The tightening of nationalist, loyalist and unionist opinion in response to the loss of the American colonies was, as they say, a seismic shift in the zeitgeist of Albion between the close of the American Revolution and the height of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France. Linda Colley, in her celebrated study Britons, has documented this convincingly, if a bit wordily. We now so much take for granted the royalist hegemony of the later years of George III that it’s easy to overlook just how progressive and egalitarian Enlightenment culture had been. In the 1790’s, waving a liberty cap in public could have got you into a spot of treasonable bother. So it’s surprising to find an English militia regiment, only ten years before, proudly flaunting this emblem as a sign of patriotic and constitutional loyalty.
In 1759, perhaps swayed by popular discontent, Nottinghamshire had declined to respond to the militia ballot by raising its regiment, preferring to pay heavy fines in lieu. In 1775, the county at last resolved to raise and embody its regiment, comprising six battalion companies and two flank under Colonel Lord George Sutton. At the time it was styled as the “Nottingham Marksmen” – a possible nod to Robin Hood, and, if so, a hint at the dissenting radicalism that marked its early years. The unusual character of the regiment was set by its first Major, John Cartwright, who designed its regimental button: a cap of liberty resting on a book, with an arm holding a drawn sword, and the motto “Pro legibus et libertate”. [Click all images to enlarge.]
Cartwright’s family were prominent landowners in Nottinghamshire, and had been ardent royalists during the Civil War. After retirement from a creditable naval career through ill health in 1770, he was appointed Major of the Militia in 1775, and in the general absence of the Colonel and Lieutenant Colonel, had effective charge of the regiment for some years. His progressive approach to command combined rigour with the careful avoidance of unnecessary severity; he was, for instance, one of the first officers to procure a general issue of greatcoats, for the comfort of his men.
Despite Cartwright’s military enthusiasms, he was an advanced Whig in politics, authoring many political tracts and pamphlets, including The Commonwealth in Danger of 1794, which achieved a passing notoriety. In 1791, two years after he had openly celebrated the fall of the Bastille at a London hotel, his commission was withdrawn and he was dismissed. In the post-Cartwright period, the regiment’s new buttons bore prominently the monarch’s crown, and in 1813 the “Marksmen” were re-branded as the “Royal Sherwood Foresters”.
The regiment’s Standing Orders and Instructions of 1778, though credited to Sutton on the title page, have the distinctive stamp of Cartwright’s authorship:
The great end of arming a Militia, is to defend the Nation against foreign attacks, without exposing it at the same Time to that danger to Liberty, which is justly to be apprehended from all other Military Establishments. A Militia Man is therefore, the most honourable of all Soldiers …
… What a difference! To misbehave and to be treated like a base Slave, tormented by the stings of remorse, shame, and fear: Or, to act as becomes the Defender of his country’s Liberty, and to enjoy the grand privilege of Freedom, that of living without fear of any Man.
It was with a Design to impress continually these ideas upon our Minds, that the Device and Motto, which are worn upon the Button, and borne in the Colours of the Regiment, were chosen. – The Book is an emblem of Law; and the Cap, of Liberty: so that the Device represents Liberty supported by Law, and defended by the Arms of the Militia. – The Motto in English would run thus; – “For our Laws and Liberties.” – Such a Standard no Englishman can quit but with his Life. Of a similar nature is the design which adorns the Clasps of the Officers Sword belts.
In a letter of 1775 Cartwright had written:
The militia by its institution is not intended to spread the dominion or to vindicate in war the honour of the crown, but it is to preserve our laws and liberties, and therein to secure the existence of the state. It is in allusion to this specific duty that I thought the sword held up in a posture of defence over the book, and the cap, the proper emblems of law and liberty, a suitable device.
A sermon on The Duty and Character of a National Soldier, preached to the regiment in January 1779 on the delivery of its new colours, and published the same year, elaborates these radical Whig principles of a free militia as opposed to a standing army. The author and preacher is not credited in the published pamphlet, but the sentiments, which approach republicanism, sound very much like Cartwright:
From you is expected all the discipline, all the courage of a British Soldier, without the jealousy that awaits a standing army. You are the Soldiers of the People, more than of the Crown …
… I confess that Obedience is the sovereign duty of a soldier; but obedience to whom – first, to his God, then to his Country; next to the Laws, and last of all to his King.
In 1820 Cartwright went on trial in Warwick for his part the previous year in the “seditious” election by a large pro-reform rally in Birmingham of Sir Charles Wolseley as the city’s “legislatorial representative” or alternative MP, and was fined £100. He died in 1824, and in 1826 his Life and Correspondence was published in two volumes by his niece, Frances Dorothy Cartwright.
Lawson’s 1872 Historical Record of the Royal Sherwood Foresters states that the first colours of the regiment carried the arms of the Lord Lieutenant and those of the county; this may well have been so, but in January 1779, as already noted, the regiment was certainly presented with a pair of colours that bore Cartwright’s regimental “device”, featuring the cap of liberty.
Cartwright’s button design also included the legend “Mil. Com. Nott.”, a Latinisation of “Militia of the County of Nottingham”. The same title appears on the cap plate worn by Captain George Nevile of the Grenadier company in a fine portrait circa 1775, and also, with “Militia” in full, on the gorget of the same period. The rectangular belt plate shown in the Nevile portrait appears to show a standing figure, perhaps allegorical of Liberty. (I’m unaware of the current whereabouts of this portrait, but it’s reproduced in an article on “The 45th: 1st Nottinghamshire Regiment. The ‘Sherwood Foresters.’ Their Honours and Medals” in the British Numismatic Journal for 1913. The author is one Frank Burton, who owned both portrait and gorget.)
Inevitably, Cartwright was sympathetic to the cause of American independence. It’s hardly surprising that radical Whig notions of a free militia as the guarantee of a nation’s liberty should have fed through to those who framed that nation’s constitution. It’s only a pity that their ideals should have been subjected to such distortion in our own times.
(For a slightly later reincarnation of Robin Hood in Nottinghamshire military circles, see this post.)