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Saturday, 2 February 2013

A tale of constables

Dover copyright-free art,
Men, page 117.

Gossip and scandal about coppers?  Not a chance.  I just got to wondering about what the term means.

Once upon a time, there was a Latin title, comes stabuli, literally the Count of the Stable, or in more general terms, the master of the Horse, but this person was no mere head groom. In Byzantium, the constable was in charge of the Imperial stables, and that made him a great officer of state.

Thomas Chaucer, the son of Geoffrey Chaucer, was Chief Butler to Richard II, and under Henry IV, he was Constable of Wallingford Castle.

Later, Thomas was speaker of Parliament, and one of his grandchildren, the Earl of Lincoln, was declared by Richard III to be the heir-apparent to the throne, in case the Prince of Wales should die without issue. Sadly any prospect of Chaucer's descendant sitting on the throne died when the Earl died at the Battle of Stoke in 1487.

So clearly, constables were fairly important people, a bit more than P. C. Plod, pounding the pavement, as even Geoffrey Chaucer knew, because he features a "Constable of the castel" in the Man of Law's Tale, which was set some time in the past, though after the time of Muhammad.

Similarly, Shakespeare features the Constable of France who was a high official (and the supreme judge in matters of chivalry until the post was abolished in 1627), in Henry V, and in Henry VIII, Shakespeare includes Buckingham, formerly the Lord High Constable among the characters.

On the other hand, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing is a constable, while in Love's Labours Lost, we encounter "Dull, a constable".  In Measure for Measure, we meet "Elbow, a simple constable", who hauls Froth and Pompey before Angelo, the Duke's deputy in Act II, saying:
If it please your honour, I am the poor Duke's constable, and my name is Elbow; I do lean upon justice, sir, and do bring in here before your good honour two notorious benefactors.
The humour of the malapropism, as we can see, preceded Dickens' Mrs Malaprop by quite a few years. Equally, the knaves in Shakespeare's plays could raise a laugh by referring to the constables: in the Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff speaks to Mistress quickly of how, being found in woman's attire, "the knave constable had set me i' th' stocks, i' th' common stocks, for a witch." Quickly and Doll Tearsheet, for that matter, were both handed over to the beadles by "the constables" in Henry IV Part 2.

So at some point between 1400 and 1600, the constable's status fell drastically.  Constables of castles remain important, and so do High Constables and Chief Constables, but according to the OED, the constable was, by 1597, a humble officer of the peace. Like the English shire reeve, a great official who became a mere law officer in a town in the Wild West, a sheriff, the constable was no longer a great person in the state.

The butler, whose name literally means the 'bottler', the person in charge of managing the drinks in a household did not have quite the same fall. While it is true that Thomas Chaucer held the title of Chief Butler, this was an honorary role, and he had little to do with the management of royal or other beverages , but slowly, the old usage fell away and the butler remained as the one who done it, perhaps in a dim recollection of a famous 19th century robbery.

Called in to investigate a robbery at Southampton in 1835, Henry Goddard, one of the last of the Bow Street Runners, extracted a bullet which had been fired into the butler's wooden bedhead during the alleged robbery, and showed that the bullet had been cast in a mould which the butler was in the habit of using to make his own bullets, each of which had a small 'pimple' from an imperfection in the mould.

Confronted with the evidence, the butler confessed to having staged the robbery to win his employer's favour, probably the first time that the butler was shown to have done it.

Regrettably, history does not record whether Henry Goddard was a constable at the time, or indeed if he ever rose to be a Chief Constable, but clearly he was a cut above your average Elbow, Dull or Dogberry — and much too clever for the average butler.

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