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Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Deborah Swift is the author of some 17th century novels. In 2022 she posted about the unenviable role of the local constable during the 1600s. Obviously some of these duties were more common in the country, but roughly speaking, they applied throughout the nation.

I'm only highlighting the activities Pepys would have known. Read her article at https://aspectsofhistory.com/law-…

In the 17th century the responsibility for law and order fell on the community constables, but only a section of the community was eligible for the job – householders. Tenants were not allowed to be constables. The office was rotated annually by the wealthiest householders who were obliged to serve, or to provide a deputy.

The dangerous and cumbersome position was strictly amateur, with the constable receiving no pay for his services. This promotes a shared experience of citizenship, but also left the way open for abuse without accountability.

Once a year, the constables from neighboring parishes were sworn in at the local Justice’s office or residence by the High Constable of the County.

Their duties were primarily in disputes over land and territory, particularly with regard to tenancies, but also after the Excise Act of 1642 they were also charged with collecting tax and duty on goods. A duty was put on provisions coming into the cities from the country, on beer and cider and soap, salt, hats, starch, and copper goods. This law was extremely unpopular, as these were not imported items from abroad, as before, but everyday necessities, and the enforcing of this law, and the collection of these monthly excise duties must have been a great burden on the elected constables.

The constables were constantly ‘on call’, meaning they often had to leave their dinner or their sleep to deal with the drunk and disorderly, street fights, or criminal activities.

If a murder or robbery was committed, or a criminal had escaped, the Constable was responsible for recruiting a search party. The pay for chasing a criminal was anything from one penny to one shilling, depending on the perceived danger. The constable could call upon the villagers or townspeople for help, and anyone who refused to give chase or lend his horse to the party, was fined.
These chases were known as Hue and Cry: ‘given to Richard Taylor for going to Aram with a Huincri in ye night 2d’ -- Upton Constable's Account Book.

When the miscreant was caught, if no gaol or lock-up was available, the constable had to provide suitable premises and a watchman to keep the wrong-doer confined. Usually the prisoner was charged for his lodgings and food and security.

Minor offences could be punished by a stay in the stocks, but more serious crimes had to wait for the Justice at the Quarterly Assizes, known as the Quarter Sessions.

Justice could be compromised as the constable was often responsible for choosing the jurymen, to his own advantage in disputes.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link


Along with the churchwarden, the constable was supposed to keep an eye on the moral compass of the neighborhood.

Once Charles II was restored, many new rules appeared, including persecution of religious dissenters such as the Quakers.

A constable could call upon the local trained band to help quell a disturbance, and was responsible for enforcing that the men of the parish trained in pike duty or other defensive arts as stipulated by law: “Allowed our trayne soldiers their charges when thery apprehended some Quakers in our town and conveyed them to prison 13/-“ -- From the Upton Constable’s Account Book 1661.

The constable had to administer the 1662 Hearth Tax, where the number of chimneys had to be assessed: "There is not one old dame in ten, and search the nation through, but if you talk of chimney men will spare a curse or two.” -- Macauley 1662

The constables were in charge of keeping the roads passable, and the bridges mended.

Vagrants were required to return to their place of origin, which resulted in many a beggar being shunted from parish to parish, sleeping in barns and depending on charity. More often than not the charity was supplied by the parish constable.
No travelling was allowed on Sundays, so canny travelers would arrive at a village on a Saturday night, knowing they would have to be accommodated there until the Monday: “'Given to a man that had been a footman to the King, and who was in great want whose wife was with him 4d'
“'Given to a soldier the 12th of May that was maimed at Woster and had been under the surgon's hand 2d'” -- Upton Constable's record.

Depending on where the sympathies of the constable lay, supporters or soldiers of King Charles after the end of the first Civil War could be treated with kindness and respect, or they could be moved on as beggars.

The duties of the constable made him the heart of the community. His house was taken over for a year as a gaol, a minor court, a meeting house, and a soup kitchen.

The constable also had to be a record-holder and thus was required to be literate and numerate. It is from constables' records that we know so much about the workings of the law in this period.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.






  • Nov