Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Purchase of Military rank in Regency era - before & after.

The Rose tinted aspect of Regency Romance Novels & the thorny issue of missing key facts when writing Historical Fiction. 


Not all regiments were open to purchase of rank! The RMA (Royal Military Academy) was founded in 1741 at Woolwich to train gentlemen cadets for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, and later for the Royal Corps of Signals.

The RMC (Royal Military College) began in 1800 as a school for staff officers which later became the Staff College, Camberley. A Junior Department was formed in 1802, to train gentlemen cadets as officers of the Line. A new college was built at Sandhurst, into which the cadets moved in 1812. After 1860, the RMC succeeded the East India Company’s Military Seminary as the establishment where most officers of the Indian Army were trained. Following the abolition of the purchase system in 1870, attendance at Sandhurst became the usual route to a commission. The college was enlarged in 1912, when New College was built.

The RMAS (Royal Military Academy Sandhurst) as we know it today at Sandhurst was formed in 1947. It was descended from two older institutions, the Royal Military Academy (RMA) and the Royal Military College (RMC).

Commissions could only be purchased in cavalry and infantry regiments, and therefore up to the rank of Colonel only. Commissions in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery were awarded to those who graduated from a course at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and subsequent promotion by seniority. Such officers (and those of the Army of the British East India Company), were often looked down upon as being "not quite gentlemen" by officers who had purchased their commissions. Not all regiments were open to purchase of rank!


The Royal Navy never practised the sale of commissions, with advancement in officer ranks being solely by merit and/or seniority. But, if your father was an admiral or vice admiral the chances were good you would attain advancement faster on the proviso you passed relevant exams/tests!  

Time and time again I keep encountering blog posts referring to purchase of Army and Navy commissions, and many of the blog posts are inaccurate. So this is a short reminder for authors of not only Regency novels, but other periods in history where you have chosen a British naval officer as your hero etc. No one, not even aristocrats could "purchase a commission" within the English Royal Navy. New recruits had to start at the bottom as "Midshipman" and that went for any boy from a good family to a duke's son. Some boys, such as Horatio Nelson, Viscount Nelson, started as servants to a senior officer. 

Midshipmen were usually the sons of wealthy or aristocratic families training to become commissioned officers. The majority were from seafaring families with a long history of serving King & Country at sea, either as naval personnel or became privateers once they had gained a captaincy. They joined the navy at the age of 12 to 14 and were easily identified by the white patch on the collar of their uniform. They were taught navigation, astronomy and trigonometry by the ship's schoolmaster as well as undertaking watches on deck, To gain higher rank they were required to sit exams, stiff exams, and many failed and often left the navy and instead purchased a commission within the Army Regiments.