An Historical Sketch of the Purchase System,
"Official" Prices of Purchased Commissions,
and
General Pay Scale
of the
British Army, Circa 1854

 Early On |
Mid-19th Century | Promotions | Retirement | End of Purchase | Royal Warrant 
 Horse Guards |
Life Guards | Dragoons & Dragoon Guards | Foot Guards | Line Infantry 

The System of Purchasing One's Rank and Position

Early On

       While it may seem astonishing to some today, it was the custom prior to and during the period of the Crimean War, for officers to buy their rank in the British army. The system whereby an officer's commission in the army was purchased, rather than earned, may have its roots traced to the feudal era.  Under the system introduced by William the Conqueror (1027-1097), landowners were required to provide a specified number of knights for military service. This service was initially for a period of up to 40 days each year.   In 1159, in order to raise a force which would be useful to him, Henry II introduced the procedure whereby a knight could sidestep service by payment of a sum of money.  With the money collected from like-minded knights, the king was able to raise a mercenary army.  In essence, if one had the money, one could purchase an army. For example, in 1681, Charles II purchased the command of the regiment of guards, and bestowed the regiment on his son, the Duke of Grafton, who had not been in the army before he received his commission.

       Monarchs used an assortment of means to define the role of their mercenaries.  For example, Edward II introduced contracts with men of position who would furnish a force of armed men for a fixed period of service. It was evident, over the years, that mercenaries were mainly free spirits, who were open to hire to the highest bidder.  Because of this lack of loyalty, in England as well as on the Continent, the system of hiring men to do battle was ultimately replaced by monarchs issuing commissions to their subjects who in turn would raise armies in defense of the monarch, and sometimes of the country. This became what we know as the Purchase System, and its rationale was the defense of the country and the reduction of the expense associated with this. Interestingly, the sale of commissions was not confined to England, as similar systems were developed by many other countries in Europe.  However, England held on to this tradition much longer than other countries.

      The sale of commissions in the army was prohibited by William III, and by the Mutiny Act of 1684 whereby every officer was compelled to make oath that he had not given or promised to give any money or reward for his commission.  However, the Mutiny Act of 1701 omitted this oath, and in 1711 a Royal Warrant directed that commissions should not be sold without royal approval.  In 1719, regulations were issued governing the "official" price for the purchase of specific commissions. Note the tables below for approximate prices during the Crimean War.

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During the mid-19th Century

        In the period leading up to the Crimean War, any person desiring to enter the army, applied to the Commander-In-Chief, or his military secretary.  If the person was determined to be fit for the service, his name was entered on a list for either a commission with purchase, or without purchase. In the three regiments of guards, and of the household cavalry, the patronage of granting first commissions was vested in the colonels of these regiments.  Beginning in 1849, the candidate for a commission was sent to the Military College at Sandhurst to be examined before receiving his commission.  If he passed, he became eligible for a commission.  If he then applied for a commission by purchase, he would be appointed to the first vacancy which occurred from a regiment by sale.  If he applied for a commission without purchase, he waited until a vacancy occurred by death, when his application was considered along with applications from other applicants.  

      There were applicants who obtained commissions without purchase, although this number was never great. For example, we have Major-General Sir Colin Campbell, G.C.B., the  remarkable officer who commanded the Highland Regiment, "Thin Red Line", at the battle of Balaklava.  Campbell was the son of a Glasgow carpenter.  His first three commissions were without purchase, being obtained by his conduct in the field.  His story is, however, the exception rather than the rule.  

       In the purchase of the first commission, the regulated price was not to be exceeded, and the commission was not gazetted until the required sum had been paid to an army agent.  There were a few commissions without purchase that were reserved annually for top graduates from the Military College at Sandhurst, but this number was not large.  Moreover, the system of purchase worked very differently in war, than it did in peacetime.  During war, vacancies from death left open many commissions, and after a conflict when these vacancies were fewer, many went on half-pay.  Of course, the system could be taken advantage of and many commissions cost the purchaser far more than the official price.  It is rumored that James Thomas Brudenell, the Earl of Cardigan, paid £25,000 for the colonelcy of the 15th Hussars. It was, obviously, a wealthy man's vocation.

Promotions

        During the period just prior to the Crimean War, there were two types of promotion, i.e., army promotion (by brevet), or regimental promotion.  Regimental promotion could only be obtained, without purchase, when vacancies existed due to casualties, or when additional commissions were required.

        The rule of promotion by purchase was that when a vacancy occurred in a higher rank of the regiment, that is by retirement of an officer by sale, every officer had claim according to seniority to purchase the next higher rank in the regiment, provided that the colonel and the Commander-In-Chief did not object.  Moreover, it was the practice of the army that an officer who was willing and able to pay the cost of the commission would not be passed over by another in the same regiment, unless he had committed some flagrant conduct that precluded his commission.  In general, no officer however deserving, was to be promoted without purchase over the head of his senior in the same regiment.

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Retirement

        The rule for retirement was that an officer, who had purchased any of his commissions, was permitted to retire from the army at any time, without reference to the period of his service.  Moreover, he was to receive the value of the commissions which he had purchased, provided that he had not been found guilty of misconduct.

        An officer who had not purchased any commissions was allowed to retire by sale of his commission after a certain period of service.  A field officer, for example, who had served twenty years would be allowed the full price of his commission.  Those serving less than three years, however, were not granted such leeway.  Moreover, for those few who had risen from the ranks, the rule was that every two years in the ranks counted as one year in commission, and they could sell their commissions on these terms.

The End of Purchase

        From the end of the Napoleonic wars until the Crimean War, the Purchase System was largely viewed in a favorable light.  This was due in no small sense to the support of the Duke of Wellington, the most influential military leader in England at the time.  However, what had worked for Wellington, did not work for lesser men. In view of the less than desired results by the army in the Crimea, the system needed reform.  The sorry sight of the supply and direction of the army at Sevastopol in the winter of 1854-55 had been quickly reported to the people in England by W. H. Russell of The Times. It soon became inevitable that the army's failures, lead by aristocratic senior officers, would lead to a general assault on the method by which these officers had gained their rank and promotion.

        When Edward Cardwell was appointed Gladstone's Secretary of State for War in 1868, the abolishment of the Purchase System began.  Although opposed by the Commander-in-Chief, who at that time was the Duke of Cambridge, reform had the support of Queen Victoria.  The Cardwell Reforms, as they became known, instituted what at that time in England was a radical approach to granting military rank and promotion.  Men now had to earn their rank.  It is reported that when the Regulation of the Forces Act came into effect on 1 November, 1871, there were 6,938 army officers with vested rights.  The amount of compensation payable to each officer was to be determined by an Army Purchase Commission which had been established by the Regulation of the Forces Act.

         Cardwell's Reforms not only did away with the Purchase System, but also changed the way the regiments would from then on be named.  For example, until the Reforms, the 23d Foot, a line infantry regiment, was officially known by its number "23".  Following the Reforms, this distinguished regiment, which originated in Wales, became known far and wide by the official title of "The Royal Welch Fusiliers".  The Reforms caused the designations of all regiments to be changed from the numerical to the territorial.  Additionally, the Enlistment Act introduced short service, with the result over time of creating an effective reserve force.

The Royal Warrant

          The Royal Warrant, dated 20 July, 1871, is as follows:

VICTORIA R

        Whereas by the Act passed in the session holden in the fifth and sixth years of the reign of King Edward VI, chapter 16, intitled 'Against buying and selling of offices', and an Act passed in the forty-ninth year of the reign of King George III, chapter 126, intitled 'An Act for the prevention of the sale and brokerage of offices', all officers in our forces are prohibited from selling or bargaining for sale of any commission in our forces, and from taking or receiving any money for the exchange of any such commission, under the penalty of forfeiture of their commissions and of being cashiered, and of diverse other penalties, but that last mentioned Act exempts from the penalties of the said Act purchases or sales or exchanges of any commission s in our forces for such prices as may be regulated and fixed by any regulation made or to be made by us in that behalf.

        And whereas we think it expedient to put an end to all such regulations, and to all sales and purchases and exchanges for money of commissions in our forces, and all dealings relating to such sales, purchases or exchanges.

       Now, our will and pleasure is that on and after the first day of November in this present year, all regulations made by us or any of our royal predecessors, or any officers acting under our authority, regulating or fixing the prices at which any commission in our forces may be purchased, sold, or exchanged, or in any way authorizing the purchase or sale or exchange for money of any such commissions, shall be cancelled and determined.

       Given at our court at Osborne, this twentieth day of July in the thirty-fifth year of our reign.

By Her Majesty's command,

EDWARD CARDWELL

  

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What Price Purchase?

Circa 1854

Royal Horse Guards

Commission

Price

Difference

Annual Pay

  Cornet

£1,200  

 

£71  

  Lieutenant

£1,600  

£400  

£94  

  Captain

£3,500  

£1,900  

£206  

  Major

£5,350  

£1,850  

£350  

  Lt. Colonel

£7,250  

£1,900  

£427  

Life Guards

Commission

Price

Difference

Annual Pay

  Cornet

£1,260  

 

£74  

  Lieutenant

£1,785  

£525  

£105  

  Captain

£3,500  

£1,715  

£206  

  Major

£5,350  

£1,850  

£315  

  Lt. Colonel

£7,250  

£1,900  

£427  

Dragoon Guards and Dragoons

Commission

Price

Difference

Annual Pay

  Cornet

£840  

 

£50  

  Lieutenant

£1,190  

£350  

£70  

  Captain

£3,225  

£2,035  

£190  

  Major

£4,575  

£1,350  

£270  

  Lt. Colonel

£6,175  

£1,600  

£364  

Foot Guards

Commission

Price

Difference

Annual Pay

  Ensign & Lieutenant

£1,200  

 

£71  

  Lieutenant & Captain

£2,050  

£850  

£121  

  Captain & Lt. Col.

£4,800  

£2,750  

£283  

  Major

£8,300  

£3,500  

£489  

  Lt. Colonel

£9,000  

£700  

£531  

Regiments of Line Infantry

Commission

Price

Difference

Annual Pay

  Ensign

£450  

 

£27  

  Lieutenant

£700  

£250  

£41  

  Captain

£1,800  

£1,100  

£106  

  Major

£3,200  

£1,400  

£189  

  Lt. Colonel

£4,500  

£1,300  

£265  


    A grateful acknowledgment is given to:
  1. The Purchase System in The British Army, 1660-1871, Anthony Bruce, Royal Historical Society, London, 1980
  2. REPORT of the COMMISSIONERS appointed to inquire into the system of PURCHASE AND SALE of COMMISSIONS IN THE ARMY with  EVIDENCE AND APPENDIX,  Printed by George Edward Eyer and William Spottiswoode, printers to the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty, London, 1857

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