Constables were a form of law enforcement devised to replace an earlier system of two "shire-reeves," or sheriffs in each shire, for it had become largely corrupt. The word "constable" comes into English from French, where it derived from the late Latin comes stabuli meaning "count or officer of the stable" (OED).
Constables were ideally supposed to come from the yeoman class, but because these men were tradesmen and small landowners, they usually refused to serve. The end result was that constables were generally chosen from the fourth and lowest class of people. Poor and usually uneducated, they constitute a real historical basis for the comic bumbling of Shakespeare’s three famous constables: Dull in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, and Elbow in Measure for Measure.
In London, constables were chosen to serve the wards and parishes they lived in, since there was no citywide police system. In Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursetors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, the author asks a constable about the process used to select them, to which he replied: "‘Mary, syr,’ sayd he, ‘I am Constable for fault of a better, and was commaunded by the Iusticer to watch’" (qtd. in Evans 428). Many men chosen for the job refused it, however, as suggested in Measure for Measure:
Escalus. Come hither to me, Master Elbow; come hither, Master Constable. How long have you been in this place of constable?Elbow. Seven year and a half, sir.Escalus. I thought, by the readiness in the office, you had continued in it some time. You say, seven years together?Elbow. And a half, sir.Escalus. Alas, it hath been great pains to you. They do you wrong to put you so oft upon’t. Are there not men in your ward sufficient to serve it?Elbow. Faith, sir, few of any wit in such matters. As they are chosen, they are glad to choose me for them. I do it for some piece of money and go through with all.(2.1.255–69)
Escalus’ surprise at the length of Elbow’s employment as a constable shows that a person was appointed as constable for only a short amount of time before someone else would be selected.
Since no one wanted the job, those who accepted it were often inadequate for the watch. In Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me (1605), a constable and the rest of the watch are on the lookout for a notorious criminal, Black Will. He makes a point of showing to Henry VIII the ineptitude of the watch by passing through the gates into the city, while declaring that his name is Black Will. A moment later, when he passes out through the gates again, the watch have already forgotten him, and he tells them again that he is Black Will.
Another example of the real-life inadequacy of Elizabethan law enforcement is a letter dated 10 August 1586, from Lord Burghley to Sir Francis Walsingham. Burghley was travelling through the countryside from London, just two months prior to the trial of Mary Queen of Scots, a time when national security was tightened to protect Queen Elizabeth from Catholic attempts on her life. Burghley described seeing "plumps" (qtd. in Evans) of ten to twelve men huddled together in towns he passed through, but he assumed they were doing so because it was raining. When he came to a town and saw another of these groups when it wasn’t raining, he recognized that they must be members of the watch and asked them what they were doing. The men replied that they were looking for three young men. When Burghley inquired how they would know these men, they answered that one of the men had a hooked nose. Burghley was surprised to hear that they had no other means of identifying the wanted men. He asked to see the head constable, a man named Bankes, and told him the constables were not performing their duty. No criminal would approach them if they were standing about in groups, nor would they be likely to recognize the criminal from the vague description they had been given (Evans 429).
- Critchley, T.A. A History of Police in England and Wales 900–1966. London: Constable, 1967. Print.
Evans, Hugh C.
Comic Constables—Fictional and Historical.Shakespeare Quarterly 20 (1969): 427–33. Web. Subscr. JSTOR doi:10.2307/2868541.
- Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Web. Subscr. OED.
- Rowley, Samuel. When You See Me, You Know Me. London, 1605. STC 21417. Rpt. Edinburgh; London: Tudor Facsimile Texts, 1912. Rpt. New York: AMS Press 1970. Print.