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Officers, Swords and Gentlemen


Lantern Swinger
I'm sure this has been covered, but can't see any forums on it, so here goes.

1. Why are RN Officers, not considered gentlemen, or is it because the RN tried to move away from the 'Gentleman' tag as a requirement for entry.

2. What is up with the whole sword thing and why we don't hook them up?

I have seen a lot of arguements over both topics, and the only conclusions I have come to is a) The Navy no longer wanted to have its Officers' borne out of money/influence but rather needed a skilled person that could be trained and developed, and b) the sword carrying came from not being able to board ships, carry sword and scabbard all at the same time.....

I have heard all the stories about Officers' being disgraced post some mutiny but can find no real historical evidence to back it up....

Any thoughts?
From what I remember, you're right about the scabbard not being hooked up - having it loose meant that you could draw the sword and throw away the scabbard when boarding, so it wouldn't get in the way.

As for the gentleman thing, I think it was decided in the thread that most officers didn't come from the nobility and joined as Middies (the lowest of the low).


War Hero
Answer from here: thanks to PartTimer

"Dragging swords and "officers but not gentlemen"
Lt-Commander (Retd) Nick Bradshaw, who lectures at HMS Drake and is a fellow of Exeter University, discussed two naval traditions: the wearing of ceremonial swords low - dragging on the ground - and the description of naval officers as officers and not gentlemen. He writes:

Army officers (and RAF officers who copied the Army arrangement) wear their swords close-buckled to the belt, so that the scabbard is fixed in a position. Naval officers have a sword scabbard which is attached to the sword belt by two leashes, one about nine inches long and one about two feet long. Officers of the Day wear a sword belt, but no sword, as a mark of their duty status.

Naval officers could not handle a sword and scabbard in battle when boarding enemy ships or climbing. Army soldiers fought in prepared positions. Naval officers wanted to draw their sword and throw the scabbard out of the way, and have it completely unattached. (It was for the same reason that the Navy was the first to cut the tails from the tailcoat leaving them with the jacket which now survives as the mess kit jacket.)

As for naval officers not being gentlemen, this is often taken as an indication of inferiority, but in fact the Navy made it an edict that gentlemen officers should be discouraged. In peacetime, the British Navy needed about 4,000 men, but in time of war this number expanded to 20,000 and these had to be trained men, taken up from the whole naval community, merchantmen, colliers, fishing vessels, and barges - and as the enemy was the Continent, those interested in military service congregated in areas facing the enemy, the east coast and especially London. These were the pools of seamen, a term still used today. Other pools were found in trade ports such as Bristol and Liverpool.

By the late 1600s, the Navy had declared itself to be against the idea of gentlemen and had come very close to discouraging recruitment of officers on the basis of social status, reaffirming its desire to appoint based on skill. The Army continued to appoint on the basis of patronage. In the Navy, the worth of an officer was not regarded as automatic if he were a gentleman, but the accolade 'Naval officer' carried its own stamp of quality. It was not considered second best to be a naval officer; it was not better; it was unique.

Equality of opportunity at point of entry, a modern discovery, has always been a naval axiom and still is, as witnessed by the work of the Admiralty Interview Board. As a result, social mobility was better in the Navy than the Army, where it was rare to have a junior commission without paying for it. The Army was very much the preserve of junior sons of the nobility, and their organisation was presided over, especially in the time of George III, by the commander-in-chief at Horse Guards.

A naval officer joined as a teenager, learned his trade, took his examinations, and was promoted through skill. It was an unhealthy, dangerous job; ratings often were offered service in the Navy as an alternative to being hanged. Many died, many were killed, and few made the highest positions and were recognised by being invited to a Royal levee and earning social status. Famous aristocrats joined, of course; Cochrane, for example. But they did so on merit, and worked hard to earn it.

Further reading
R.J. MacDonald, History of the Dress of the Royal Navy (Crecy Publishing, 1986)
William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History: from the Earliest Times to 1900 (Chatham Publishing, 1996)


War Hero
boredwafu said:
clanky said:
This ones been done sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo many times

Then can you be so kind and point me in the right direction.


Theres a search button at the top of the page shippers.


Lantern Swinger
The passage cited is slightly inaccurate in that while the Navy was very egalitarian in the mid-18th century, for a while in the 19th century it was difficult to get one's commission even after one 'passed for lieutenant' if one did not to 'pass for a gentleman' as well.
Also, the status thing was used as a bit of a carrot - once you were lucky enough to be granted your commission it granted you the status of "gentleman" in society at large - pretty useful for ambitious young lads of poor-ish yeoman stock!

Look back at many of the census returns for 1841 & 51 and you will find a fair few entries "Lieutenant, RN & Gentleman" or "Gentleman Lt, RN".

hammockhead said:
The passage cited is slightly inaccurate in that while the Navy was very egalitarian in the mid-18th century, for a while in the 19th century it was difficult to get one's commission even after one 'passed for lieutenant' if one did not to 'pass for a gentleman' as well.

There is no doubt that the Victorian and Edwardian periods were the most socially divisive in our history. The advent of the naval colleges made the old way for the sons of ncos to get commisions unavailable and did generate a period where officer status was very much in the hands of the 'gentlemen', they even had a peckin order dependant on what kind of officer you were, with engineers being the lowest of the low and it took up till the fifties really before ability and potential became the key elements again.

Mind you whilst the navy never went down the path of purchasing commisions it did rely heavily on patronage, but because of the ethos of professionalism that actually did open the doors to many working seamen and sons of serving crewman, as many captains took on the sons of trusted sailors as midshipmen.


War Hero
Although not an answer to the ? may I recommend viewig the Hornblower RN dvd series . About 14 hrs viewing but hard to switch off once you start



I hope this answers some points and put this topic to bed finally, the sources are various and Im certainly not taking credit for all this, but I hope some find it interesting, I know in parts it repeats what has already been posted. I have done a considerable amount of research into this topic, but another particularly good article was written by Lieutenant Tom Lewis, RAN College, Jervis Bay. He was kind enough to send me a copy of his finished research:

There seems to be an oft-repeated story about our Royal Navy that following some disgrace within the RN – perhaps mutinies - an order was once given that naval officers could not wear their swords, as they were not gentlemen. Instead, they would have to carry them.

This at first seems a little strange, as there don’t seem to be too many mutinies within the RN where officers disgraced themselves. The Spithead mutiny on 1797 was confined to sailors, not officers, although it might be said that officers’ mismanagement led to that situation. The rumour also suggests that this was a Victorian decision – perhaps made by Queen Victoria herself - which sounds strange coming so long after the famous RN mutiny.

Officers’ swords within the RN are "carried" to an extent in that they hang from two material supports or slings. They can be hooked up to a small eyelet on the sword belt, but on parade they are carried. Sailors’ cutlasses, when carried on parade, always are hooked up to a belt.

I also thought there were plenty of regiments within the British Army where officers "carried" swords rather than "wore" them on a belt attachment. Nevertheless a few sailors have told me that they were told in their training that it is especially Navy officers who carry their swords - and for that ancient reason. Swords seemed to have begun their time on board ships from since the invention of the weapon. Naturally, the higher in status a mariner was, the better weapon he would be expected to possess. In particular, the “mark of a gentleman†for many hundreds of years in British society was sword, probably dating from the days of knightley vows where the knight’s sword was his most prized and revered weapon. It was the sword that made him knight, after all, in the ceremony in which he was “dubbed’ by tapping him on both shoulders with the naked blade. To it therefore was attached his honour. Even today at the commencement of a court-martial an officer’s sword is taken from him or her, and signifies at the end of the trial whether the office is guilty or not – by being presented on a table when the accused is brought back into court after the presiding board’s deliberations. If found not guilty, the sword hilt is towards the officer, signifying that one’s honour and duty can be taken up again. If guilty, the point is presented.

The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England gives some background to how one carried the weapon; with interesting comments about wearing swords on the back and shoulder and several references to wearing them on the belt, but not to hangings. The wearing of a sword back in days when it was more than a badge, but also a weapon, is fairly well documented. Scabbards can be seen from the days of the Greek hoplite, worn suspended at the waist. Sometimes the weight of a heavy sword was helped by a frog, a leather belt worn over the opposing shoulder from which the belt was supported. Figures in the Bayeux tapestry dating from the 11th century show swords being worn in scabbards on belts around the waist, with a hanging strap preventing the chape - the metal cap at the bottom of the scabbard – from dragging on the ground. Swords, or even a second sword, were sometimes worn over the shoulder down the back, ready for a high-handed draw . This is after the fashion of the Roman cavalryman’s weapon, the spatha.

For many hundreds of years then, swords were used for defence, and anyone who could own one would carry it, especially on the road, as a measure to be used against highwaymen and the like. However, a sword needed some training to use, and it was expensive, and so it was the mark of someone better-off than the norm – a “gentleman†by this measure.

Swept-hilt rapier of around 1620 Incidentally, we may note that a sword was indeed the preferred method of close-quarter defence, as it is most versatile in the way it can be used for both defence and attack, and is extremely maneuverable as well, in the way an axe or spear is not. The early versions of firearms were both expensive and unreliable, and so right up until the days of mass-production of guns, the sword was preferred. By the 19th century it had evolved into the smallsword, a smaller version of the long pointed blade of the rapier. For those who were lesser fencers, an edged weapon was preferred, and indeed in close quarter fighting the cut-and-slash was the norm. So the sabre was therefore the weapon of choice for naval officers, with the less decorated and less well made cutlass the sailors’ weapon.

It may be noted in several illustrations of the time in David Howarth's The Nelson Touch, that officers are wearing their swords in a hanging fashion from slings, but also – significantly – officers are wearing swords suspended from belts. There are further such examples in Dudley Jarrett’s British Naval Dress. This perhaps puts paid to suggestions that Victoria ordered naval officers not to wear swords via a casual remark, as one of my oral sources suggests: "they are not gentlemen", simply because Victoria came to the throne well after Nelson’s day. In summary there are a variety of illustrations showing officers in all sorts of poses: carrying their swords, or seated with the sword obviously detached from slings or belt, perhaps so they can be shown with their hand on the sword-hilt – a particularly martial posture.

In ‘The Wearing of Swords’ the authoritative PGW Annis makes no reference to officers being made to ‘carry’ swords. He does make some detailed references to sword belt slings, and notes that after 1780 “unequal slings became the rule…the rear sling being longer (often much longer) than the other.†(80)

Graeme Arbuckle, in Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy, refers to the rumour, giving some idea that it is widespread. He thinks:

…it is doubtful that the Admiralty would recommend any change in uniform that would bring ridicule on the Royal Navy. It is most improbable that trailing one's sword was a mark of disgrace. It was the great discovery of the seventeenth century that the 'esprit de corps' and fighting spirit of a body of troops could be greatly increased by drilling them together and clothing them alike. Any mark of disgrace worn under order would contravene this principle. Moreover, the history of uniform shows that any item of clothing not approved of by those who wear it doesn't survive.

In discussions on the Maritime Historians’ Internet Mailing List, Bill Schleihauf makes what I think is the right judgement in the question:

The trailing sword was, unquestionably, a sign of pride. In fact, the sword would have been no mark of distinction at all unless it was trailed, for all arms wore the same pattern belt. The cavalry regiments have always been splendidly dressed, with the light horse being the most dashing. To draw attention to themselves while on foot, troopers and officers alike let their spurs jangle and their steel-shod scabbards rattle over the cobblestones. This is the origin of the phrase 'sabre rattling', which denotes a swaggering, bullying attitude.

So the argument goes that everyone wore trailing swords, which had to be carried. So it is the case, perhaps, that all military personnel once wore their swords in a hanging fashion, with the slings as long as possible, so as to draw attention to the wearer. The army personnel of the world have now lifted their swords to their belts - as no doubt soldiers often had to do for practicality’s sake, with their practice of drill – but the navy still carries theirs, perhaps because they rarely wore swords, and therefore never saw a need to change. The air forces, I suppose, originally mostly emerging from armies, would no doubt copy that model. Captain James Goldrick, RAN, has also pointed out to me that having a “detached†sword makes it a lot easier to carry whilst being transported in a small boat.

Indeed, according to Boasanquet’s The Naval Officer’s Sword, there seems to have been a little effort to regulate the trailing of the weapons:

…in 1856 the blade returned to its former width of 1 3/8 inches and the scabbard to two lockets, each with a ring. This made necessary a return to the two long belt-slings of different lengths, so that the sword would hang at a slight forward angle. This has continued ever since. (12)

Certainly there were variations made in sword-belts throughout the time the Royal Navy has regulated naval uniforms – as they did reasonably firmly from 1748 onwards. After 1856 it seems that officers wore two different types, which evolved to become a full-dress and a “plain†version. The former – now confined to Admirals - has gold embroidered acorns and oak leaves, with the usual sword belt for an officer having three gold embroidered stripes. Incidentally, this pattern was that worn by captains and commanders from 1832-1939.


Annis, PGW. “The Wearing of Swordsâ€. Naval Swords. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1970.

Arbuckle, Graeme. Customs and Traditions of the Canadian Navy. Canada: Nimbus Publishing Ltd, 1984.

Boasanquet, Captain Henry TA. The Naval Officer’s Sword. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1955.

Davidson, HR Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Goldrick, Captain James, RAN. Email of 30 November 2000, on the wearing of swords in boats.

Howarth, David. The Nelson Touch. Collins: London, 1969.

Jarrett, Dudley. British Naval Dress. London: JM Dent and Sons Ltd, 1960.

Rodger, NAM. The Wooden World. New York: Norton, 1986.

Royal Australian Naval College. “Guide to Parade and Ceremonial Procedures†from ABR 1834A. Canberra.

Davidson, HR Ellis. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Winton, John. Hurrah for the Life of a Sailor. London: Michael Joseph, 1977.

The present ceremony of hoisting colours (Union Jack at the jackstaff, and White Ensign at the ensign staff) each morning, with a guard and band paraded, was instituted by Lord St. Vincent in 1797 after the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore


Lantern Swinger
Gentlemen, I thank you. Blood, thanks for the references and description, just what I was after. Time to go and research myself with an excellent starting point.

BW :thumright:


War Hero
Book Reviewer
I've just taken the world's best grandson round the Mary Rose (plus piccy by Victory with THE signal flying). There's a scabbard recovered from M Rose in a case WITH ITS SLINGS. The pongo thing was (I have read) the child of an officer called Sam Browne who had lost his left arm. Somehow it got incorporated in pongo khaki Service Dress which came in early in the 20th century. No doubt some brown job can put me right on that.

PS Pongo General Officers in their (Victorian) full dress wear slings.


Lantern Swinger
Have discussed this before. To further the excellent reasons given earlier, the present arangement alows an Officer to sit down in a boat wearing his sword and was introduced for that reason. When the current pattern sword was originally introduced, around 200 years ago, it was hung from a belt by two short straps secured to two rings on the top brass. The second ring was removed to the lower brass a few years later.

I have noticed that the Black Watch "drag their swords" . They did mutiny against the Crown. (A long time ago.) Perhaps that is where all this came from.

As to the Gentlemen bit, please forgive this old passage from Punch (I think) trying to distinguish between various Naval Officers between the wars.

The RNVR, Gentlemen trying to be sailors

The RNR, Sailors trying to be Gentlemen.

The RN, Neither trying to be both.


War Hero
Book Reviewer
Further to this, the pongo officer's Sam Browne belt was used during WW1 to carry the officer's revolver holster, his trench torch (used to have part of one of these that belonged to a great-uncle) & no doubt other kit as well.

Another aside - an admiral remarked to me some years ago that female officers ought not to have swords as their hips would make the scabbard stick out which would be awkward for the person on their left. His study of women's hips merely showed him possessed of a seaman's eye for detail of course.


Lantern Swinger
Having Instructed quite a few female YOs in sword drill I can only concur thar the Old Boy was correct. When marching with the sword drawn and therefor with the scabbard hooked up they do have to swing the disengaged (left) arm some what further away from the body than a chap. but at least they wear trousers with a sword, unlike the other junior services.
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