Constable’s Dues

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Rolling out the ceremonial barrel

Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues, Tower of London


Constables Dues ceremony
Two crew members from the French destroyer Latouche-Tréville carrying the ceremonial barrel

In the Middle Ages the officers of the Tower of London extracted all sorts of excise duties and payments in kind – many of which weren’t much more than legalised bribes for supposed protection – from the captains of vessels sailing up the Thames to the City.

As river traffic became ever more dense – and a spirit of fair dealing increas­ingly prevailed – such demands were progress­ively reduced and ultimately done away with altogether, with the exception of a single ceremonial remnant.

Once or twice a year, when the appro­priate oppor­tunity arises, the crew of a visiting warship presents a keg of rum, brandy or fine wine to the constable of the Tower in an elaborate and ancient ritual of the kind the British proudly believe they do better than anyone else.

Very recently, foreign frigates have begun to parti­cipate, beginning with the USS Halyburton in 2009 and continuing the following year with the French destroyer Latouche-Tréville.

The ceremony commences with the ship’s captain leading his men and women to the outer gate of the Tower, which is promptly slammed shut in his face by an axe-wielding yeoman warder – as shown in the photo­graph below. The captain explains that his sole intention is to bestow a small barrel of booze upon the Beefeaters, whereupon he is welcomed with open arms and he leads his crew on a circuit of the Tower precincts, accom­panied by a marching band. Two matelots carry on their shoulders a large oar from which the keg is suspended.

The parti­cipants wind up on Tower Green, where they are met by the constable, speeches are made – in the languages of both the visitors and the hosts, if these differ – and the bounty is conferred. The constable of the Tower delivers a few words of thanks and rapidly disap­pears inside the Queen’s House with the captain and a select group of dignit­aries to while away a pleasant hour, and the crew return to their vessel.

Given the infre­quent and irregular timing of the ceremony and the dearth of advance publicity, would-be spectators will either need to be partic­u­larly persistent in their invest­ig­ation of plans for the next event, or hope to strike it lucky on a day when they’re visiting the Tower. However, other events are held here on more dependable occasions, notably the Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses, at which the provosts of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, lay floral emblems on the spot where Henry VI, who founded both insti­tu­tions, is said to have been murdered on 21 May 1471.

The Tower of London, London EC3N 4AB
Website: Tower of London
Nearest station: Tower Hill (District and Circles lines)