In 1078, William the Conqueror appointed Geoffrey de Mandeville to be the Constable of the Tower of London, the most senior position at the fortress, charged to watch over it in the King’s absence. Since this first appointment to the role, the position of Constable has remained highly prestigious: four Archbishops of Canterbury have held the office alongside the Duke of Wellington who was Constable for 26 years. Such an honourable role did not come without its perks. Between tolls from passing ships and ownership of fallen cattle, the Constable made quite a profit. Today, many of these perks no longer exist, but they are remembered in the form of an extravagant ceremony, performed once a year at the Tower, to honour the Constable’s Dues.
Among the original benefits dating from the Middle Ages, the Constable received fees from state prisoners at the Tower and was entitled to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames. They could keep all livestock that fell from Tower Bridge into the river and owned any passing swans. For every foot of livestock that stumbled into the Tower moat, the Constable received a penny and any cart that fell in became his property. They received 1s a year from all ships carrying herring to London; 6s 8d a year from all boats fishing for sprat between the Tower and the sea; and 2d from each pilgrim who came to London by the river to worship at the shrine of St. James.
Perhaps the most significant perk was the toll collected from ships passing up the Thames into London. Historically, goods ships travelling upstream would have to moor at Tower Wharf and unload a portion of their cargo for the Constable as a form of toll. Such bounty might have included oysters, mussels, cockles or rushes (as much as could be held within their arms), as well as kegs of rum or wine.
As river traffic increased and taxes became more regulated, these payments of goods progressively reduced until they were no longer enforced. Yet the memory of these rights was upheld with a ceremonial offering presented from visiting warships.
Today, the Constable’s ‘dues’ amount to one symbolic keg of wine or rum given once or twice a year, accompanied by the grandest spectacle of a presentation ceremony.
The ancient ritual begins with the Ship’s Company arriving on foot at the Tower to be challenged by an axe-wielding Yeoman Guard; the gate is slammed shut in the face of the captain. The naval officer explains their purpose and the party are welcomed in. Accompanied by an escort of Yeoman Warders in State Dress and a Corps of Drums, they make their way through the precincts to Tower Green where the keg is presented and speeches are made. After the colourful ceremony has ended, the Constable, the Commanding Officer and invited guests retire to the New Armouries Banqueting Suite for a feast and a taste of the bounty. (Probably just a sip; this one has to last all year.)