The Purchase of a Military Commission

Edited by Anne Flinders, dramaturg

The purchase of officer commissions in the British Army was a common practice through most of its history. Commissions could only be purchased in cavalry and infantry regiments (and therefore up to the rank of colonel only). The Royal Navy never practiced the sale of commissions, with advancement in officer ranks being solely by merit and/or seniority.

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 cashiered by 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 profiteering using army supplies.
  • It provided honorably retired officers with an immediate source of capital.

The official values of commissions varied by regiment, usually in line with the differing levels of social prestige of different regiments. (A farm laborer in 1800 would have earned around 30 to 40 pounds a year. These prices were not incremental. To purchase a promotion, an officer only had to pay the difference in price between his existing rank and the desired rank.)

Examples of purchase cost of commissions in 1837:

Rank Life Guards Cavalry Foot Guards Infantry
Cornet/Ensign £1,260 £840 £1,200 £450
Lieutenant £1,785 £1,190 £2,050 £700
Captain £3,500 £3,225 £4,800 £1,800
Major £5,350 £4,575 £8,300 £3,200
Lieutenant Colonel £7,250 £6,175 £9,000 £4,500
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One Response to The Purchase of a Military Commission

  1. Pingback: Glossary (by script page number) | BYU presents PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

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