Purchasing a Commission in the British Army

Promotions in the army, whether during peace or war times, meant a man must purchase a higher rank. Promotions for bravery during combat were not impossible, but they were not the rule of thumb. Unfortunately, when it came to war itself, this practice often meant many of the officers held no real experience on the battlefield. However, when the United Kingdom found itself at war upon several fronts in the latter part of the 18th Century (late 1700s), officers with experience were desperately needed in order not to know defeat.

Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1816. Public Domain. via Wikimedia Commons ~ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portrait_of_Frederick,Duke_of_York-_Lawrence_1816.jpg

Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (King George III’s second son) was a soldier from a young age. By age 30, he was appointed to a high command and placed in charge of the War of the First Coalition, a continental war following the French Revolution. The campaign proved completely ineffectual, with one of its faults being the military bureaucracy. Therefore, when he became Commander-in-Chief during the Napoleonic Wars, Frederick oversaw the reorganization of the British Army. He established vital administrative, recruiting, and structural reforms. It is said he did “more for the army than any one man has done for it in the whole of its history.” [The Oxford Illustrated History of the British Army (1994) p. 145]

For example, moving up in positions no longer simply required a purse full of coins to know a higher rank. Rather, regulations requiring a minimum number of years a person must be in a position before moving up was established. These minimum years were installed between each rank. 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. However, lack of vacancies, or money, could mean an officer (especially in the junior ranks) could spend several years without advancing.

JaneAusten.co.uk provides us this example of how Frederick Tilney, in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, might have reached the rank of Captain in the 12th Light Dragoons. It says, “Although it appears to have been set in 1798 (putting part of Frederick’s military career before the Duke of York’s Reforms) let’s assume he advanced in a less accelerated manner: Upon the age of 16 he (or more likely his father) would have placed the sum of £735, and Letters of Recommendation with a Regimental Agent. (Those of associates of an Officer like the senior Tilney would lend some weight.) Once he was accepted, the £735 was ‘paid’ to a Coronet who wished to be promoted (or quit the service) and Frederick became a Coronet. However, it was very likely it would be with a Cavalry Regiment other than the 12th. He then spent a year or two learning his duties under the tutelage of his senior officers. When a Lieutenancy opened, an additional £262-10s was deposited with the Agents (to make up the £997-10s). That money would be credited to the holder of the desired Lieutenancy (which again could be in a different Regiment), while Tilney’s Coronet was sold to another civilian desiring to enter the army. Finally, after a year or two, the Captaincy in the 12th Light Dragoons opened up, and £1785 was transferred to the Agents (which, with the sums already paid, totaled £2782-10s), and Frederick gained the rank and position described in Northanger Abbey. (Meanwhile, a Coronet would buy Tilney’s Lieutenancy, whilst selling his own Coronet to another would-be hero, and so on.)”

All that being said, let us take a look as the process of becoming an officer, without the leap frogging of purchasing a commission. A man’s first officer level rank would be Ensign or Coronet. “Ensign” was for those in the infantry, and “Coronet” was for those in the cavalry. Next, would be the promotion to lieutenant (or above). Keep in mind what I originally stated: In peace time, rank was customarily purchased.

During the Napoleonic Wars, however, progression was made based first on seniority within the regiment to fill its own vacancies, then by merit, and Purchase was the third option. “Advancement in the Ordnance Corps (Artillery and Engineers), as well as in the East India Company forces, was by Seniority only. A young Coronet or Ensign could advance to Lieutenant by paying the difference between his current and the next highest rank. [See Table of Commission Prices.] For example: a Lieutenancy cost £550, but an Ensign had already paid £400 to achieve that rank. He only needed to pay an additional £150 to make up the difference. As with the first purchase, this could only be done through the Regimental Agent. There were many regulations stating that no other moneys, or other incentives could be offered. The penalty for trying to pay more than the established price, was to immediately forfeit the Commission, and to be cashiered, while aiding and abetting constituted a Misdemeanor. Advancement above the rank of Colonel was by seniority only. In the late 1790’s it became apparent that some officers had proceeded too quickly through the ranks, and had not gained the necessary training and experience to fulfill their role on the battlefield.”

Fait partie d’un volume de gravures sur cuivre par T. Sutherland et D. Havell réhaussées à l’aquarelle. Titre gravé illustré en n. et b. Chaque gravure est suivie d’un texte explicatif. + in fine : “Contents”, and “Names of Subscribers to the Martial Achievements of Great Britain and her allies”. Ancely, René (1876 – 1966). Possesseur ~ Sutherland, Thomas (ca 1785-18.. ). Illustrateur Jenkins, J. Editeur Harrison, L. Editeur – This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Bibliothèque municipale de Toulouse as part of a cooperation project with Wikimédia France. Public Domain

Another change occurred after 1795. Before that day, a wealthy landowner or aristocrat could form his own regiment and be presented the rank of colonel. This would be especially helpful for men such as Colonel Fitzwilliam in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I am not saying this was the good colonel’s path to his command, but it would make a great plot twist for those who write Jane Austen fan fiction. However, after 1795, while the wealthy still raised regiments, they were not given a colonel’s rank because under the new requirements, most did not have military experience.

Portrait of Thomas Graham from the frontispiece of his biography by Alexander M. Delavoye published in 1880 – Public Domain ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Graham,_1st_Baron_Lynedoch#/media/File:Thomas_Graham_Lord_Lynedoch.jpg

A prime example of a wealthy man organizing his own regiment was one Thomas Graham [Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch]. Graham was a Scottish aristocrat, politician and British Army officer. After his education at Oxford, he inherited a substantial estate in Scotland, married and settled down to a quiet career as a landowning gentleman. However, with the death of his wife, when he was aged 42, he immersed himself in a military (and later political career), during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. Graham encountered this issue and remained a ‘temporary’ Lt. Colonel of the regiment he raised, having no seniority in the army for eight years until General Moore’s dying request was to grant him the full army rank.

Between 1792 and 1815, only a third of the commissions granted were purchased. More had been purchased early in the wars; fewer were purchased in the latter years of the Napoleonic campaign with more being either Ensign or Lieutenant rank than captain, major, or Lt. Colonel. More guards and cavalry officers were purchased. The rank of colonel could not be purchased.

Before 1795, men like Lord Paget could become a colonel at any age through purchase. Even after the reforms of 1795, the only two requirements for anyone to become an officer was be 16 years old and hold the education of a gentleman, meaning graduating from Oxford or Cambridge. Yet, we must remember even with graduation, an “educated” man did not mean what it does today. Many who failed their oral exams at both universities were considered “graduates.” Money still talked when it came to granting a degree to the son of a wealthy aristocrat or lord. After 1795, to be a captain, an officer simply required 2 years experience, for major and then lieutenant colonel, 4 and 6 years. That the janeausten.co.uk website lists 3, 7 and 9 years, respectively, for the same positions, just goes to show how quickly the requirements increased as the professionalism of the army became a priority. They were not the 1795 restrictions.

Training was done entirely by the regiment. What officers learned depended a great deal on the colonel and what he demanded of his officers. A major conflict in the officer corps during this time was the often rough struggle to move from a provincial, aristocratic view that all the upper class needed to do was be an example of bravery. Learning the basics of military life was seen as too much like ‘trade,” which is NOT what a true gentleman did. All that “work” was left to the non-commissioned officers.

As more middle class men became officers and the need for more professionally knowledgeable officers advanced to compete with the French professionalism, many officers began to pride themselves on their military knowledge, but it was hardly universal.

What is quite surprising is this method actually produced some brilliant officers like Wellington. The method was aristocratic privilege + experience + talent + tradition. Wellington had nearly 15 years experience commanding by the time he came to the Peninsula.

There were several key reasons behind the sale of commissions:

It preserved the social exclusivity of the officer class.

It served as a form of collateral against abuse of authority or gross negligence or incompetence. Disgraced officers could be cashiered by the Crown (that is, stripped of their commission without reimbursement).

It ensured that the officer class was largely populated by persons having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thereby reducing the possibility of Army units taking part in a revolution or coup.

It ensured that officers had private means and were unlikely to engage in looting or pillaging, or to cheat the soldiers under their command by engaging in profiteering using army supplies.

It provided honourably retired officers with an immediate source of capital. (Military Wiki)

Other Sources:

Purchasing Commissions During the Napoleonic War (an earlier piece from me on the subject)

Entry Into the Officer Corps

Military Wiki (also has a list of prices for officer commissions)

Prices of Officer Commissions

The Purchase System in the British Army 1660-1871

Wikipedia (also has a list of prices for officer commissions)

YouTube – Purchasing a Commission in British Army

2 responses to “Purchasing a Commission in the British Army”

  1. kimbelle1 Avatar

    I wonder how many could afford some, and yet where would England have been without those who struggled to? Thank you for so instructive and illuminating a blog~

    1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

      It is easy to see why the majority of the British Army at the time was made up of aristocrats and country gentlemen. The average person could not afford the commission. What I wondered often is how effective were these officers, with no experience before riding to the hounds or enjoying a shooting range. Even those with a university education often “purchased” their degrees. They really knew very little of history, science, literature, etc.

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