Master of Arts (MA)



Document Type



The golden age of the Royal Navy, which saw its apotheosis at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, also presented one of the great paradoxes of modern naval organization. "Young gentlemen," some as young as eight or nine, were placed in positions of authority aboard His Majesty's ships and expected to command veteran mariners with decades of sea experience. The effectiveness of this system, and the continued success of the Royal Navy as an institution, tended to belie the obvious disadvantages of placing adolescent recruits on the quarterdecks of active men-of-war. This study examines two aspects of the process that allowed midshipmen and quarterdeck boys to function within the shipboard hierarchy and offers explanation by way of J. C. D. Clark's theory of a persistent ancien regime mentality in English society. Part I examines the selection of boys destined for command. A trend that began in the late 1770s saw a dramatic increase in the number of "Honorable" boys, those with significant social and/or political "interest," entering the service. Many senior officers lamented the preferential treatment granted these young notables and its deleterious effect on subordination. Within the context of Clark's theory of a "patrician hegemony," the desirability of a naval career during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars meant that, increasingly, opportunities benefited the elite. The natural authority granted by birth was also widely accepted by the men of the lower deck, despite social unrest stirring in France and the effects of the Great Mutinies of 1797. Part II looks at the sources of a young gentleman's authority. Those institutions, both naval and civilian, that granted young gentlemen their practical and theoretical status as officers-in-training, also reinforced the structure of the old order. The increasing social status of young gentlemen in the Royal Navy of the Great Wars and the processes that maintained their authority reflected wider social and cultural trends - developments that confirmed the view of Georgian England as an ancien regime.



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Committee Chair

Victor Stater



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