The Constables of the Tower of London

The role of the Constable is the most senior appointment at the Tower of London and dates back to the time of William the Conqueror and the Norman Conquest. On Wednesday 5 October, General Sir Nicholas Houghton will be installed as the 160th Constable of the Tower in an historic ceremony, broadcast on Facebook Live from 6.40pm – be sure to join us!

Here we take a look at some of the most famous Constables of the Tower from the last 900 years.

First Constable of the Tower

Geoffrey de Mandeville, a French knight who distinguished himself at the Battle of Hastings, was appointed the first Constable c.1078 by William the Conqueror. The holder was then known as the Keeper of the Tower and it was not until 100 years later that the title was changed to Constable. 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.

Geoffrey de Mandeville, thought to be the first ever Keeper of the Tower - a position later referred to as the Constable. Image © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo
Geoffrey de Mandeville, thought to be the first ever Keeper of the Tower – a position later referred to as the Constable. Image © Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy Stock Photo

Dismissed from his post

John de Cromwell, a Constable during the reign of the unpopular Edward II (r.1307-1327), was tried in the Tower for abusing his power. He was eventually dismissed from his post for allowing the Tower buildings to fall into such a state of disrepair that it rained on Queen Isabella whilst she was giving birth to her daughter Joan in the White Tower!

Responsible for famous prisoners

Sir William Kingston, Constable during the reign of Henry VIII, was responsible for the incarceration and fate of some of the Tower’s most famous prisoners, including Queen Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More. In order to keep the king fully informed of Anne’s words and actions, he installed his wife into her apartments as a spy.

Plans for the Tower

Towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, Sir John Peyton was Constable and in his alarm at the state of the Tower’s disrepair, in 1597 he commissioned the first definitive plan of the Tower to make the extent known to the Queen. During his tenure, two high profile prisoners escaped, including the Jesuit priest John Gerard. When he left the post, a frustrated Peyton said, “the Tower is full of trouble, danger, charge and vexation.”

“Before you can say Jack Robinson…”

Sir John Robinson, Lord Mayor of London in 1662, was also Constable of the Tower. He is said to have inspired the phrase ‘before you can say Jack Robinson’. Sir John held a judiciary appointment in the City of London and was known for being able to condemn a felon, have him transported to the Tower and command the execution ‘faster than you can say Jack Robinson’.

Sir John Robinson © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Sir John Robinson © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Iron Duke

The Duke of Wellington became Constable in 1826 and remained in the role for 26 years. A national hero from the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke was a highly influential Constable and ruled during a time of immense change for the Tower. He reformed the Body of Yeoman Warders by establishing the criteria that they must be ex-military, he closed the pubs and shops inside the Tower in order to turn it into an efficient military installation and he built the Victorian gothic building, the Waterloo Barracks. He also drained the moat which, by 1841,  was ‘impregnated with putrid animal and excrementitious matter…and emitting a most obnoxious smell’. The duke drained it and created the dry ditch, or fosse, that visitors see today. He also oversaw the move of the Royal Menagerie to become London Zoo in Regent’s Park, and his tenure saw the Tower establish itself as a major tourist attraction. The Royal Armouries’ store within the Tower still holds Wellington’s official jacket as Constable with its buttons featuring the Tower’s image.

Portrait of the Duke of Wellington © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust
Portrait of the Duke of Wellington © Courtesy of the Trustees of the Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

After Wellington

Since the death of the Duke of Wellington, the appointment has been filled by distinguished soldiers, among whom have been Field Marshals Viscount Combermere, Lord Napier of Magdala, Sir Evelyn Wood VC and Lord Methuen.

In 1933, the tenure of the appointment was altered from life to five years’ duration. Field Marshals Lord Chetwode, Viscount Alanbrooke, Lord Wilson, Earl Alexander, Sir Gerald Templer, Sir Richard Hull, Sir Geoffrey Baker, General Sir Peter Hunt, Field Marshals Sir Roland Gibbs, Sir John Stanier and Lord Inge, late Constables, served under the new conditions. Earl Wavell also served for two years up to the time of his death in 1950.

Join us: Wednesday 5 October at 6.40pm on Facebook Live as we broadcast the Constable’s Installation from the Tower.

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