Not surprisingly, parents often saw militia officers as a threat to their marriageable daughters since their families were unknown and might disappear from the neighborhood very quickly.


For more information see:

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Downing, Sarah Jane.  (2010). Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen.  Shire Publications

Holmes, Richard.  (2001).   Redcoat, the British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket

W. W. Norton & Company

Le Faye, Deirdre.  (2002).   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams

Militia.  Regency Collection :<>

Southam, Brian  (2005). Jane Austen in Context.  Janet M. Todd ed Cambridge University Press

Tomalin, Claire.  (1999).  Jane Austen, a Life.  Random House

Watkins, Susan . (1990).  Jane Austen’s Town and Country Style. Rizzoli

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved



An Officer and a Gentleman

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?

Period reinactors is uniform Being an officer made you a gentleman

 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.20th regiment soldier, 1742

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.  Advancement in the British Army 

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

Taking Orders

Taking orders

 In Jane Austen’s writing we encounter a number of characters like Edward Ferrars and Edmund Bertram who are planning to take orders. Her readers understood what that meant, but the concept is a little foreign to us, so here’s a quick rundown on what ‘taking orders’ meant.

 The English laws or primogenitor, intended to preserve the integrity of large landed estates, made it a challenge for younger sons of the landed gentry to establish themselves in life. If their family did not possess an additional estate for them to inherit or there was not some other relative to provide an inheritance, they had little choice but to make their way in the world. The question was, of course, how.

By the second half of the 1700’s traditional ‘learned’ professions: the church, the law and medicine, took on a respectable character as ‘liberal professions’ befitting gentlemen. So these, together with the armed forces formed the primary options for gentlemen’s sons.

Requirements for taking orders

 To be considered for ordination, a candidate needed a  degree from Cambridge or Oxford. No theological colleges or courses of study existed so a standard honors degree satisfied the requirement. Afterwards, the candidate needed a testimonial from his college vouching for his fitness for ordination. Finally, he needed to locate a bishop and make arrangements for an examination that would satisfy the bishop of his competency in Latin, knowledge of the Scripture, and familiarity with the liturgy and church doctrine as written in the 39 Articles. Some bishops made only a cursory examination in these areas, only a few took their responsibilities more seriously.

After Japanning (slang for ordination referring to putting on black cloth, from the color of black japan ware) a man was qualified to administer the sacraments of the Church. His career would begin at age 23, as a deacon, assisting an ordained priest. At 24 he could be fully ordained and eligible to be in charge of a parish.

After ordination, a priest (curate, vicar or rector) would still be referred as Mr. Surname as was Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. He would never be referred to as Reverend in speech although he might receive letters as ‘The Reverend W. Collins’. Only if he attained higher standing in the church would his form of address change.

What did the clergy do once ordained?

 The clergyman’s basic duties were to hold church service on Sundays and  hold Holy Communion at least three times a year. The service, which might last as long as three hours, began with the clergyman declaring a the general confession of sins.  The congregation repeated this after him and then he pronounced God’s forgiveness. Following this a psalm of praise and thanksgiving and passages from the Old and New Testaments were read. Then everybody stood and repeated the Apostles’ Creed. After all this, a sermon might be read.

Most priests took their sermons from books published for the purpose. Some would read extracts from the printed text. In other cases, adaptations might be written to suit particular circumstances. In general congregations enjoyed the use of familiar texts. Few clergymen wrote original sermons.

Midweek duties included baptisms, marriages and funerals and visiting the sick. In addition, parish meetings, at which the clergyman officiated, discussed local affairs including charity, parish employment, care of the poor, repair and maintenance of the church and election of the churchwardens. The parish was responsible for the administration of the poor laws and elected Supervisors of the Poor who collected the Poor Rate taxes from the wealthier parishioners. Road maintenance was also a responsibility of the parish and two Surveyors of Highways were appointed to supervise the maintenance and repair of the roads. Thus, the clergyman played a major role in the life of his parish community.


 For more information see:

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Collins, Irene. (2002)  Jane Austen & the Clergy. Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Grose, Captain (Francis). (2004)  Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811 ed. Ikon Classics

Le Faye, Deirdre.  (2002).   Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams

MacDonagh, Oliver . (1991) Jane Austen, Real and Imagined Worlds.  Yale University Press.

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved

It’s a (church) living…

Jane Austen often wrote of clergymen with church livings and gentlemen with livings to bestow. What exactly was she talking about?

In short, a living meant a guaranteed income and home for the lifetime of the clergyman lucky enough to be appointed to one. Since the incumbent did not receive a wage or sully his hands with works per se, it was considered a gentlemanly profession and many younger sons of gentlemen pursued the church as their career.

 How many livings existed?

Not sure when the renovation at the front fini...

Image via Wikipedia

Approximately 11,500 benefices or livings existed in England and Wales at the end of the 18th century. This sounds like a sufficient number; however, over half the ordained clergy never received a living.

Patrons owned livings. Oxford and Cambridge colleges controlled around 5%, giving them as gifts to fellows and masters who wished to marry and leave academic pursuits. Another 10% or so belonged to the Crown and were  presented to government supporters. Bishops and cathedral chapters possessed about 20%. The gentry and aristocracy held the largest share, on the order of 60%. Most great families had at least one or two livings at their disposal.

 How much income did a living provide?

The majority of England’s parishes were small. An 1802 figure suggests a third of the benefices brought in less than £150 a year and some 1,000 of those less than £100. (Remember, about £50 a year was more or less equivalent to our minimum wage.)  A clergyman needed a  living of £300-400 per annum to be on the level  with the lesser gentry.

Incomes might be increased by serving more than one parish, but this seldom resulted in real wealth.

Only a third of all clergy acquired more than one living. Slightly more than one in twenty held more than two benefices and of these few had as many as four or five.

Additional income might also be found through teaching or cultivating gardens and the glebe (acreage provided by the parish.) The amount of land varied by parish, some only had a field in others, fifty acres or more. The incumbent either chose to farm it himself or rented it out to a tenant farmer.

English: Engraving of Steventon rectory, home ...

the parsonage Jane Austen liven in

A living also included a parsonage house. The patron, not the church took responsibility for providing hosing for the clergy. Landowners might improve the parsonage in the hope of attracting an incumbent of education and breeding, fit to dine at his patron’s table. Many vicarages, though, were in poor condition.

 How did one get a living?

The surest way of obtaining a benefice was to be related to the patron. A well-placed relative might well mean walk into a living immediately after ordination. Less well-connected individuals could wait ten or twenty years.

The right to appoint a clergyman to a living was called an advowson and considered a form of property to be bought, sold and inherited. Instead of selling an entire advowson, a gentleman strapped for cash might sell just the ‘right of next presentation’ as did Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park.

Typically an advowson sold for five to seven times the annual value. Such a sale had to take place during the lifetime of the incumbent. Sales after the incumbent’s death were a crime called Simony and would result in the loss of the advowson. An extremely fortunate clergyman could own an advowson and appoint himself to a living.

 I must admit, after researching all this, I am still left scratching my head as to why Jane Austen’s Lady Catherine would ever have chosen a man like William Collins to serve her parish for life.

For more information see:

Ask Meta filter It’s a living… but WHAT it? 

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Collins, Irene. (2002)  Jane Austen & the Clergy. Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

MacDonagh, Oliver . (1991) Jane Austen, Real and Imagined Worlds.  Yale University Press.

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher 

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved

Rectors and Vicars and Curates…Oh My!

I must confess, trying to understand the Regency clergy just about drove me over the edge. References didn’t answer my questions, then they would contradict one another. I thought I’d pull my hair out. Nancy Mayer at Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher came to my rescue and straightened out so much of  my confusion. Thank you, Nancy! Please, take time and check out her wonderful site.

The three different types of clergy populated the parish church: the rector, the vicar and the curate. The latter two are the ones we hear about most but it is worth taking a moment to consider the rector, too.

Caricature of Reverend Canon Edgar Sheppard D....

Reverend Canon Edgar Sheppard


One of the reasons for confusion about this position is that the rector did not have to be an ordained man — it might well be a college, a group, bishop, a nobleman, or even a female. The rector was simply the one who received the ‘greater’ tithes, 10% of the cereal crops grown in the parish, (which might be as much as 75% of the total tithes), in compensation for the freehold (land) used by the church.

Beyond his clerical responsibilities, the rector played an active role in the social life of the neighborhood and in its civil administration, carrying out such duties as the registration of births, deaths and marriages, sitting on the magistrates’ bench and so on.


The vicar is the more commonly encountered cleric. Though some parsons might have been devoted to their flock, the church on the whole had a reputation for idleness. Sincere faith was not a necessary quality for ordination as a minister of the Church of England. With enough money and connections a man might be ordained and installed in a desirable living.

A living, (a parish church), was typically set up so that a rector or a vicar presided. In the Regency period, once installed in a living, a man was there for life. No one less than the bishop could remove him for cause. An income and home for life would certainly be appealing; however, the if the holder of the living wished to retire he had to employ a curate to take charge of a parish

Whether or not a vicar had the resources for hiring a curate depended on the parish itself. His portion would be the lesser tithes, 10% of the parish’s produce and livestock. In some vicarages this might be as little as £50 a year. (For reference, this is roughly the equivalent of a minimum wage job.) In other parishes, the lesser tithes could amount to a considerable sum. Some hints in Pride and Prejudice suggest the Kympton living might have amounted to £500 -£600 a year.

A vicar could resign his duties to a curate once he obtained the permission of his bishop. Many hired a curate, who would be paid out of the vicar’s own pocket, from the beginning of their incumbency. Others only did so when they had to retire. A vicar did not have to give up the parsonage house to the curate. He might continue to live in it himself and leave the curate to find his own living quarters somewhere within an easy distance of the church.  

English: The Old Curate's House, Bramdean A cu...


A curate was usually a young man just recently ordained, who assisted or sometimes performed the duties of a clergyman. Though they might do all the work of the parish, their salaries were often meager, perhaps as little as £50 per year, not enough to afford a maid.

Even at trifling wages, a curacy was not easy to obtain. In the early 1800’s curates made up close to half of the clergymen. Even with a position, their future was not secure. The death of the incumbent did not imply the curate would ascend to the living. Moreover, there was no guarantee that the successor would even continue to employ the curate.  A curate did not retire unless he had private means of support because the church offered no pensions.

As members of the clergy, curates were regarded as gentlemen. Despite their official standing, the subservient nature of their position and their paltry incomes caused some of the gentry and peers to hold them in disregard.


For more information see:

Collins, Irene. (1998)  Jane Austen, The Parson’s Daughter . Hambledon Press.

Collins, Irene. (2002)  Jane Austen & the Clergy. Hambledon Press.

Day, Malcom. (2006) Voices from the World of Jane. Austen David & Charles .

Mayer, Nancy. Nancy Mayer-Regency Researcher 

Sullivan, Margaret C. (2007) The Jane Austen Handbook . Quirk Books.

by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved

Of Gentlemen and the Gentry

Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews (1748-49), i...

Image via Wikipedia

I learned one writing lesson very quickly. Do the historical research and get the details right. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized how important this was at the start, but suffice to say the point was well made and I got to work.

I immediately realized I needed to understand the social classes of the Regency era, particularly, what a gentleman was in the first place. The simple answer is that a gentleman is the lowest ranking member of a social class known as the landed gentry. The group was considered upper class, but definitely below the titled peers. The group included:

  1. Baronet. A position created by King James in 1611, giving the person a hereditary title that passed to the eldest son, and the right to be addressed as “Sir.”
  2. Knight. Originally a military honor, it was increasingly used as a reward for service to the Crown. This was not a hereditary title.
  3. Esquire/squire. Originally a title related to the battlefield, it included a squire or person aspiring to knighthood, an attendant on a knight. Later it was an honor that could be conferred by the Crown and included certain offices such as Justice of the Peace. A squire was often the principle landowner in a district.
  4. Gentlemen. This started as a separate title with the statute of Additions of 1413. It is used generally for a man of high birth or rank, good social standing, and wealth. Wikipedia 

This group was distinct from the middle class because they were landowners who might live entirely off rental income. Oftentimes the estate surrounding a country house was a large agrarian business consisting of a home farm and numerous rented (tenanted) farms and cottages. Revenues from agricultural enterprises and rents were the primary source of gentleman’s income.

At the start of the 19th century the landed gentry made up only a small part of the population. Whereas the peerage included about 300 families, the landed gentry encompassed:  540 baronets, 350 knights, 6,000 landed squires and 20,000 gentlemen. This group totaled about 1.5% of the national population and possessed about 16% of the national income. (Interestingly this is not out of line with the statistics in the US for 2010.)  None of these ranks sat in the House of Lords in Parliament. That honor was reserved for the peers.

In order to join the ranks of the gentry, a  man had to  buy a country house and estate lands. That done, all financial ties with the business which had made him wealthy had to be severed to remove the stain of trade from his family. With the rise of the industrial revolution, though, the later requirement was relaxed toward the latter half of the 19th century. These newly minted gentlemen did not have the prestige attached to those  from “old families” who inherited landed estates over a number of generations.

In the 1850’s the concept of a gentleman began to shift from land ownership income to a code of behavior. Cardinal Newman said. “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say that he is one who never inflicts pain … He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him … The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast — all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at his ease and at home.”

For more information see:

David Cody, “The Gentleman”

Kelly, Pauline E.  (2009) Jane Austen Dictionary. Ink Well Publishing

Keymer, Thomas in Janet Todd (ed.) (2005) Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press

Cardinal Newman.”The Definition of a Gentleman” from The Idea of a University, a series of lectures given in Ireland, 1852.

Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L.   (1989) The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing


by Maria Grace Copyright 2013, all rights reserved