Tell me about… the Constable’s Dues at the Tower of London

A wonderfully weird historical tradition took place at the Tower of London yesterday: the Constable’s Dues.

The ceremony saw sailors from HMS Albion parade a keg of red wine through the grounds of the Tower, and present them to the Tower’s Constable, General Sir Nick Houghton.

Princess Anne was also in attendance as sponsor of the ship.

Steeped in history, and led by The Royal Marines Band, the Constable’s Dues ceremony saw the Captain of HMS Albion, Captain Simon Kelly RN pay ‘dues’ to the Constable of the Tower for docking. (Defence Images)

Princess Anne attended the Constable’s Dues ceremony at the Tower of London as sponsor of HMS Albion (@RoyalFamily)

This extravagant ceremony is performed once a year at the Tower, to honour the historic custom.

The role of Constable today is largely a ceremonial one, appointed from retired senior military officers. However, it is a historic position, and came into being shortly after the Norman Conquest. The Constable’s role was to keep the Tower of London – a strategic fortress and palace – running when Royals were not present.

A perk of the job was collecting tolls from ships passing up the Thames into London. Situated on the boundary of the City of London, the Tower was once part of the hustle and bustle of London’s busy port trade. Cargo ships travelling upstream would moor at Tower Wharf, and unload a portion of their goods for the Constable to ‘pay’ their toll. The varied nature of London’s trade meant the Constable might have any kind of payment, including seafood, or alcohol. The measurement was simply as much as could be carried!

The ship’s company of HMS Albion marches into the Tower of London with a barrel of rum to be presented to the Constable of the Tower during the Ceremony of the Dues. (Ministry of Defence)

HMS Albion’s company escorted a keg of red wine (@RoyalFamily)

Other historical perks included:

  • being paid by the state for keeping prisoners at the Tower;
  • entitlement to all flotsam and jetsam on the Thames
  • ownership of all livestock that fell from Tower Bridge into the river;
  • ownership of any carts that fell into the moat;
  • 2d (pennies) from each pilgrim who came to London via the river, to worship at St James’s shrine (now the area of St James’s Palace).

Still today, whenever a Royal Naval vessel moors on the Wharf, the Captain of the ship must present the Constable with ‘Dues’, which is now fixed at a keg of alcohol. Traditionally, it’s left up to the ship’s company to decide what to fill the barrel with, but port, wine, or rum are the usual suspects.

Barrel of red wine presented to the Constable of the Tower, General Sir Nicholas Houghton (Defence Images)

This small barrel, suspended from an oar for transport, is escorted into the Tower by the Yeoman Warders and presented to the Constable on Tower Green, where a ceremony takes place to hand it over.

General the Lord Houghton spoke to HMS Albion’s Captain, Simon Kelly, after two of his sailors presented the keg.

The Constable’s Dues has never become just a symbolic ceremony. Once delivered to the Queen’s House – the Constable’s the barrel is opened and the wine enjoyed!

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