1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Constable

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22373001911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 6 — ConstableWalter Alison Phillips

CONSTABLE (O. Fr. connestable, Fr. connétable, Med. Lat. comestabilis, conestabilis, constabularius, from the Lat. comes stabuli, count of the stable), a title now confined to the lord high constable of England, the lord constable of Scotland, the constables of some royal castles in England, and to certain executive legal officials of inferior rank in Great Britain and the United States.

The history of the constable is closely analogous to that of the marshal (q.v.); for just as the modern marshals, whatever their rank or office, are traceable both as to their title and functions to the marescalcus, or master of the horse, of the Frankish kings, so the constable, whether he be a high dignitary of the royal court or a “petty constable” in a village, is derived by a logical evolution from the counts of the stable of the East Roman Emperors.

The Byzantine comes stabuli (κόμης τοῦ σταβλοῦ) was in his origin simply the imperial master of the horse, the head of the imperial stables, and a great officer of state. From the East the title was borrowed by the Frankish kings, and during the Carolingian epoch a comes stabuli was at the head of the royal stud, the marshals (marescalci) being under his orders. The office survived and expanded in France under the Capetian dynasty; in the 11th century the constable has not only the general superintendence of the royal stud, but an important command in the army—though still under the orders of the seneschal,—and certain limited powers of jurisdiction. From this time onward the office of constable tended, in France, continually to increase in importance. On the abolition of the seneschalship by King Philip Augustus in 1191, the constable succeeded to many of his powers and privileges. Thus in the 13th century he claimed as of right the privilege of leading the vanguard of the army. Under Philip the Fair (1268–1314) he begins to be invested with the military government of certain provinces as lieutenant of the king (locum tenens regis); and, finally, in the 14th century, owing to the confusion of his high prerogatives as the royal lieutenant with his functions as constable, he is, as constable, recognized as commander-in-chief of the army. The French kings never allowed the office of constable to become hereditary, and in January 1627, after the death of Francois de Bonne, duc de Lesdiguières, the office was suppressed by royal edict. Napoleon created the office of grand constable for his brother Louis, and that of vice-constable for Marshal Berthier, but these were suppressed at the Restoration.

The jurisdiction of the constable, known as the connétablie et maréchaussée de France, was held in fee until the abolition of the office of constable, when it became a royal court, without, however, changing its name. Henceforth it was nominally under the senior marshal of France, and all marshals had the right of sitting as judges; but actually it was presided over by the lieutenant général with the lieutenant particulier and the procureur du roi as assessors. At first peripatetic, its seat was ultimately fixed at Paris, as part of the organization of the parlement. Its jurisdiction, which included all military persons and causes, was somewhat vaguely extended to embrace all crimes of violence, &c., committed outside the jurisdiction of the towns; it thus came often into conflict with that of the other royal courts.

The office of constable was not confined on the continent to France. The Gothic kings of Spain had their comites stabuli; so did, later on, the kings of Naples, where the functions of this officer were much the same as in France. The great vassals of the French crown, moreover, arranging their households on the model of that of the king, had their constables, whose office tended for the most part to become hereditary. Thus the constableship of the county of Toulouse was hereditary in the family of Sabran, that of Normandy in the house of Crespin.

In England the title of constable was unknown before the Conquest, though the functions of the office were practically those of the English staller. In the laws of Edward the Confessor the title constable is mentioned as the French equivalent for the English heretoga, or military commander (ductor exercitus). But among the great officers of the Norman-English court the constable duly makes his appearance as “quartermaster-general of the court and of the army.” In England, however, where the office soon became hereditary, the constable never attained the same commanding position as in France, though the military duties attached to his office prevented its sinking into a mere grand serjeanty. He was not the superior of the marshal, the functions of the two offices being in fact hardly distinguishable. From the first, moreover, the title of constable was not confined to the constable proper, whose office in the reign of Stephen was made hereditary under the style of high constable (see Lord High Constable); for every command held under the supreme constabularia was designated by this name, and there were constables of troops, of castles, of garrisons and even of ships (constabularia navigii regis). Under the Norman and Angevin kings, then, the title had come to be loosely applied to any high military command. Its extension to officials exercising civil jurisdiction is not difficult to account for. In feudal society, based as this was on a military organization, it is easy to see how the military jurisdiction of the constables would tend to encroach on that of the civil magistrates. The origin of the modern chief and petty constables, however, is to be traced to the Statute of Winchester of 1285, by which the national militia was organized by a blending of the military system with the constitution of the shires. Under this act a chief or high constable was appointed in every hundred; while in the old tithings and villatae the village bailiff was generally appointed a petty constable, receiving in addition to his old magisterial functions a new military office. From the time of Edward III. the old title of reeve or tithing-man is lost in that of constable, which represents his character as an officer of the peace as well as of the militia. The high and petty constables continued to be the executive legal officers in the counties until the County Police Acts of 1839 and 1840 reorganized the county police. In 1842 an important statute was passed enacting that for the future no appointment of a petty constable, headborough, borsholder, tithing-man, or peace officer of the like description should be made for any parish at any court leet, except for purposes unconnected with the preservation of the peace, and providing, as a means of increasing the security of persons and property, for the appointment by justices of the peace in divisional petty sessions of fit persons or their substitutes to act as constables in the several parishes of England, and giving vestries an optional power of providing paid constables. Under the acts of 1839 and 1840 the establishment of a paid county police force was optional with the justices. With the Police Act of 1856 this optional power became compulsory, and thenceforth the history of the petty constable in England is that of the police. In 1869 provision was made for the abolition of the old office of high constable (the High Constables Act 1869) and, as the establishment of an efficient police force rendered the general appointment of parish constables unnecessary, the appointment ceased, subject to the appointment by vestries of paid constables under the chief constable of the county (Parish Constables Act 1872). See further Police.

“Special constables” are peace officers appointed to act on occasional emergencies when the ordinary police force is thought to be deficient. The appointment of special constables is for the most part regulated by an act of 1831. In the absence of volunteers the office is compulsory, on the appointment of two justices. The lord-lieutenant may also appoint special constables and the statutory exemptions may be disregarded, but voters cannot be made to serve during a parliamentary election. While in office special constables have all the powers of a common law constable, and in London those of a metropolitan police officer.

In the United States, outside the larger towns, the petty constable retains much the same status as in England before the act of 1842. He still has a limited judicial power as conservator of the peace, and often exercises various additional functions, such as that of tax-collector or overseer of the roads or other duties, as may be decided for him by the community which appoints him. In the old colonial days the office, borrowed from England, was of much importance. The office of high constable existed also in Philadelphia and New York, in the latter town until 1830, and in some towns the title has been retained for the chief of the police force.

See Du Cange, Glossarium (ed. Niort, 1883), s. “Comes Stabuli”; R. Gneist, Hist. of the Eng. Constitution (trs. London, 1891); W. L. Melville Lee, Hist. of Police in England (London, 1901); Encycl. of the Laws of England, s. “Constable” (London, 1907); W. Stubbs, Constitutional Hist. of England (Oxford, 1875–1878); A. Luchaire, Manuel des institutions françaises (Paris, 1892).  (W. A. P.)