Disclaimer: All the details about army life are based on research, contemporary accounts and later third hand analysis. The comments on Robert Crawley are pure speculation based on research about real life soldiers, and the society in the late 19th century in which he would have lived; and examination of the character by way of the DVDs and the series scripts.
One of the many weaknesses of the writing in Downton Abbey is the undeveloped backgrounds of the characters – we don’t know how they come to be what we see on the screen, and why they behave as they do; what it is in their past that drives their present. Of particular interest to me is the character of Lord Grantham – on the face of it a straightforward, dull and not very bright man and who suffers from Fellowes’ determination to show the female Crawleys in the best possible light – or what he thinks is the best possible light. There are hints of Lord Grantham’s military past – Bates, South Africa medals, the expectation when was breaks out that the army will want him back and the acute disappointment when it does not – but the details are only vaguely suggested.
Fellowes describes Robert as a professional soldier and the medals he has suggests that Robert served in the army for as long as possible*; being a soldier was not at all incompatible with a life as a peer, a landowner or a member of Society. Did he think that he could allow himself to go soldiering while his cousin looked after the estate? Perhaps he envisaged a life as a soldier, allowing his cousin to marry and raise heirs for the earldom and eventually inherit the title, and it was only financial necessity that drove him to an early marriage. There is an interesting tension set up in the earl’s character that I’m not sure the writer is aware of – in series 1 we hear that the Abbey is so important to Lord Grantham that it’s as dear to him as his family and that he’ll do anything to ensure its’ survival – and yet in series 2 he looks around a room full of soldiers and says “This is where I belong.”
I strongly feel that for Lord Grantham being a soldier means loyalty, duty, if necessary dying for your country. In series 2 he knows that there’s fair chance one or both of him and Matthew will be killed at the Front, leaving the estates and title in limbo without an heir and the family in financial disarray (as the money goes to whoever inherits the title) but for Robert being a soldier and fighting for his country is a higher calling even than being Earl of Grantham; it’s a part of his being, as much in his blood and bones as the Abbey, and I have wondered if his care for the Abbey is something into which he channels those energies that were previously given to the army, or do the two exist side by side as the twin passions of his life? What was the background that made his army service so important to him and what was the life to which he longed to return? It’s a very great shame that this was left wholly unexplained and unexplored. If we don’t know why this character is like he is then we cannot hope to understand him, and my suspicion is that understanding and hence sympathising is something we are not meant to feel where Robert is concerned.
In the 19th century class structure filtered into every facet of people’s lives, even an event as simple as eating, and it was very difficult to escape your “breeding”. Lord Grantham’s breeding and upbringing was that as a peer, society looked to him to lead, and that for a man like him there were higher needs and duties than hearth and home. As a peer, he would have been trained from cradle that his standing in society demanded more of him than the average man on the street; if you like, the rent he paid for his privileges. As Joseph P. Kennedy always told his children, to whom much is given much is required and I’m sure that Robert would have been told the same thing by his father.
We do not know if Robert, Earl of Grantham came from a family with a history of military service; his father was a courtier and they were very often recruited from the ranks of the army. We know that Viscount Downton attended Eton, the leading public school of the day for the privileged elite. The school had a cadet force known as the Eton College Rifle Corps, founded in 1860 as a volunteer battalion of a local regiment and designed to act as a pool of potential officers; so either a boy with an interest in military matters joined the corps, or it stimulated his interest in a military career.
Public schools such as Eton were not intellectual but designed to instil attitudes of mind and patterns of behaviour and moulded their pupils into British gentlemen through emphasis on house loyalty, an obsession with sporting achievement and obedience to authority. They produced men who had a deep sense of duty, an awareness of hierarchy and a habit of command, were extraordinarily brave and unquestioningly obedient – qualities particularly suited to a career as an army officer. Skill at games was more important than academic achievement, manliness and godliness more important that knowledge.
A public school education, nonetheless, was deemed invaluable because of the qualities of character which the schools were thought to develop. These included the training of the mind in the classical tradition, with its emphasis upon order, authority and discipline and the training of the body and spirit through the cult of team games. If boys played rugby and cricket, it was widely assumed that they would develop not only the physical attributes of health, strength, co-ordination and quickness of eye – all essential military requirements- but also moral virtues like self-discipline and team spirit – qualities with could be transferred into regimental service. Above all, as Geoffrey Best argues, the public schools were thought to inculcate loyalty, which ‘began with loyalty to your house…….and rose through loyalty to your school (a paradigm of the nation) to loyalty to your country, faith and leaders.’ Boys possessing such attributes were readily welcomed as potential officers.” (pp. 97-9) Edward M. Spiers. The Late Victorian Army 1868-1902 (Manchester, 1992)
It’s certain that Robert was trained to be a soldier at Sandhurst. He could have come via the militia, but that would have been very much a second best option for those who could not pass the entrance exams. Lord Grantham’s father was a courtier, so it’s reasonable to assume that the family had powerful connections and access to patronage that could have been used to ease Robert’s entry into Sandhurst if that help was needed.
Attendance at Eton would have prepared Robert Crawley for a career in the army by making every effort to teach him the subjects the army would require for the competitive entrance examinations to Sandhurst, but there is evidence that very many candidates found the examinations difficult. The first one, the Preliminary, tested elementary skills – handwriting, geography, composition, grammar, elementary mathematics, geometrical drawing and languages. About one fifth failed geography, a quarter failed spelling and nearly half failed languages. Once he had passed this Robert could apply to take the Further, a comprehensive test of knowledge and academic skills for eight hours a day for six days and starting with a strict physical examination. He also had to submit details of his birth registration and a certificate of moral character from the head of the school he had attended for the past four years. Both parts of the exam could be taken up to three times and there were no practical tests of aptitude for leadership. This had the effect of confining entry to public schoolboys, often from families with a military connection.
Should Robert feel the need for it, there were “crammers,” usually retired army men, who could teach him what he needed to know to pass the entrance exams; and very many of the candidates for Sandhurst resorted to them. It’s tempting to wonder whether the young men of the late Victorian era were spectacularly stupid, the public schools very bad at teaching or the Sandhurst exams especially difficult.
Once successfully through the Further exam (Robert could choose four out of Mathematics, English composition, Latin, Greek, French, Experimental Sciences, Physical Geography and Geology, Drawing Freehand and Geometrical), he would pay his fees (the cost of which were based on the rank his father had attained in the army, with fees reduced for the sons of serving or former officers) and become what was known in a formal manner as a “gentlemen cadet” and addressed as ‘Mr’ followed by his name and title – in Robert’s case, Mr Lord Downton – followed by ‘sir’, even if he was on the receiving end of a drill sergeant’s rollicking – and not even cadets from the royal family were spared.
“Mr Lord Greenleaf, you look like a bloody monkey on a stick – SIR!” Terrible oaths, vile abuse, always preceded by ‘Mr’ and ending in ‘sir.’ We looked at each other out of the corners of our eyes and trembled in our huge hobnail boots.
There was a story that an exasperated sergeant had bawled at him (Prince Henry, later Duke of Gloucester) “Mr Prince ‘Enry, if I was your father, I’d ——” a pause while the sergeant realised he could hardly, speaking of his sovereign, finish with the traditional words, “I’d shoot meself.” Instead he bawled, “I’d habdicate – sir!” (Masters).
Unlike modern Officer Cadets, who are technically private soldiers and are paid and clothed as such by the Ministry of Defence, gentlemen cadets were not subject to military law. Their parents paid tuition and boarding fees, in the same way as at a public school or university, and also paid for uniforms (of the same pattern as worn by subaltern officers, but without badges of rank), books, and mathematical instruments. Cadets were between 17 and 19 years old, the course lasted one to two years and Robert would be surrounded by others with backgrounds similar to his own.
The author John Masters attended Sandhurst in the early 1930s and in essence his experience was probably very much the same as Robert’s.
The Master of Wellington.. had once cause a great uproar by describing the RMC as “that little hell over the hill…I began to find out what he meant. The RMC was undoubtedly brutal… it was an amazingly free life but a violent one just the same. No notable intercompany fight took part in our time, but that was not due to any inherent gentleness on our part. But as Masters says, War is a dirty business and we are training these young men for war. If Robert had survived Eton (Victorian public schools were notoriously brutal) he could survive Sandhurst, physically if not intellectually. According to Masters in his first weeks
Bedlam burst open its gates…Wellington was a militarily minded school and we prided ourselves on our drill. This that they were expecting us to do at the RMC was quite different. The sergeant shouted the opening part of each command in a loud but fairly clear voice; on the executive word his voice broke into a meaningless screech. At the screech we were supposed to react as if a bomb had gone off under us. Crash, we hauled the rifles into our sides, simultaneously bawling One! Then we shouted Two, three in cadence, but stood motionless. One! We smashed the rifles on to our left shoulders and smote their butts with the heels of our left hands. Two, three – motionless. One! The right hands cut away to the sides and the movement was completed….for nine weeks the drill parades seemed to be continuous and endless. We must have eaten and slept, and I know we went occasionally to the classrooms and the gymnasium, but I remember only the Square.
When Robert was not learning infantry field drill he would have attended classes in Military Administration, Military Law, Elements of Tactics, Fortifications, Military Topography, riding and gymnastics. It was not all work – during the hunting season leave was easily obtained on Saturdays, and permission to visit London could be obtained from Saturday afternoon to Sunday night. As the end of his period at Sandhurst came near, he would be examined on the knowledge he had acquired over the previous eighteen months and would apply to the governor of Sandhurst for the regiment of his choice. If he chose the Grenadier Guards** for family reasons his appointment would have to be approved by the commander in chief. As his father was a courtier family influence might also have helped here. The culmination of his eighteen months career at Sandhurst was the Sovereign’s Parade.
(To get a sense of how this looked and sounded in the 1890s the last three versions of the film “The Four Feathers” re-enact a Sandhurst parade of the period).
Now he was a soldier of the Queen Empress. Every step of his army career, from ensign to lieutenant colonel would require study, hard work and success in formal examinations along with the fulfilment of his day-to-day duties. He was now subject to Queen’s Regulations, liable to be sent to die for his country and in the process to show others how to die well.
The business of leadership is essentially the manipulation of other people’s emotions. To that end, the young officer had to learn to control his own feelings – and anyone who had been to public school had been hiding his emotions for years. A good officer could raise his men’s spirits from gloom to good humour, a bad officer could count only on sullen acquiescence. This…demanded that the officer develop self-confidence and a public readiness for self-sacrifice…(Paxman p 233).
The British Army officer in the nineteenth century was a man of his time. The social aspects of wealthy society, such as fashion, participation in social activities, and gentlemanly behaviour, were duplicated in the army officer corps. Officers were connected to the ruling class by ties of family, lifestyle, education, and politics, as the officer corps was almost exclusively drawn from the wealthy landowning aristocracy and gentry, the class that would have the most to lose in the event of a coup d’etat. The centre of political power in nineteenth century Britain lay in the landowning class, a remnant of the feudal system of the landlord-tenant relationship, and also the emerging merchant and industrialist middle-class.
Civil leaders and military officers were recruited from a very narrow social group, partly to ensure that the Army and civilian institutions expressed common interests, maintaining the link between the two and the status quo. The lifestyle and attitudes of the landed class and the Army officer were identical; like the Church or Parliament, military service was seen as another way to fulfil a sense of obligation to public service. Often these were the respectable occupations entered into by the younger sons of wealthy families. The fact that the military officer and the politician were of the same social group, along with the stability of the British Government relative to those of the other European counties during this time can explain the absence of revolutionary activities in which the powerful officer corps might be tempted to join.
The officer corps was largely an apolitical force during this time, not because of a lack of interest in political manners in general, but a lack of interest in politics affecting military interest. The Army officer was frequently a dilettante, in the tradition of the amateur officer, and had little career commitment to the army. The military career in itself rarely led to much financial reward, but entrance into this exclusive club offered the young members of the aristocracy and wealthy landowners an avenue to status
The relationship between the officer corps and the landed class also acted as a socializing agent for the young men of the wealthy. For many young aristocrats who did not intend to make it a permanent career, the Army regiment was effectively a gentlemen’s club, in which they gained for themselves a gentlemanly air and the necessary contacts for success in later life. As Cannadine says “because they were the leisured class they were also the fighting class, duty bound and conditioned to protect civil society from invasion and disruption. Honour and glory, courage and chivalry, gallantry and loyalty, leadership and horsemanship were quintessential patrician attributes, inculcated in the country house and learned on the hunting field.” The army was one useful training ground for an eventual career in politics or running the family estate, (Robert’s eventual destiny); and the discipline of the regiment and the demands of warfare reinforced that noblesse oblige that was demanded of the men of Robert’s class.
The Grenadier Guards though ranking first in army seniority, are not the oldest of the three; but by Charles II’s own order in 1660 “Our own regiment of foot guards shall be held and esteemed the oldest regiment” and was one of the most socially exclusive in the British Army in the 19th century – along with the Life Guards and the Household Cavalry “a regimental haven of social security” (Cannadine). The better British regiments (Guards, Household Cavalry) had tremendous social cachet, and class was a huge factor in the relatively small officer cadre of the Victorian era. To be an officer in the British Army in the Victorian period usually required a certain amount of private income to supplement the government pay. In some regiments the extra income required was significant – Guards regiments, some of the elite Rifles units…and of course the cavalry. Mess (dinner and drinks) bills were a high cost, in addition to the cost of uniforms, weapons and accoutrements, none of which were provided by the State, and this acted as an effective social filter to ensure that only those with a private income (the nobility and gentry) were able to join these regiments; and thus preserved their social exclusivity and restricted army service to the classes whose natural occupation it was.
If Robert had wanted peacetime adventures in foreign climes then the Grenadiers were not the regiment to choose. There were three battalions and they rotated a year of garrison duty in the Mediterranean (Gibraltar or Malta) with ceremonial duties in London or Windsor. Such duties would have allowed an active social life only restricted by the amount of money he had and the demands of his duties. Being a soldier was no bar to being part of Society or taking part in the social and sexual pleasures it offered a young single man of Robert’s rank – the size of the army meant that it was a given that whoever you were, you probably were friends with or related to a soldier or former soldier. Robert must have had a fairly active and extensive social acquaintance through being a soldier, his cousin being a diplomat and his father a courtier, so there would be houseparties and shoots and balls to attend when military duties allowed; and as a young aristocratic Victorian male, he was regarded as a carefree bachelor to whom only single women of his own class were off limits; whatever his personal sexual behaviour, he benefited from a universal double standard that held women should be chaste, men were expected to be experienced.
As a newly commissioned officer the young Lord Downton would have been taken in hand by the senior ensign and taught the traditions of the regiment and how he should and should not behave (among other things, Guards officers did not carry their own suitcases, smoke Virginia cigarettes or reverse while waltzing). Robert would probably have agreed that the young officer joins his regiment with the consciousness that it will be his home for the best years of his life…he shares with his regiment joy and sorrow, war and peace, pleasant and unpleasant garrisons but always in the circle of his comrades….(Grierson) and looked forward to what his army career was to bring in the way of challenge. Every step of that career from Ensign to Lieutenant Colonel would be taken as a member of his chosen regiment.
1-4. Pictures of Lord Grantham taken from various fan sites
5. Grenadier Guards at Windsor in the 1890s
6. Officers of 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards at the Modder River 1899
7. Colour and Drums 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards 1896