Militia



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    Its easy to forget that England had no standing army until late in the seventeenth century and no police force until the nineteenth century. The militia was one of a variety of peace keeping chores foisted upon the average Englishmen for which he was required to have weapons and to be skilled in their use. All Protestant men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were liable for militia duty, but from the reign of Elizabeth I smaller numbers were selected for more serious training, the so-called trained bands. These numbered some 90,000 men in England and Wales. The militia was under the command of the King who appointed a lord lieutenant, usually a local nobleman, to oversee the militia of each county. The militia's task was defensive. It constituted a home guard to suppress riots and, if need be, repel invasion.

    The praises heaped upon the militia by philosophers and historians, Englishmen and Americans, have obscured the fact that the militia was not popular. Men resented having to serve, and tried to avoid spending their leisure hours at mandatory target practice. Not surprisingly, there were complaints of "to much bowling and to little shoting" and in the 1620s Charles I was obliged to close ale houses on Sundays to keep men at their shooting practice.

    Militia assessments were also resented. Everyone was assessed for a contribution of weapons in accordance with their income but rates were often unfairly apportioned and cheating was common. Those assessed often supplied faulty weapons and lame horses and those who served sometimes made off with militia equipment.

    Nor was it any secret that the militia was a doubtful peacekeeper. Its members sometimes sympathized with rioting neighbors they were sent to subdue, and in wartime the entire force could be woefully amateurish. However, the militia was always regarded as preferable to a professional army. Theoretical tracts and popular opinion portrayed the citizen-soldier as fierce in the defense of home and country but damned his professional counterpart as callous, expensive, and a threat to the liberties of the country that employed him. "The Militia must and can never be otherwise than for English Liberty, Because else it doth destroy itself", wrote a member of parliament, while John Trenchard's best-selling pamphlet found "A Standing Army...inconsistent with a Free Government." As early as Magna Carta English kings were promising not to use professional soldiers. The virtues of the militia may have been overblown but subsequent events proved the validity of anti-army prejudice. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries professional armies took a heavy toll of both people and parliaments. European parliaments fell victim to ambitious kings aided by ever larger armies while the enormous civilians casualties caused by armies during the Thirty Years' War were not to be equaled until our own century. Imperfect as the militia was, it was far better than the alternative. The armies raised by the English Crown from time to time were treated with grave suspicion, kept to minimal size and disbanded as soon as possible.

    The Militia Act passed by a royalist parliament in 1662 perpetuated the trend started under the republic but granted the militia even broader powers to disarm Englishmen. Any two deputies could search for and seize of the arms of anyone they regarded as "dangerous to the Peace of the Kingdom." This definition of who could be disarmed was less precise than in any earlier militia act. It is important to note the republican and the Restoration militia were comprised, as far as possible, of men with politically correct views. They were, to this extent, not general, but select, politically oriented militia.

    The Militia 1757-1914
    The Militia was a voluntary county based part-time force for home defence. It ceased to be summoned after the Civil War, but was revived in 1757, when the Militia Act established Militia Regiments in all counties of England and Wales. The Yeomanry (cavalry) and the Volunteers were introduced later. In 1808 a further force, the Local Militia, was formed. By 1816 the Local Militia and the Volunteers had been dissolved.

    Militia Conscription, 1758-1831: A Kind of Census
    A form of conscription was used: each year, the parish was supposed to draw up lists of adult males, and to hold a ballot to choose those who had to serve in the militia. The militia lists (of all men) and the militia enrolment lists (of men chosen to serve)


    To see some typical letters of this period, you might also want to check out the Shanahan's Postal site;
    This letter is addressed to Captain Butler of the Wiltshire Militia .

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