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Long before the Norman Conquest, military obligation seems to have divided into two basic forms. One was an obligation for service by all adult males, established in English law as the militia by the Assize of Arms of 1181. The other was a small permanent standing army, usually represented in the medieval period by the warriors of the royal household.

By early modern times, English armies consisted almost entirely of troops paid in some fashion. However, any form of standing army was considered a potential instrument of royal despotism. The Yeomen of the Guard, founded by Henry VII in 1485 as a small royal bodyguard, is the earliest unit of the British army that has survived. The granting of money by Parliament to finance armies on a temporary basis became one of the most important issues between crown and Parliament. It reached a crisis in 1639–41 when Parliament refused Charles I money to repel a Scots invasion, and would not trust him with control of an army to suppress the Irish rebellion.

The direct ancestor of the modern British army is usually considered to be the parliamentary New Model Army of 1645. However, its part in enforcing Cromwell's rule in England and in subjugating Scotland and Ireland helped to establish a prejudice against soldiers which lasted well into modern times. The first properly constituted standing army, of tiny proportions, was created in 1661 by Charles II, and entitled ‘His Majesty's Guards and Garrisons’. The existence and function of the army was based on royal prerogative rather than statute, an issue which came to a head in the reign of James II and played a part in his overthrow. Thereafter the 1689 Declaration of Rights established that a standing army was illegal without Parliament's approval, granted every year in the Mutiny Act until 1953, when this was replaced by a five‐yearly Armed Forces Act.

Particularly after the Act of Union with Scotland of 1707, and the subsequent defeat of Jacobite uprisings, a large army at home was not required. Instead, the British needed a minimum force to keep order, garrisons for their overseas possessions, and small forces to contribute to coalitions for European wars. The British army developed in a manner regarded by European standards as both eccentric and old‐fashioned, with a central core of units providing the basis for a much larger army that could be expanded and disbanded according to need.

Whereas in some countries the army became the focus of political and social reform, in Britain it was always seen as a bastion of reaction. Particularly after the French Revolution, the army was deliberately kept apart from British society (through the building of barracks), and practices regarded as obsolete in continental warfare, such as officers purchasing their commissions, regiments having considerable autonomy from central authority, and the flogging of soldiers, persisted well into the 19th cent. Parliamentary fears of militarism meant rigid control of the army's budget, a deliberately divided command system, and a toleration of inefficiency in order to keep the army politically weak. Officers were drawn largely from the lesser gentry, with an admixture of the aristocracy, and recruits from the poorest classes.


Subjects: European History.

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