England Militia History (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


These ancient bodies were part-time armies, raised in time of need and trained for home defence whenever insurrection or invasion threatened, and especially during wartime when a large part of the regular army was abroad.

History of the Militia

Ever since Anglo-Saxon times able and free-born men have been required to be a part of their local defence force because there was no regular standing army. King Alfred set up a better county-based system that was augmented in the Statute of Winchester of 1285 requiring all able-bodied men between the ages of 15 and 60 to equip themselves with armour and weapons according to their means. Those holding less than 40s (£2) worth of land had to provide scythes and knives, others bows and arrows, pikes, halberds, swords, helmets etc., up to a horse and armour for the richest men. The parish constable was responsible for drawing up lists, called assessments, of who was liable for service and what weapons he should provide. His records were passed up to the county officials such as the Commissioners of Array or the Lord Lieutenant. Military service was performed as their country needed them, and the forces were also used to quell riots and apprehend wrongdoers, when it was known as the Posse Comitatus (Gibson and Dell). The Commissioners of Array also assessed land and goods in order to provide a tax base for financial support. These lists are discussed in the section on records below.

Owing to the divergence of opinion between King and Parliament after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, over who was to command the militia, it was decided to raise a regular standing army. The role of the militia thus changed and parishes formed Trained Bands for local use. The better soldier material, both for officers and men, was no doubt attracted to the regular army and thus the effectiveness of the militia declined. This became quite evident in 1685 when the Duke of Monmouth landed in Lyme Regis, Dorset and faced 4,000 militia men who proved no match for his band of 82 regular soldiers (J. R. Jones.) Where a particular county’s militia were effective he just avoided going through that county, and they were restricted from mounting an attack outside their own county boundary, of-course. A period of dormancy for the militia ensued.

During the Seven Years War, (1756-63), most of the army was fighting in Europe and the militia system was re-established to provide civil defence in England and Wales by George II’s Militia Act of 1757. This was also the time leading up to the American and French revolutionary wars. In the last decade of the 18th century Napoleon’s plans to invade Britain resulted in the raising of the Volunteers, Fencibles and Yeomanry as well as the re-organization of the militia in Scotland in 1797. The Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815 were a very active time for the military, and family historians often have their male ancestors disappearing from parish records into the army or militia. Half a century later there was another major disturbance in the form of the Crimean War that caused further activity for the militia.

CHART: Types of Militia Forces

Middle Ages-1907
Supplementary Militias
Army of reserve
Yeomanry (Cavalry)
Local Militia
Rifle Volunteers
Imperial Yeomanry, raised specifically for the South African War
Territorial Force (from 1921 called the Territorial Army)
Special Reserve (from 1921 called the Militia)
Supplementary Reserve
Home Guard (Local Defence Volunteers)
1940-1945 + 1952-1957

From 1757 an early form of conscription was introduced. Firstly, each parish had to construct a Militia Ballot List, (the title is often shortened to Militia List), with the names of all adult males, then ballots were made from this list to decide who would actually serve for that parish. If one of the chosen men was not willing to serve then he had to find another to act as a substitute for him. The lists of drawn men or principals and any substitutes are called Militia Muster Rolls or Enrollment Lists. Occasionally there were enough volunteers that a ballotting procedure was not required, and likewise some counties were late starting up the system. However from the early 1760s until 1831, when it was suspended, annual lists by parish were made and form an early kind of census of adult males. Men aged 18 to 50 with some exceptions, listed below were to be included from 1757. This was modified in 1758 to include everyone, and in 1762 the upper age limit was reduced to 45.

CHART: Men Exempt from Militia

Peers, clergy, university members, teachers, medical men, articled clerks, and apprentices.
Members of Parliament, judges, magistrates, constables and other peace officers.
Military men
Serving soldiers and sailors, other seafarers, dockyard and ordnance workers, former militiamen; and men serving during the Napoleonic Wars in the volunteers and yeomanry.
Those under 5' 4", sometimes 5'2".
‘Men suffering under infirmities’
Family men
Those with more than a certain number of legitimate children. Before 1802 this was 3 or 4 children under age 10; after 1802 any children under 14.

The whole idea of enforced conscription for the militia was uniformly hated and caused riots in 1757 and 1796 when a supplementary militia ballot was introduced.

An Act of 1802 modified the procedures of record keeping, but continued unrest after the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to the suspension of the militia ballot in 1829, although some ballots were made in 1831. Thereafter only volunteers manned the militia.

There were two other defence lists operative during the Napoleonic War period, and they resemble the real militia lists. One was the Posse Comitatus stemming from the Defence of the Realm Act of 1798 and the other the Levée en Masse enabled by George III’s Defence Acts of 1803-4. The purpose of these two lists was different from the militia lists as they did not concern recruitment. Instead they were compiled to organize reserves of men not already engaged in military activities who could be drawn upon to evacuate the population, remove foodstuffs from the enemy’s path, gather privately owned arms and equipment, as well as supply and transport food to defending forces. In addition they would provide posses, or groups of pioneers and special constables to suppress internal riots and harry an enemy.

The Posse Comitatus and 1st Levée en Masse lists contain the names of all able-bodied men aged 15-60, and also listed those essential food suppliers the millers, bakers, and the waggon and barge owners.

The 2nd Levée en Masse was more extensive, covering the whole population in the following categories:

  • Ÿ All men aged 15-55, their names, occupations and infirmities, and subdivided into four groups according to age, marital status, and number of children under 10.
  • Ÿ All householders, their names, sometimes ages and occupations, whether Quakers or aliens, and numbers of males and females in each household.
  • Those who would need to be evacuated: women, children, the old and infirm, with names and sometimes ages and occupations
  • Ÿ Men aged 17-55 who were formed into posses of pioneers and special constables
  • Other groups such as millers, bakers, waggon and barge owners, guides, stockmen, waggoners, and those possessing weapons.

Ÿ Schedules of numbers of farm animals and amounts of wheat and fodder that would need to be removed.


A militiaman had to serve for three years during the period 1757-1786, but for five years if called after that. He would live at home in peacetime, spending two or three weeks a year at a training camp. They were paid, but only when on duty or in training. During wartime he would be expected to be on permanent duty, usually in another county than his home one, and his wife and children received allowances from their home parish. Militiamen were not supposed to serve overseas, although occasional exceptions did occur.

A great variety of other, voluntary forces were also raised locally during the Napoleonic Wars, including the volunteer and fencible infantry units and the provisional, fencible and yeomanry cavalry units. Many had nicknames and the story of how the Cat and Mutton Lancers got theirs is recounted by Galvin (The Cat and Mutton Lancers. Cockney Ancestor (East of London FHS) #93, page 26-28). All of these temporary groups were disbanded after the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and by 1816 the militia had returned to its peacetime status. They were called out when internal emergencies arose, such as it did with the agricultural riots and the Reform Bill in 1831. New groups, the Rifle Volunteers, were founded in 1859-1860, and during the Cardwell Reforms to the army in the 1870s, the militias became the 3rd, and the volunteer units the 4th battalions of the county regiments. It is interesting to note that the county affiliations of the militia groups, highly resented by the regular army, proved to sustain loyalty amongst men and officers, and this system was adopted by the army in their own reorganization by Cardwell.

The final episode in the history of the militia took place just before World War I when home defence was reorganized. In 1908 all the currently existing units of yeomanry and volunteers were converted into the Territorial Force, later called the Territorial Army and known colloquially as The Territorials. The Militia was revived in 1908 as the Special Reserve, returned to the name Militia in 1921 and in 1924 was superseded by the Supplementary Reserve.

There was a further conscription effort during World War II for all males aged 17-62 to join the Local Defence Volunteers (or L.D.V.) later re-named the Home Guard whence it came to be known fondly as Dad’s Army. This was a militia type of organization ‘of dubious military effect’ (Gibson and Dell) which never faced an actual invasion but has been immortalized in a popular television programme.

A more extensive history of the militia before 1757 is in Gibson and Dell’s book Tudor and Stuart Muster Rolls, and after 1757 in Gibson and Medlycott. Spencer, Medlycott (1989, 1994) and Colin Chapman’s works are useful, and smaller but significant sections are devoted to the history of the militia in the Public Record Office publications by Thomas’ Records of the Militia from 1757 (1993), Fowler and William Spencer’s Army Records for Family Historians (1997), and Bevan’s Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office. Considerable detail about all types of militia in the Napoleonic War era is provided by Chambers in In Defence of the Realm in Family and Local History Handbook 6th edition. Genealogical Services Director (2002).


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

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