The Purchase of Commissions in the British Army, 1683-1871

The 17th century was transformative. It began with the attempted assassination of James I and ended with a successful invasion and three quasi-legitimate monarchs. The century included three civil wars, the execution of a king, a warrior class seizing power, and the creation of a new military caste. The new caste replaced aristocrats with wealth. After 1683 army officers bought commissions. (see addendum)

Aristocratic entitlement to leadership roles ended. They bought commissions, like everyone else, for social status. The 1660s wars showed naval warfare demanded technical competence. Promotion in the navy was based on ability. Relative poverty prevented promotion in the army but not in the navy.1 The army brought in men made wealthy by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. This repeated the aristocratic fallacy because it couldn’t guarantee competence.

What guaranteed competence was active service. The Long 18th Century, 1688-1815, had many wars. In 65 of the 127 years there were major wars. The expanding British empire also entailed many non-European wars.2 Primitive medical treatment and battlefield fatalities meant there were many battlefield promotions. A Darwinian mixture of survival and excellence ensured constant renewal of the officer class.

Two thirds of the officers in the infantry and the cavalry had purchased their commissions. One third of the commissions were non-purchase, issued as a reward for long service and good conduct in the next rank below.3

The post-Napoleonic Army, 1815-56

The long peace began in 1815 ending with the Crimean war, 1854. The purchase of commissions enhanced social prestige without the inconvenience of warfare. The long peace was a paradise for sadistic men who exploited their power by having soldiers flogged and officers court-martialled.

In 1832, at a cost of almost £40,000 (several million pounds in today’s money) the young Lord Brudenell [later Lord Cardigan] purchased the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 15th Hussars….His tyrannical rule came quickly into the public domain when, the following year, he had a Captain Wathen court-martialled on several ludicrous charges in connection with the issue of stable jackets. The regime of persecution and victimization that he had instituted from the outset of his command came to light.4

When his regiment went to India,

… took him [Lord Cardigan] less than four weeks to wreak havoc in the Regiment. In that time he had eight courts-martial and over a hundred men disciplined. Flogging was back on the punishment list.5

Wathen won his case and Brudenell [Lord Cardigan] was cashiered. He lost his commission without compensation. Two years later, and another £40,000, Brudenell was back. Twenty years later he helped orchestrate the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. He showed tremendous personal courage but no leadership qualities. The Charge was an unsurpassed disaster until the Somme, 1916.

The other principal officer at the Charge was Lord Lucan,

[Lord Lucan] bought the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 17th Lancers, over the head of one of the most able and experienced cavalry majors who was a Peninsular and Waterloo veteran…This purchase cost him £25,000 – £20,000 above the official price. It soon became clear that the new commanding officer was a martinet and a perfectionist.6 (my emphasis)

A good example of Lucan as a martinet is this

‘Long hair on the head is most objectionable . . . Moustachios and whiskers are to be allowed to grow, but no officer or private will be allowed to wear a beard. Below the mouth there is to be no hair whatever, and the whisker is not to be worn more forward on the chin than the corner of the mouth.’7

The Times reporter, William Russell, was embedded in the army and his reports detailed the incompetence of the leadership and the bravery of the soldiers. The public saw that incompetent generals were slaughtering their men. There was a parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of the war, which eventually led to the Cardwell Reforms.

The end of purchase

Lessons learned from the Crimean war were glacially slow to be incorporated as the ultra-conservative army was resistant to change. The notion of a professional army was anathema to senior officers. In 1870 the Prussian, later German, army swept France to one side in a short campaign. For the first time the possibility of a German invasion of Britain was mooted realistically.

The reforming Liberal governments of the 1870s gripped the problem and Cardwell tackled the army.8 Flogging and the purchase of commissions were abolished over the ‘bodies’ of the army hierarchy. The modern army emerged from the Crimea campaign.

Addendum: Purchasing a commission

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 cashieredby 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 profiteeringusing army supplies.
  • It provided honourably retired officers with an immediate source of capital.

Purchase of commissions in the British Army – Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core


1 Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson – Wikipedia Nelson was ‘middle-class’ but would never have been able to reach the top without the navy’s promotion by merit.

2 List of wars involving the United Kingdom – Wikipedia

3 Social background of officers and other ranks in the British Army, 1750–1815 – Wikipedia

3 Strictly speaking British armies weren’t involved at all as they were fought by the East India Company almost as a private war to enhance shareholder value. See Armies of the East India Company | National Army Museum (

4 Adkin, Mark. The Charge: The Real Reason Why the Light Brigade Was Lost (pp 68-9). Pen & Sword Books. Kindle Edition.Lord Scarlett, another principal officer, His active service experience since [he was 14] was zero. Ibid p155 See also Flogging and Courage: the British Army 1800-81 | Odeboyz’s Blog (

5 Adkin, ibid p70

6 ibid

7 ibid p81 This was issued in Crimea prior to the Charge

8 Cardwell Reforms – Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core See also Gallagher, Thomas F. “‘Cardwellian Mysteries’: The Fate of the British Army Regulation Bill, 1871.” The Historical Journal, vol. 18, no. 2, 1975, pp. 327–48. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Sep. 2022.

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