Next Wednesday 5 October, General Sir Nicholas Houghton will be installed as the 160th Constable of the Tower of London. We’ll be broadcasting the ceremony on Facebook Live at 6.40pm so be sure to tune in!
Who is the Constable of the Tower?
The role of the Constable is the most senior appointment at the Tower of London dating back to within a few years of the Norman Conquest. The office was established by William the Conqueror c.1078 and the holder was then known as the Keeper of the Tower. It was not until 100 years later that the title was changed to Constable. The first Keeper is thought to be Geoffrey de Mandeville, a powerful Norman baron who fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. At first, the office was a hereditary right of the de Mandeville family but that right was confiscated by the king as a punishment after William de Mandeville allowed the first prisoner of the Tower, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, to escape. One of the earliest non-hereditary appointees was Thomas Becket, later Archbishop of Canterbury, the only holder of the office to date to be made a saint.
Constables of the Tower are now appointed from senior military officers, the most famous being the Duke of Wellington. The ‘Iron Duke’, became Constable in 1826 and remained in the role for 26 years. The Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are now on display, was built while he was Constable and named after his famous victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He reformed the Body of Yeoman Warders by establishing the criteria that they must be ex-military, drained the moat and demanded the closure of the Royal Menagerie.
What does the Constable do?
Historically, the Constable was in charge of the operation, upkeep and security of the Tower and all those who lived and worked within it. Amongst his particular duties was the safekeeping of the Tower’s prisoners. Today the role of the Constable is largely ceremonial.
Did you know?
Historically, in return for his service, the Constable was given the right to seize any swan that swam under London Bridge; any horse, ox, cow, pig or sheep that fell into the Thames from the bridge and any cart that fell into the Tower of London’s moat. For every foot of livestock that stumbled into the Tower’s moat the Constable received a penny, and any cart that fell in became his property. Also all the herbage growing on Tower Hill belonged to the Constable!
Every ship that came upstream to the city had to moor at Tower Wharf to unload a portion of its cargo for the Constable. These included oysters, mussels, cockles, rushes and wine. This tradition is still upheld today at the annual Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues. When a ship of the Royal Navy visits the Port of London, the Captain, with an escort from the ship’s company, presents a barrel of wine (the “Dues”) to the Constable on Tower Green.
Fanfares, processions and a ceremony all take place as part of the installation, as the Lord Chamberlain, representing HM The Queen, hands the Queen’s Keys (the Tower’s golden keys) to the Constable as a symbol of his custodianship of the Tower.