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The Militia - Early Developments

The militia of the United Kingdom, commonly so called, was the general or regular militia, as distinguished from the local militia, which was established in the year 1808, and which, though later in abeyance, might still legally be raised. It consisted of a number of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, serving under special enactments and regulations, formed into corps or battalions, and trained as soldiers for the purpose of augmenting the military strength of the country in case of national danger or emergency.

Although the force was very ancient, being the direct descendant of various levies compulsorily raised from the earliest times, the title militia first appears in the year 1590, and constantly occured in parliamentary reports in 1640 and 1641, at which time it was referred to as a new word. The actual origin of the militia is lost in antiquity. The Roman invasion was stoutly resisted by armed tribes resembling a militia, and possessing both organization and military ability. The inhabitants of Britain were described by historians as a military people, well armed, and adopting tactics in which, by means of chariots, they combined great mobility with the steadiness of foot soldiers.

With the advent of the Saxons began the county organization, with which the militia was later closely identified, and the development of a military force called "The Fyrd," easily recognizable as identical in principle with the 19th Century militia. This was the force which King Alfred reorganized. Under this reform was established a general liability to military service on the part of every able-bodied male between the ages of 16 and 60. Although the title of "The Fyrd" survived until long after the Norman Conquest, the force established by King Alfred was known as the general levy, which was bound to appear armed when ordered to aid in suppressing domestic riots as well as in defending the realm against invasion by foreign foes. Service was restricted to the counties except in case of invasion, when it was extended to the whole kingdom.

For centuries these remained with little alteration as the principles governing the national forces of the kingdom, and form in effect with certain developments the basis of the later militia system. The Norman Conquest was immediately followed by the introduction of the feudal levy in addition to the general levy, the distinction between these forces being that while obligation to serve in the latter rested upon every male within certain limits of age, service in the feudal levy depended upon tenuro of land under the king as feudal lord. The general levy probably constituted the larger part of the infantry, while the feudal levy consisted of the knights who, with their retainers, mounted and armed, were bound to attend the king at their own expense.

Thus early on, as in later days, the question of service abroad as well as at home was raised, with the result that the feudal tenants successfully refused to serve out of the kingdom. Personal service formed the basis of both levies, but service by deputy, or payment in lieu of personal service, and the calling out of a quota only, were allowed from very early times. The feudal levy was discontinued during the Commonwealth and abolished at the Restoration; but liability to serve in the general levy was never extinguished, but remained in the statutory and practical form of liability to serve both in the general and local militia. Inspections of arms and the assembly and training of the men raised under this national system were secured from time to time by means of "assizes of arms," "views of armor," "commissions of array," and "commissions of musters," dating from early in the 12th century down to the 16th century. The machinery employed to carry out the law formed the basis of the existing procedure for the enforcement of the ballot for the militia, which thus bears a strong resemblance to the means adopted from ancient times.

These constitutional powers were frequently abused by "electing" or impressing men to serve out of the kingdom, but this was checked in the year 1327 by an Act of Parliament, which strictly regulated the scope aud limits of military service within the kingdom at the charge of the parishes or counties, but provided for service abroad at the charge of the Crown. "Commissions of musters" were a development of preceding measures for raising men and material for military service, under which the commissioners registered and mustered persons liable to serve, sorted them into bands, and trained and exercised them at the charge of the county. These bands became known as train or trained bands, and were mustered annually.

With them were associated lieutenants of counties, first appointed in 1549 by Edward VI, subsequently in Queen Mary's reign called lord-lieutenants, and after the Restoration appointed as statutory officers for the militia, their commissions in the 19th Century being issued under the Militia Act. There does not appear to have been any clearly defined regimental organization in existence until these bands or companies were called into active service, but the Acts of the Commonwealth supplied this defect, and initiated a permanent regimental system. One of the earliest attempts to reform the force since the time of King Alfred was made by Charles I in 1629, when Orders in Council were issued instructing lord-lieutenants to put the militia on a better footing and to fill up vacancies among the officers.

Cromwell subsequently issued similar orders couched in strong terms, though under the Commonwealth the duties of lord-lieutenants were not recognized, the militia being raised by commissioners. At the Restoration an Act was passed declaring that the control of the militia was the prerogative of the king, and in the following year another Act, with subsequent amendments, established the militia upon the basis on which, it rested until 1757, the year of Pitt's great reform. Charles II transferred the control of the militia to the lord-lieutenants, but lowered the military status of the force by requiring all offences to be punished by the civil magistrate. To this cause is attributed the disrepute into which the militia fell and the inefficiency it displayed, with the exception of the trained bands of London, until it was reorganized in 1757. Under the Act of 1662 all train bands were discontinued in the counties, but those of London, with their auxiliaries, remained until 1794, when they were reorganized as the City of London militia. In 1688 an Act was passed raising the militia for one year, and for some time this Act became an annual one. In 1690, on the occasion of the French invasion, the militia was embodied ; and again in 1715 and 1745 during the troubles caused by the Old and Young Pretenders. In a pamphlet of 1712 the English militia was estimated at 7450 horse and 84,391 foot soldiers. From 1716 until 1734, and again from that year until 1757, with the exception of 1745, no votes were taken in Parliament for the militia.

Ireland and Scotland did not furnish any regular militia until 1715 and 1797 respectively, although in Scotland militia existed long before 1797, e.g., in Perthshire in 1684 ; and in addition corps of fencibles were raised and embodied. The Irish militia when first raised in 1715 was restricted to Protestants between the ages of 16 and 60, who were bound to appear or provide substitutes. The force was not made subject to military law, but various military offences were punishable by fino or imprisonment Several amendments and other Acts followed until 1793, when a new Act was passed providing for raising a force of militia by ballot among men between the ages of 18 and 45, to serve for four years. Each county was liable to a tine of 5 for each man deficient, and enlistment in the army was prohibited. Other amendments followed from time to time, and notably one in 1797 abolishing religious restrictions for the supplementary militia, and another in 1802 removing the same restrictions in the case of the general militia. Finally, all the Acts were consolidated in 1809 by an Act which fixed establishments, provided for raising the men by ballot, but gave power to the lord-lieutenant to authorize voluntary enlistment by means of bounties, and also to suspend the raising of any regiment. Tho Scottish militia was at first raised by ballot among men between the ages of 19 and 30. In 1802 former Acts were replaced by an Act providing for the organization of the militia on a basis similar to that on which the militia of England was organized by the Consolidation Act passed in that year.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 18:34:07 ZULU