The Constable is the most senior appointment at the Tower, and historically the office has been held by great lords, spiritual or temporal. There have been Constables of the Tower since Geoffrey de Mandeville was first appointed by William the Conqueror (1066-87) in 1078, supposedly as a reward for his distinguished service at the battle of Hastings. Typically the leading nobility and courtiers were appointed by royal letters patent. Documentary examples of these formal appointments exist to this day. In the medieval period four Archbishops of Canterbury held the office, perhaps most famously Thomas à Becket. Like lesser constables of castles the Constable of the Tower was nominally responsible for the running of the site when the monarch was not in residence; nevertheless, from quite early on the burden of the day to day running of the site devolved to a deputy known as the Lieutenant of the Tower and his small office of clerks to oversee administrative matters, including acting as an accounting office and staffing the Constable’s own court of law.
A residence was provided for the constable, but it is unusual today for the holder to reside permanently in the Tower; whilst historically their accommodation seems to have moved about the site. Over time Constables acquired a variety of legal and financial privileges including collecting tolls on selected goods from ships entering London, regulating Jewish affairs in the capital until their expulsion from England in 1290, exercising legal authority in the area around the Tower known as the Tower Liberties, and being entitled to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames. They also benefitted from fees paid by state prisoners for their maintenance, the ownership of cattle tumbling from London Bridge, and passing swans. These ancient rights and privileges remained a source of interest to antiquarian scholars and relevant documents were published as part of their works. John Bailey in his book, History and Antiquities of the Tower of London, published in 1825, devoted a handful of pages specifically to the Office of Constable and within an appendix included key documents relating to the history of the appointment.
Although Constables of the Tower exercised considerable power over the fortunes of state prisoners and were able to secure fees from them, their harsh treatment could sometimes rebound. Sir Henry Bedingfield, a committed Catholic who was appointed Constable by Queen Mary (1553-58) in May 1554, was responsible for Princess Elizabeth during her brief period of imprisonment in the Tower before she was conducted down to Woodstock. According to contemporary sources Elizabeth lived in constant fear of murder by her Tower gaolers. As a consequence Elizabeth supposedly vowed never to appoint anyone to the office of Constable. Bedingfield reportedly tried to apologise to Elizabeth for his conduct after her accession was advised by her to stay away from court in future. Few Constables, in fact, resided at the Tower after the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603).
As aristocratic men medieval Constables of the Tower very often had substantial military experience in their own right. John Holland, Duke of Exeter, for example, had fought at the battle of Agincourt. That tradition has been retained in more recent times as well. Since 1784 the Constable has been a senior Army officer, usually with the rank of Field Marshal. The appointment was traditionally for life, or the sovereign’s pleasure. Moreover, many Constables have retained an active interest in the administration and security of the site. Appointed Constable from 1826 to 1852 the Duke of Wellington exerted a major influence on the Tower, draining the moat, reorganizing the establishment of the Yeomen Warders, and overseeing the building of the Waterloo Barracks and Salvin’s extensive restoration of the site. In particular, he sanctioned the last major attempt to restore the water-filled moat, still regarded as an important means of defence. Wellington, however, had definite opinions about the role of the Tower and did not favour its development into a museum, preferring the Royal Repository at Woolwich as more suitable for the prizes from Paris in 1815. However he was insistent that all the guns captured in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo should be preserved. To this day the Tower mounts a battery of Waterloo guns outside the Waterloo Barracks to the north of the White Tower.
Since 1933 the Constable’s appointment has been a five-year tenure. His installation is the public celebration of the appointment, and is conducted on Tower Green before an invited audience. The Lord Chamberlain hands the keys of the Queen’s House to the new Constable, who then entrusts them to the Resident Governor, who is responsible for the day to day running of HM Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London.
While some of the former material privileges of the office have lapsed, the Constable still retains the right of direct access to the monarch. The historic toll of wine or goods paid by ships entering the pool of London is celebrated today in the Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues. Royal Navy ships mooring by HMS Belfast bring into the Tower a ceremonial keg slung from an oar and accompanied by the ship’s company. At Tower Green they are met by Tower officials in full dress uniform and the keg is handed over. Both parties and guests then retire to a celebratory lunch.
Dr. Malcolm Mercer
Curator of Tower History
W D Raeburn, ‘The Officers of the Tower: The Constable, Officers and the Yeoman Warders’, in The Tower of London: its Buildings and Institutions, ed., J. Charlton (London, HMSO, 1978), pp. 74-81
John Bayley, The History and Antiquities of the Tower of London (London, 2 volumes, 1825)
E Impey & G Parnell, The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History (London, 2000)
P Hammond, ‘The Epitome of England’s History’, Royal Armouries Yearbook 4 (1999)
W J Sheils, ‘Bedingfield family (per. 1476–1760)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); online edn, May 2009 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/68203
Many older guns have a form of safety that prevents the gun from being fired when the hammer is pulled halfway back. Sometimes a fault develops which allows the gun to fire when the hammer is in the half-cocked position, before a proper aim can be taken.