Jane Austen & the Wars

Part I: 1775-1795

It has often been commented that although her country was fighting a major war, and seeing great social changes, such events rarely appear in Jane Austen’s writings. Often, where they do, it seems to be part of the past -- a vulgar interruption into an otherwise well ordered world. However, a listing of events and her writing at the time is rarely seen, or becomes buried amongst the minutiae of lesser occasions concerning her family and friends.

War was a backdrop for much of Austen’s life. For roughly the first seven years, the American Revolution was being fought, although it’s unlikely it would have been more than mere stories of far off lands to a child of that age, no matter how bright.

Even if there are no open conflicts, nations need to maintain at least part of their fighting forces. The Royal Navy, if much reduced, still needed new officers entering the system. In April 1786, just prior to his twelfth birthday, Francis-William Austen (often referred to as ‘Frank’) entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. Cassandra and Jane had already left home to attend the “Abby School” in Reading, returning in December of 1786. Jane is recorded as having begun writing her Juvenilia sometime in 1787.

Francis graduated in 1788, and was posted to the frigate Perseverance, where he would spend the next year in training to become a Midshipman. In December he sailed for the East Indies, where he would spend his next five years. On December 22, 1789, he became a Midshipman. (The short story Jack and Alice is dedicated to Midshipman Austen.)

Meanwhile, long simmering tensions in France boiled over in the summer of 1789 with the Storming of the Bastille. In England, reactions varied. Some saw it as a long overdue reform (and hoped France might model her government more in line with the British model), others feared the spread of disorder, and many viewed it with a degree of schadenfreude, relishing the suffering of an ancient foe. In April of 1792, France declared war on Austria, and fell into further anarchy, highlighted by the September Massacres and the beginning large public executions. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined, with the “Terror” growing in bloodthirsty intensity. On February 1, France declared war on England.

Meanwhile, in July 1791 Charles John Austen joined the Naval Academy. In November, Francis, still in the East Indies, was transferred to the Minerva (38 guns, built 1780 at Woolwich Dockyard). At the end of 1792 he was promoted to Lieutenant.

The United Kingdom at this time was ill prepared for a major conflict. There were only 15,000 effective Army Regulars, many being little more than cadres of Battalions. Another 30,000 troops were posted elsewhere in the world. The Government authorised an increase in the Army of 25,000. This would bring many of the existing infantry battalions from their peacetime strength of 375 rank and file to their nominal wartime establishment of 850 men, plus 78 entirely new battalions. Unfortunately, while there was great enthusiasm in the response, the results were very uneven. The entire war effort developed in a typically haphazard British way. The overall strategy lacked any real focus, and most operations lacked the planning and backing necessary. Material, discipline and leadership were lacking. It was far too easy for the untrained, or even incompetent, to purchase a Commission, putting them in positions of making life and death decisions far beyond their capabilities. Abut the only body of leaders with any practical experience were aged veterans of the American Revolution. This would have tragic consequences later.

The Government also authorised embodying of 19,000 Militia. England had a distrust of Standing Armies that dated from the days of Cromwell. In its place, it was felt that the Militia, commanded by “country gentlemen - men of property, of family of domestic connections, of personal influence, whose arms were in consequence unlikely to be turned against the country", would be the true defenders of Britain. Each county was expected to provide a quota of men to serve in the ranks for a period of five years. In addition to protecting the nation against any foes who managed to get past the Royal Navy and land on British soil, the Militia was also expected to quell disorders, and aid civil power. To prevent a conflict of interests, the rank and file were usually posted to other parts of the Kingdom, so that they would not be tempted to fall into sympathy with the local populace.

Officers were to be selected by the Lord Lieutenant of the County, with set property requirements for each rank. (That is, income derived from the land, rather than commercial or other sources.) For example: £20 for an ensign, £50 for a Lieutenant, on up to £1000 for a Colonel. However, the rapid expansion of the Militia led to a shortage of men with the legislated Property Requirements. Henry-Thomas Austen had been studying for the ministry at St. John’s College, Oxford, since July 1788. In February 1793, he took leave from school and joined the Oxfordshire Militia Regiment. Although Henry had no land, being the son of a respectable clergyman, he was accepted as a “Gentleman to be Lieutenant." That is, he would do duty as a subaltern although he would not formally hold a rank until such time as he was deemed fit for the role. He joined the Regiment at Southampton, but also did duty at East Anglia, Yarmouth, Norwich and Ipswich, and other places. He would serve seven years with the Oxfords.

Henry, was not, of course, the only individual who achieved rank within the Militia without holding the requisite real estate. This provided an opening for George Wickham to appear as a Lieutenant in the ___shire Militia in Jane’s First Impression (begun in the autumn of 1796) which later became Pride and Prejudice. She well may have met with some of Henry’s fellow officers, who along with his recollections of characters he met, providing fodder for the various Army and Militia officers who populate her novels.

Despite the expansion of the Army and Militia, along with the Navy, achieving any proficiency took time and effort. The Sea Service saw much more success. In the first year of the war fifty-three enemy frigates and lesser vessels were captured, along with eighty-nine privateers. This made the sailor, of all ranks, very popular amongst the general public and would continue through most of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Jane did not need a direct family connection to portray Navy officers amongst her heroes.

In the summer of 1793 Austen finished the last of her Juvenilia. At the end of that year Francis returned home from the East Indies. His tales would have added to the already existing family connection with the East. (Later, various characters in her novels would reveal a connection with the East: Colonel Brandon and Sir John Middleton in Sense & Sensibility, Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft in Persuasion.)

In early 1794, disturbing news reached the Austen household. M. de Feullide (the husband of Eliza Hancock, a cousin) had lands in France. Eliza and her son had come to England, while he remained behind to manage, and protect, his estate. In February 1794 he was arrested for attempting to bribe one of the Secretaries of Public Safety in the case of a friend. The official took the money and then betrayed him, and he went to the guillotine.

In March, Charles was transferred to the sloop Lark (16 guns, built 1794 at Northfleet) which was assigned to Home Waters. His father tried to use family connections, which included Warren Hastings, to influence a promotion for Charles, or at least a posting to a larger vessel.

The British Army returned to the Lowlands. The campaign, although initially successful, foundered to a standstill, and then a retreat when the French renewed the offensive. These events were the inspiration for the children’s song. “The Rare Old Duke of York.” Some of the French troops captured were sent to England, where the Oxfordshire Militia was engaged in guarding some of them at Portsmouth. Henry also spent time at Petersfield, which allowed for some trips home. Another naval victory on the “Glorious First of June” netted twelve French vessels.

The harvests of 1794 were very poor, which were to lead to shortages and high prices for foodstuffs. It is likely that it was at this time that Austen began writing Lady Susan. The winter that followed was prolonged and severe. The expeditionary force to the Lowlands suffered greatly before being withdrawn in the spring.


The winter of 1794-95 was long and cold. The previous year’s poor harvest led to shortages and high prices. The military expedition to the Lowlands had ended in failure, with the army suffering terribly over the winter, finally being evacuated in the spring. Francis helped in the removal of troops from Ostend and Nieuwport that spring. Charles, graduated from the Naval Academy in September and was posted to the Daedalus (32 guns, built 1780 at Liverpool), and took part in a similar operation off East Freeland, where he got badly frost-bitten.

Henry’s regiment was in winter quarters not far from Steventon. It was during this winter that the Derbyshire Regiment was in Hertford and Ware, possibly providing a model for the ____shire Militia in Pride and Prejudice. (Jane also had some familiarity with the South Devon Regiment, as well as the Surrey Regiment, which Captain Weston was a member of in Emma.) The conditions in the barracks of the Oxfords were terrible, as the buildings were unfinished and many necessities were lacking. Fortunately for Henry, he was granted two months leave to continue his studies at Oxford. During this winter, Henry also took on the job of Regimental Paymaster. This was a position of considerable responsibility, up to £15000 could pass through his hands in a year.

It is during 1795 that it appears likely Jane Austen began writing Elinor and Marianne (later revised into Sense and Sensibility). It might be asked if these bleak times had any influence in the shaping of that story. The Dashwoods, while not reduced to pauperism, were the victims of greatly reduced circumstances.

Henry continued to do duty with the Oxfordshire Militia. This would, of course, have brought him into contact with many other military units, both Regular and Militia. Amongst the former, it appears likely Henry did duty at this time with the Twelfth (Prince of Wale’s) Light Dragoons, likely in or around Brighton. When she wrote Northanger Abbey (first draft started two years later) it was this regiment she named in connection with the character of Captain Frederick Tilney. (It is a bit of a mystery as to why the 12th L.D. were specifically mentioned in the text, although it is possible she did not intend the name to be included in the published work. Might Frederick be based upon an officer she met, or at least was mentioned by Henry, as an associate, a friend, or an antagonist?)

The crop failures of the previous year led to shortages and high prices both in the UK and on the Continent. In England the price of bread rose by almost 25%. A number of food riots occurred, where mobs seized flour or bread, sometimes damaging or destroying mills or bakeries. This was not a new phenomenon, as it had occurred in the past. Then, authorities were more inclined to let it blow over, as things had always returned to normal in the past without leaving any permanent resentment. However, with the example of the Terror, and rumours of revolutionary sentiments percolating amongst the lower orders, those in power became alarmed. Increasingly, magistrates would call upon the Militia, or even Regular Army to help restore order. (The Government did finally attempt to offer some relief from the hardship amongst the poor through the Speenhamland Act.)

Far more frightening to the authorities, were incidents where the militia actually sided with the rioters, as happened at Portsea and Newhaven. There had long been a policy of drawing the actual soldiery from other counties. This would prevent a conflict of interest should they have to control a riot which consisted of family and friends. However, there was much to dissatisfy the men of the Militia. Accommodations for the military have always been Spartan. However, the great expansion of the Army and Militia meant proper barracks and other amenities were lacking. Discipline was hard to enforce (floggings, as in Sense and Sensibility aside), especially when many of the officers absented themselves.

Henry was among those absent from the Oxfordshire Militia on April 17, 1795, having returned briefly to Oxford to study. (He had received a message requesting his return, but he pleaded illness.) On that day, four hundred men left their barracks in Blatchingford and marched “in a disorderly manner” with bayonets fixed to nearby Seaford and took over the town. All the flour and other food was seized and sold at reduced prices. The next day, about 500 marched to Newhaven. Again, provisions were taken, and artillery horses were used to haul it away. Strong drink was also freely distributed. Most of the men eventually returned to their barracks at the request of their officers. However, sixty men stayed behind in Newhaven. Two days later a battery of Horse Artillery was set up on the hills overlooking the town and fired two shots over the mutineers’ heads. A detachment of the Lancashire Regiment of Fencible Dragoons rode into town and captured the rioters. Apparently, no civilians joined in the disorder.

Rather than disband the regiment, it was decided to disarm them, and try the ringleaders. On June 13, the punishments were carried out at Brighton. Of the three to be flogged, two were pardoned, one remanded into custody, three received 300 lashes apiece, one transported, and two shot by a party drawn from the mutineers. Ten thousand of the Garrison witnessed, including Royal Artillery, five militia, and three fencible regiments, as well as the 12th Light Dragoons. Henry was amongst those attending the executions. Two others were hung at the Special Assizes at Lewes for stealing flour. (The mutiny and the executions became widely known and were reported in the London Times.)

That summer, Henry was back with his regiment at Sheerness Camp. They underwent an intense period of drill, and training, aimed at restoring discipline and credibility. In September, the regiment returned to Chelmsford Barracks, part escorting 150 French prisoners for part of the way. In October, he took another leave of absence.

In October, the London Corresponding Society organised a massive demonstration, reportedly as high as 150,000, just outside the city. In an unrelated incident, the King’s carriage was hooted and stoned in London. This of course caused a great deal of alarm. (Interestingly, this also led to a surge in pro-Royalty sentiments.) The most excitable minority wondered if the events in France would be repeated in England, some even prophesied guillotines appearing in town squares.

It may be that Jane Austen picked up on those alarmist sentiments and recreated them when she began writing her early version of Northanger Abbey in the summer of 1798. Catherine Morland, with an overactive imagination fuelled by too many novels, ”talked of expected horrors in London…pictured to herself a mob of three thousand men assembling on St. George’s Fields; the Bank attacked, the Tower threatened, the streets of London flowing with blood…." (The situation being saved by a detachment of the 12th Light Dragoons, up from Northampton.) However, the general tone, and the image of Captain Tilney “knocked off his horse by a brickbat from an upper window” would seem to indicate Jane Austen did not share these sentiments. Granted, it was written with the benefit of hindsight, but it might also indicate that Jane had a greater insight into her fellow countrymen than most people.

The year 1795 also saw the outbreak of a number of slave revolts in the West Indies. That fall, Francis was transferred to the Glory (98 guns, built 1788 at Plymouth) and slated for convoy duty for an expedition to the West Indies to put down the slave revolts. Disorganisation delayed its departure until November when a hurricane in the departure damaged many ships and caused many casualties. They finally sailed in January. Accompanying them was Tom Fowles, one of Reverend Austen’s student borders, sailed for the Caribbean as a private chaplain to John Craven.


Further details on the Royal Navy ships mentioned in this series can be found at Ships of the Old Navy.

For more information on the Twelfth Light Dragoons.

If you are interested in commenting or discussing anything in this series the Dregston Chronicle Board has graciously been made available.

The author may be contacted at: jeverett@sympatico.ca

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