It was known as “taking the Queen's shilling,” the payment offered by a recruiting officer to entice a young man to enlist in the army. Newly recruited soldiers received this first payment — “the Queen's shilling” — not always from the recruiter's hand, but by tradition, sunk at the bottom of a tankard of ale. Once the recruit drank the ale, he was committed to serving and received a uniform (the cost of which was usually deducted from his pay), took an oath to the Queen, and then with little training went off to fight overseas. Life expectancy was short.
Lord Mountjoy, Queen Elizabeth's general in Ireland, in 1601 commented on the mortality rate of his soldiers: “It has ever been seen that more than three parts of the four of these [men] do never return.”
Foreigners and Travel
During Elizabeth's reign, partly because of the frequent armed skirmishes taking place in Europe, England became wary of foreigners. As a result, unless they were in the armed forces, young people were discouraged from going abroad. The truth is, only the wealthy could afford to travel anyway. A poor person worked as a servant, or on the land, or became a bandit or beggar.
Yet, ironically, during the last twenty years of Elizabeth's reign, the number of soldiers engaged in military service meant that more Englishmen traveled overseas than ever before.
Italy, especially, was off limits — because the pope, a powerful political figure at this time, lived there and because Catholicism was considered to be heretically infectious. Young men could lose their inheritance and social standing and come under serious official scrutiny just for traveling to Italy.
Selected for Service
When recruits were urgently needed, men were conscripted, or “pressed,” often against their will. In King Henry IV, Part I, Falstaff describes the tricks he used to get extra money from those he pressed:
I press me none but good householders, yeomen's sons, inquire me out contracted bachelors, such as had been asked twice of the banns — such a
commodity of warm slaves as had as lief hear the devil as a drum … and they
have bought out their services.
In other words, he pressed only those who were willing to bribe him to let them go — ending up with the leftovers, a group of such “scarecrows” that he is ashamed to be seen with them.
All men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were eligible to serve and had to appear at musters in town squares, on village greens, and at other places, where unlucky individuals would be selected for service. Moreover, many of these men were used as “food for powder,” as Falstaff put it (King Henry IV, Part I). Only about 20 percent of the army was trained. The rest were simply given equipment and had to learn how to be a soldier while in the field.
The Nature of Warfare
The medieval feudal system was breaking down, and the development of gunpowder ushered in a new era of warfare. The maces and lances of knights in armor and longbows and crossbows of archers gave way to the more accurate cannons and mortars and ranks of soldiers wielding fuse-lit muskets and small arms, which changed the nature of warfare.
Many experienced soldiers were reluctant to give up their bows, partly because the technology of gunpowder weaponry was still in its infancy. Guns often exploded after being fired a few times because of poor metal-working, and the stress and heat caused compressed explosions inside the breech. For good reason, many soldiers took to turning their heads away while firing, thus missing their targets. It was much easier to train musketeers than bowmen, although a bow could be more accurate in the hands of an expert.