The Constable of the Tower of London
History of the Constables
Constables of the Tower of London were typically leading nobility and courtiers. In the medieval period four constables were Archbishops of Canterbury. The Constables were responsible for running the site and acquired legal and financial privileges over time including;
- Collecting tolls on selected goods from ships entering London and being entitled to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames
- Regulating Jewish affairs in the Capital until the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290
- Exercising legal authority in the area around the Tower known as the Tower Liberties and benefitting from fees paid by state prisoners for their maintenance
George Legge, 1st Baron Dartmouth
Legge was appointed as Constable of the Tower in 1685 during the reign of James II. He knew the Tower intimately having served there as a Captain in 1669 as well as holding the office of Master General of the Ordnance since 1682.
However in July 1691, Legge was committed as a prisoner to the Tower, charged with sending intelligence across the Channel to the Jacobite opposition. He was stripped of all his offices by William III, even though he had taken the oath of allegiance to the new king and queen.
His imprisonment in the Tower was brief. On 25 October 1691, Dartmouth died of apoplexy and was buried with his father in Holy Trinity Minories.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
Wellington was appointed as Constable in 1826 during the reign of George IV. He was a major influence on the Tower: draining the moat, reorganising the establishment of the Yeomen Warders and overseeing the building of the Waterloo Barracks.
He had strong opinions about the role of the Tower and 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.
Queen Elizabeth I
Constables of the Tower and their officers could exercise considerable power over the fortunes of state prisoners. However, the strict treatment of prisoners could lead to problems in the future.
Sir John Gage was Constable of the Tower when Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned there by her sister Mary I in March 1554. According to some contemporary sources, Elizabeth lived in constant fear of being murdered by her gaolers. As a consequence of her experiences, Elizabeth I supposedly vowed never to appoint a Constable of the Tower.
*Images © courtesy of The Board of Trustees of the Armouries
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