Taking the Queens Shilling
You could have been one of them rascals in red waiting with Joseph Fleet for the order to advance that day in Bavaria, well before you go head over heels down to the local tavern to let the sergeant buy you a round let me tell you a few things about taking the Queen’s shilling.
The soldiers of Marlborough’s army where, farm laborers, itinerate workers, drifters, criminals, runaways and a whole lot more, officered by nobles and gentlemen. Good and bad sorts found their way into red coats and the army’s approach in getting them did not change much over time, the scene of the crowded tavern, the naïve young farmer or clerk or the desperate laborer and the sly recruiting sergeant would be a familiar one all the way from 1700 to 1900. A fine example of how this worked is to be found in Sergeant Lamb’s journal of his adventures in the American Revolution, but a good contemporary view is one pictured in the play written a by lieutenant Farquhar of the grenadiers, called The Recruiting Sergeant, which tells the story of an NCO called Kite, who is on the hunt for fresh meat, the play starts with a refreshingly real sounding speech given by the indomitable sergeant:
If any Gentlemen, soldiers or others have a mind to serve Her Majesty and pull down the French King, if any ‘prentices (sic) have severe masters, any children undutiful parents, if any servants have too little wages, or any husband too much wife, let him repair to the noble sergeant Kite at the sign of the Raven in this good town of Shrewsbury and they shall receive present relief and entertainment.
There we have a contemporary list of the types of men sergeants like Kite were looking for, i.e. any and all, but the target to a seasoned recruiter are those with no reason not to join, the dregs, the gutter scrapings, now mistake me not, volunteers like yourselves, perhaps from good honest country families, were welcome, more than in fact for they took the burdens of military life more philosophically than most others, you would probably be the army’s future sergeants.
Class distinctions were and would remain a large part of army life for decades to come, it is mostly common knowledge that commissions were reserved for nobility and gentry, and were purchased. A true gentleman could not start below the rank of ensign unless he was a volunteer, whereas a ranker would not normally go higher than the lofty heights of sergeant, it may even have been seen as demeaning for scarred professional non commissioned officers to take the post reserved for seventeen year old boys, though it was not uncommon in wartime for rankers to achieve a higher rank.
Volunteers, like you, with luck would invariably become corporals at the very least, but they had incentives they wanted the red coat as a career, not essentially for patriotism rather to make himself a better life, soldiers after all where once thought of as gentlemen. But what of the other breed, those that had nothing to live for, illegitimates the homeless, the underpaid and underprivileged they were driven to the army out of desperation, others for the security of food regularly and little pay was better than none, then there those who did not have jobs but did not want to join, these people were theoretically susceptible to parish constables and magistrates who could on meeting one send him to the colours, indeed he was duty bound to do so, then there was the enticed variety, those who came for sergeant Kite’s present relief and entertainment, otherwise known as either gin, ale or maybe brandy and the promise of adventure and glory.
Thinking of the types your going to meet puts me in mind of Donald McBane late of the Royal Scots and one of the finest swordsmen in Britain. He was an apprentice to a Tobacco spinner in Inverness during the year 1687 and ran away to join the army, he passed through independent companies and short lived regiments until after many adventures he returned home like a good prodigal son. Not content to learn to spin Tobacco though he touched his mother for twenty shillings
he traveled to Perth and there joined the Royal Scots. McBane saw action at Blenheim and other battles of the War of the Spanish Succession and became a famous duelist and fighter, one of those hard nosed ruffians that make the British army great, but didn’t rise higher than the rank of sergeant (a rank he got in 1715) and then he applied for a pension at the Chelsea hospital, but became a gunner at Fort William instead, during his time in the army he became a teacher and a pimp and got what he could out of whatever came his way.
There were of course exceptions to the rule of any and all, the two most notable were, one; Catholics/Jacobites, which were not to be suffered serving under a protestant monarch, anti papal feeling was strong in England at the time and although some may have hid their beliefs to join, many would have simply up and joined the French service. Toleration was not a word that the army or the government recognized in regards to Heretics, the second was the so called professional volunteers, men who join up for the 2 pound bounty (it could be higher) and desert with it and continue around different regiments collecting more bounty money.
Magistrates were also empowered to enlist men for the army, an easy enough process, achieved by the same means as the Good Sergeant Kite. Scraping the very bottom of the barrel we find the least most favored way of getting recruits, in a system which was called paying by the drum courts would acquit felons found guilty of one crime or another, on the condition that they would serve in the army, for such convicts almost anything, even facing the lead of the Sun King’s soldiers was better than Tyburn!
So having been given the idea of the background of the people that advanced across the Nebel Stream that brutal day at Blenheim, I will detail what happened next, Supposing that the sergeant Kite’s of the time had managed to entice some volunteers, run downs, career men and poor dumb fellows who had been given too much to drink, he would give them over to a magistrate who would administer an oath, which they would repeat, then they would each be marched to a depot were they would be given about 2 pounds, (The shilling was always an expression and one which may not even have existed in those days) then a goodly proportion of the monies would be deducted for the uniform, something that was not confided in them in the tavern, though the volunteers might again look at it through their more understanding eyes, then came the brick red knee length coat with the regimental facings and the rest of his equipment, therefore if we fancifully suppose your noble selves are one of them newly sworn in worhties, you are all now soldiers of the Queen and ready to train.
See you next time.
Blenheim Preparation, David Chandler.
Blenheim Battle for Europe, Charles Spencer.
Blenheim the Duke of Marlborough’s masterpiece, John Tincey.
Weapons & equipment of the Marlborough wars, Anthony Kempt
Marlborough England’s fragile genius, Richard Holmes.
Marlborough’s army 1702-1711, Michael Barthorp.
Marlborough’s Sieges, James Falkner.
Marlborough, Corelli Barnett.
Diary of Colonel John Blackadder.
The complete art of self defence by McBane via Highland swordsmanship, Mark Rector.
English army lists & commission registers, 1661 – 1714, Charles Dalton.
The life and adventures of Matthew Bishop of Deddington in Oxfordshire.
Marlborough, Angus Konstam.
Marlborough his life & times vol 2, Sir Winston Churchill.