‘Cavilling about trifles’: anarchy in the Yeomanry

“That there are persons so wofully ignorant, or so wilfully blind, as to seek an exchange from the ascertained and established blessing of clearly defined and limited monarchy, for the wild and visionary speculations of republican anarchy, the added experience of every hour but too clearly proves, but who shall assert that they will not hide their guilty heads, and sink into their original obscurity, when they see the respectable and independent Yeomanry of the kingdom stepping forth, with undaunted courage, in defence of their beloved Sovereign and of that Constitution, which the test of time has proved to be without an equal, and which has secured to their ancestors and to themselves every enjoyment rational and moderate mind can wish for?”

Francis Perceval Eliot

Francis Perceval Eliot

So asserted, a little breathlessly, Major Francis Perceval Eliot of the Staffordshire Yeomanry in his Letters on the subject of the arm’d Yeomanry of 1794, the year of the regiment’s raising. But his own stout yeomanry had not, in truth, proved themselves entirely “respectable”, with some “wild and visionary speculations of republican anarchy” surfacing at the very heart of the regimental committee, particularly in regard to that eternal stimulus to controversy among volunteer soldiers – uniform. Disaffection among the auxiliary military during the wars against France is the stuff of countless theses, but the role of clothing in this has perhaps not been recognised.

In his British Military Uniforms of 1948, the fashion historian James Laver identifies three scales of definition that apply to all costume: Seduction, Utility and Hierarchy. A faction within the Staffordshire committee would have pushed the latter to its lowest extreme by eliminating all visible marks of rank, and bitter disputes over officers’ distinctions took on a clear political dimension. In October 1794 Captain William Tennant of the Walsall troop wrote to Eliot:

“Those men who are capable of cavilling about trifles, when so great a stake is pending, are not, cannot be judged hearty in the cause they have undertaken to support; they who can disapprove the distinction due to the King’s Commission, would not scruple to wrest the sceptre from that monarch ‘who is the breath of our nostrils’ & demolish that constitution which our ancestors formed with their wisdom & maintained with their blood.”

Eliot's Staffordshire Yeoman, from his 'Letters'

Eliot’s Staffordshire Yeoman, from his ‘Letters’

An impending resolution to exclude officers entirely from the committee was clear evidence of republicanism and levelling. Tennant tried to finish on a more practical note, but his emotions got the better of him:

“The spurs, spur leathers, field epaulets, stirrups and stirrup leathers, girths & surcingles will, I hope, reach you in the course of the ensuing week; & in a little more than a fortnight, your proportion of Pistols will also wait on you. That G-d may send their contents into the heart of every democrat existing is the sincerest wish of, Dear Sir, Yr’s Truly, Wm. Tennant.”

When matters came to a head the following month, Eliot wrote to his Colonel, Lord Sutherland, to resign his majority (a step later rescinded):

“I am well convinc’d that those who would wish to degrade and vilify the bearers of his Majesty’s commission, want nothing but the power to attack the throne itself. I have said before my Lord that it is not the form of an epaulette or the gilding of an ornament to the helmet, which gives me a moment’s concern, it is not the particular question, it is the general principle which I resist – so far from it that I should be very glad to have the common field helmet to save my better one for the evening …”

“Democratic” resolutions would eliminate the authority of the Colonel, and oblige officers to take orders from the ranks. Why, he himself had even been called a “martinet”!

“I even said that I thought Officers ought to be distinguish’d in the whole of their dress, & that tho’ I was perfectly contented to wear the same uniform as the private gentlemen I was well convinc’d that those who objected to whatever distinction the Officers chose among themselves to put on did not mean to serve their Country … they [his troop] ask’d me if it was not Shaw the Schoolmaster who was at the bottom of it & that they were well aware of his character as a known enemy to the King & Constitution …

The Serpent is no longer contented with creeping in the grass, but is beginning to rear his crest & dart his venom abroad – we were told that the giving up the first question of the superfine cloth would suffice & that nothing further would be ask’d – to this succeeded the bridles then the epaulettes – the sashes were next attacked & now the helmets – & vires acquirit eundo [It gathers strength as it goes].”

“Superfine” cloth was a usual distinction of officers. In the event, officers’ sashes probably survived, and epaulettes of some sort are itemised in the regimental accounts of the following year. Unfortunately, I can find nothing more on Shaw the Schoolmaster and his levelling agenda, but his influence cannot have lasted long.

A pleasingly naive image of a Staffordshire Yeoman, drawn by Eliot himself, forms the frontispiece to his Letters, as shown above. As there is no indication of rank, the engraving appears to show a private. Webster’s 1870 regimental history has a plate derived directly from this, but captioned “An Officer in Review Order 1794”. Quite why this image, 75 years later, should have come to be seen as an officer is not at all clear, but given the controversies of 1794 it’s a nice irony. Shaw the Schoolmaster would certainly have approved.

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