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An essay by Fossey John Cobb Hearnshaw

The Ancient Defence Of England

Title:     The Ancient Defence Of England
Author: Fossey John Cobb Hearnshaw [More Titles by Hearnshaw]

[1] [Reprinted, with the addition of References,
from the Morning Post of August 20th, 1915.]



"The military system of the Anglo-Saxons is based upon universal service, under which is to be understood the duty of every freeman to respond in person to the summons to arms, to equip himself at his own expense, and to support himself at his own charge during the campaign."[2]

With these words Gneist, the German historian of the English Constitution, begins his account of the early military system of our ancestors. He is, of course, merely stating a matter of common knowledge to all students of Teutonic institutions. What he says of the Anglo-Saxon is equally true of the Franks, the Lombards, the Visigoths, and other kindred peoples.[3] But it is a matter of such fundamental importance that I will venture, even at the risk of tedious repetition, to give three parallel quotations from English authorities. Grose, in his Military Antiquities, says: "By the Saxon laws every freeman of an age capable of bearing arms, and not incapacitated by any bodily infirmity, was in case of a foreign invasion, internal insurrection, or other emergency obliged to join the army."[4] Freeman, in his Norman Conquest, speaks of "the right and duty of every free Englishman to be ready for the defence of the Commonwealth with arms befitting his own degree in the Commonwealth."[5] Finally, Stubbs, in his Constitutional History, clearly states the case in the words: "The host was originally the people in arms, the whole free population, whether landowners or dependents, their sons, servants, and tenants. Military service was a personal obligation ... the obligation of freedom"; and again: "Every man who was in the King's peace was liable to be summoned to the host at the King's call."[6]

There is no ambiguity or uncertainty about these pronouncements. The Old English "fyrd," or militia, was the nation in arms. The obligation to serve was a personal one. It had no relation to the possession of land; in fact it dated back to an age in which the folk was still migratory and without a fixed territory at all. It was incumbent upon all able-bodied males between the ages of sixteen and sixty. Failure to obey the summons was punished by a heavy fine known as "fyrdwite."[7]

There is another point of prime significance. Universal service was, it is true, an obligation. But it was more: it was the mark of freedom. Not to be summoned stamped a man as a slave, a serf, or an alien. The famous "Assize of Arms" ends with the words: "Et praecepit rex quod nullus reciperetur ad sacramentum armorum nisi liber homo."[8] A summons was a right quite as much as a duty. The English were a brave and martial race, proud of their ancestral liberty. Not to be called to defend it when it was endangered, not to be allowed to carry arms to maintain the integrity of the fatherland, was a degradation which branded a man as unfree.


[1] This chapter has been issued as a pamphlet by the National Service League, 72, Victoria Street, S.W.

[2] Gneist, R. Englische Verfassungsgeschichte, p. 4.

[3] Cf. the Frankish Edict of A.D. 864: "Ad defensionem patriæ omnes sine ulla excusatione veniant." (Let all without any excuse come for the defence of the fatherland.)

[4] Grose, F. Military Antiquities, vol. i, p. 1.

[5] Freeman, E. Norman Conquest, vol. iv, p. 681.

[6] Stubbs, W. Const. Hist., vol. i, pp. 208, 212.

[7] Oman, C. W. C. Art of War in the Middle Ages, p. 67.

[8] Stubbs, W. Select Charters, p. 156. (The King orders that no one except a freeman shall be admitted to the oath of arms.)



This primitive national militia was not, it must be admitted, a very efficient force. It lacked coherence and training; it was deficient both in arms and in discipline; it could not be kept together for long campaigns. The Kings, therefore, from the first supplemented it by means of a band of personal followers, a bodyguard of professional warriors, well and uniformly armed, and practised in the art of war. Nevertheless, the main defence of the country rested with the "fyrd." The Danish invasions put it to the severest test and revealed its military defects. It was one of the most notable achievements of Alfred to reorganize and reconstitute it. Thus reformed, with the support of an ever-growing body of King's thegns, it wrought great deeds in the days of Alfred, Edward and Athelstan, and recovered for England security and peace. In the days of their weaker successors, however, all the forces that England could muster failed to keep out Sweyn and Canute, and, above all, failed to hold the field at Hastings.

The Norman Conquest might have been expected to involve the extinction of the English militia. For feudalism as developed by William I was strongest on its military side, and William's main force was the levy of his feudal tenants. But quite the contrary happened. The Norman monarchs and their Angevin successors were, as a matter of fact, mortally afraid of their great feudal tenants, the barons and knights through whom the Conquest had been effected. Hence, as English kings, they assiduously maintained and fostered Anglo-Saxon institutions, and particularly the "fyrd," which they used as a counterpoise to the feudal levy. They even called upon it for Continental service and took it across the Channel to defend their French provinces.[9] Thus in 1073 it fought for William I in Maine; in 1094 William II summoned it to Hastings for an expedition into Normandy; in 1102 it aided Henry I to suppress the formidable revolt of Robert of Belesme, Earl of Shrewsbury; in 1138 it drove back the Scots at the Battle of the Standard; and in 1174 it defeated and captured William the Lion at Alnwick. So valuable, indeed, did it prove to be that Henry II resolved to place it upon a permanent footing and clearly to define its position. With that view he issued in 1181 his "Assize of Arms."


[9] Stubbs, W. Select Charters, p. 83; and Const. Hist., vol. i, p. 469.



Into the details of the "Assize of Arms" it is unnecessary here to enter. Are they not written in every advanced text-book of English history? Three things, however, are to be noted. First, that the duty and privilege of military service are still bound up with freedom; no unfree man is to be admitted to the oath of arms. Secondly, that upon freemen the obligation is still universal: "all burgesses and the whole community of freemen (tota communa liberorum hominum) are to provide themselves with doublets, iron skullcaps, and lances." Thirdly, that, closely as freedom had during the centuries of feudalism become associated with tenancy of land, the national militia had not been involved in feudal meshes: the obligation of service remained still personal, not territorial.

In 1205 John, fearing an invasion of the Kingdom, called to arms all the militia sworn and equipped under the Assize, i.e., all the freemen of the realm. Short-shrift was to be given to any who disobeyed the summons: "Qui vero ad summonitionem non venerit habeatur pro capitali inimico domini regis et regni" (He who does not come in response to the summons shall be regarded as a capital enemy of the king and kingdom.) The penalty was to be the peculiarly appropriate one of reduction to perpetual servitude. The disobedient and disloyal subject who made the great refusal would ipso facto divest himself of the distinguishing mark of his freedom.[10]

Henry III in 1223 and 1231 made similar levies. In 1252, in a notable writ for enforcing Watch and Ward and the Assize of Arms, he extended the obligation of service to villans and lowered the age limit to fifteen. Edward I reaffirmed these new departures in his well-known Statute of Winchester (1285), in which it is enacted that "every man have in his house harness for to keep the peace after the ancient assize, that is to say, every man between fifteen years of age and sixty years." Further, he enlarged the armoury of the militiaman by including among his weapons the axe and the bow.[11]

The long, aggressive wars of Edward I in Wales and Scotland, and the still longer struggles of the fourteenth century in France, could not, of course, be waged by means of the national militia. Even the feudal levy was unsuited to their requirements. They were waged mainly by means of hired professional armies. Parliament--a new factor in the Constitution--took pains in these circumstances to limit by statute the liabilities of the old national forces. An Act of 1328 decreed that no one should be compelled to go beyond the bounds of his own county, except when necessity or a sudden irruption of foreign foes into the realm required it.[12] Another Act, 1352, provided that the militia should not be compelled to go beyond the realm in any circumstances whatsoever without the consent of Parliament.[13] Both these Acts were confirmed by Henry IV in 1402.[14] But the old obligation of universal service for home defence remained intact. It was, in fact, enforced by Edward IV in 1464, when, on his own authority, he ordered the Sheriffs to proclaim that "every man from sixteen to sixty be well and defensibly arrayed and ... be ready to attend on his Highness upon a day's warning in resistance of his enemies and rebels and the defence of this his realm."[15] This notable incident carries us to the end of the Middle Ages, and shows us the Old English principle in vigorous operation.


[10] Gervase of Canterbury. Gesta Regum, vol. ii, p. 97.

[11] Statutes of the Realm, vol. i, pp. 96-8.

[12] 1 Ed. III, c. 2. §§5-7.

[13] 25 Ed. III, c. 5. §8.

[14] 4 Hy. IV, c. 13.

[15] Rymer, T. Foedera, vol. xi, p. 524.



The Wars of the Roses, so fatal to the feudal nobility, left the national militia the only organized force in the country. The Tudor period, it is true, saw the faint foreshadowing of a regular army in Henry VII's Yeomen of the Guard, and the nucleus of a volunteer force in the Honourable Artillery Company, established in London under Henry VIII. But these at the time had little military importance, and England remained dependent for her defence throughout the sixteenth century, that age of unprecedented prosperity and glory, upon her militant manhood. Hence the Tudor monarchs paid great attention to the maintenance and equipment of the militia. The practice (which had grown up in the later Middle Ages) of limiting the normal call to arms to a certain quota of men from each county was revived. If the required numbers were not forthcoming compulsion was employed. Statutes were passed making discipline more rigid. Lords Lieutenant were instituted to take over the command, with added powers, from the Sheriffs. An important Mustering Statute (1557) was enacted, graduating afresh the universal liability to service, and making new provision for weapons and organization.[16] William Harrison, writing in 1587, said: "As for able men for service, thanked be God! we are not without good store; for by the musters taken 1574-5 our numbers amounted to 1,172,674, and yet were they not so narrowly taken but that a third part of this like multitude was left unbilled and uncalled."[17] This from a population estimated at less than six million all told! Such was the host on which England relied for safety in 1588, if by chance the galleons of Spain should elude the vigilance of Drake and should land Parma's hordes upon our shores. Well might the country feel at ease behind such a fleet and with such a virile race of men to second it.

The Stuarts did not take kindly to the English militia. It was too democratic, too free. James I, in the very first year of his reign, conferred upon its members the seductive but fatal gift of exemption from the burden of providing their own weapons.[18] As he himself took care not to provide them too profusely, the force speedily lost both in efficiency and independence. The Civil War hopelessly divided it, as it did the nation, into hostile factions. The Royalist section was ultimately crushed, while the Parliamentary section was gradually absorbed into that first great standing army which this country ever knew, the New Model of 1645. For fifteen years the people groaned under the dominance of this arbitrary, conscientious, and very expensive force. Then, in 1660, came the Restoration, and with it the disbanding of the New Model and the re-establishment of the militia. The country went wild with joy at the recovery of its freedom.

Charles II, however, was bent on securing for his own despotic purposes a standing army. Hence he obtained permission from Parliament to have a permanent bodyguard, and he gradually increased its numbers until he had some 6,000 troops regularly under his command. James II increased them to 15,000, and by their means tried to overthrow the religion and the liberties of the nation. He was defeated and driven out; but his effort to establish a military despotism made the name of "standing army" stink in the nostrils of the nation. "It is indeed impossible," said one of the leading statesmen of the early eighteenth century, "that the liberties of the people can be preserved in any country where a numerous standing army is kept up."[19] The national militia continued, as of old, to stand for freedom and self-government. The voluntarily enlisted standing army was regarded as the engine and emblem of tyranny.


[16] 4-5 P. and M., c. 2.

[17] Harrison, W. Elizabethan England, chap. xxii.

[18] 1 Jac. I, c. 25.

[19] Speech by Pulteney, A.D. 1732: See Parl. Hist., vol. viii, p. 904.



The eighteenth century saw a constant struggle on the part of constitutionalists to get rid of the standing army altogether. Army Acts, which recognized and regulated the new force, were limited in their operation to a year at a time, and were passed under incessant protest. Grants to maintain the army were similarly restricted. Every interval of peace witnessed the rapid reduction of the regulars. But the times were adverse. Wars were frequent, and on an ever-increasing scale of magnitude and duration. The standing army had to be maintained, and, indeed, steadily enlarged.

But the militia for home defence was never allowed to become extinct, and it enjoyed an immense popularity. In 1757 it was carefully reorganized by statute.[20] The number of men to be raised was settled, and each district was compelled to provide a certain proportion. The selection was to be made by ballot, to the complete exclusion of the voluntary principle. During the Napoleonic war, when invasion seemed imminent, the militia was several times called out and embodied. In 1803 an actual levy en masse of all men between the ages of seventeen and fifty-five was made. In 1806 the principle of universal obligation on which it was based was clearly stated by Castlereagh in the House of Commons. He spoke of "the undoubted prerogative of the Crown to call upon the services of all liege subjects in case of invasion."[21]

At the moment when he spoke, however, the imminent fear of invasion had been removed--removed, indeed, for a century--by Nelson's crowning victory at Trafalgar. From that time forward the military forces of the Crown were required not so much for the defence of the United Kingdom itself as for the provision of garrisons for the vast Empire which had grown up during the eighteenth century. These imperial garrisons had necessarily to be drawn from professional troops voluntarily enlisted. Thus the militia declined. An effort was made in 1852 to revive it, and again the underlying principle of compulsion was explicitly recognized. The Militia Act of that year[22] contains the provision: "In case it appears to H.M. ---- that the number of men required ... cannot be raised by voluntary enlistment ... or in case of actual invasion or imminent danger thereof, it shall be lawful for H.M. ---- to order and direct that the number of men so required ... shall be raised by ballot as herein provided." The effort at revival was unfortunately vain, and when in 1859 international trouble again seemed to be brewing, instead of appealing once more to the immemorial defence of the country, the Government weakly and with most deplorable results allowed the formation of a new body, the volunteers--a body whose patriotism was noble, whose intentions were admirable, but whose inefficiency became and remained a byword.[23] The militia continued ingloriously, mainly as a nursery for the regular army.

Finally, in 1908, Mr. (now Lord) Haldane absorbed both volunteers and militia into the new Territorial and Reserve Forces, the militia becoming a Special Reserve.[24] It is much to be regretted that the Act of 1908 did not expressly reaffirm the continued validity of the compulsory principle of service which from the earliest times had been the basis of the militia. But, though it did not expressly reaffirm it, it left it absolutely unimpaired and intact. Said Mr. Haldane himself in the House of Commons on April 13th, 1910: "The Militia Ballot Acts and the Acts relating to the local militia are still unrepealed, and could be enforced if necessary."


[20] 31 Geo. II, c. 26.

[21] Cobbett. Parliamentary Debates, vol. vii, p. 818.

[22] 15-16 Vict. c. 50. §18.

[23] For occasional levies of volunteers from sixteenth century onwards, see Medley, D. J., Const. Hist., p. 472.

[24] 7 Ed. VII, c. 9.



Such is the condition of things at the present time. The principle of compulsory military service, obligatory upon every able-bodied male between the ages of sixteen and sixty, is still the fundamental principle of English Law, both Common Law and Statute Law. It has been obscured by the pernicious voluntary principle, which, in the much-abused name of Liberty, has shifted a universal national duty upon the shoulders of the patriotic few. But it has never been revoked or repudiated.

It is not National Service, but the Voluntary System, that is un-English and unhistoric. The Territorial Army dates from 1908; the Volunteers from 1859; the Regular Army itself only from 1645. But for a millennium before the oldest of them the ancient defence of England was the Nation in Arms. When will it be so again?

[The end]
Fossey John Cobb Hearnshaw's essay: Ancient Defence Of England