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 from the cap­tains of ves­sels sail­ing up the Thames to the City. Many of the pay­ments weren’t much more than legalised bribes for sup­posed pro­tec­tion.

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 of the Tow­er, speech­es are made – in the lan­guages of both the vis­i­tors and the hosts, if these dif­fer – and the boun­ty is con­ferred. The con­sta­ble 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)