Rolling out the ceremonial barrel
Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues, Tower of London
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.