Law and Order in the 17th century

The duties of the constable in 17th century England.
A Conventicle preacher brought before Justices.
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The Role of the Constable
In many of my 17th century novels, people fall foul of the law in one way or another, and so I found it fascinating to examine what was in place to keep the peace in this era before the Police Force. During the 17th century the responsibility for law and order fell on the community through its constables; though actually only a proportion of the community were eligible for this post – that is the householders. Tenants were not allowed to be constables. The office was usually held yearly amongst the wealthiest householders who were obliged to serve, or provide a deputy in their stead. I have read of one occasion in 1644 where in Upton, the householder turned out to be a widow. Given the often violent nature of the job, Jane Kitchin was obliged to hire a deputy. Though I have to say, I rather like the idea of a woman fulfilling this role, and may very well use it in a novel one day!

Unlike later police, the position was strictly amateur, with the constable receiving no remuneration for his services, which could be both dangerous and cumbersome. However, what it did do was to promote a shared citizenship, and in the early 17th century, gave prominent householders an understanding of how the systems of ancient Manorial land ownership worked. Once a year, the constables from neighbouring 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, and the next year on 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.

Like doctors or vets today, 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.

Hue and Cry
If a murder or robbery had been 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. The 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, that was not the end of the constable’s responsibility. If no gaol or lock-up was available, the constable had to find suitable premises and a watchman to keep the wrong-doer under lock and key. Minor offences could be punished by a stay in the stocks, but more serious misdemeanours had to wait for the Justice at the Quarterly Assizes, known as the Quarter Sessions. Justice was a hit and miss affair, though, as in disputes the constable was often responsible for choosing the jurymen, to his own advantage.

Moral Guardians
Along with the churchwarden, the constable was supposed to keep an eye on the moral compass of the neighbourhood. During the Interregnum, with Cromwell in charge, staunch attacks on vice were demanded. Alehouses were restricted, various sports were banned, and the constable’s duties were to enforce all these new rules – an unenviable task, particularly since he was subject to the orders of the army generals who were put in charge of each county district. In the period after the Civil Wars when there were many disputes over sequestrated land, (aristocrats’ land seized by Parliament) the job must have required much diplomacy.

In addition there were all the new religious rules, such as fining those who did not keep Lent. Once the King was restored, a whole new raft of rules appeared, including persecution of religious dissenters such as the Quakers. A constable could call upon the trained band of soldiers to help quell a disturbance, and was responsible for enforcing that men of the parish trained in pike duty or other defensive arts as stipulated by law.

“Allowed our trayned soldiers their charges when they apprehended some Quakers in our town and conveyed them to prison”

From the Upton Constable’s Account Book 1661

Enforcing Taxation
The Long Parliament brought about a reform in taxation, moving away from the feudal system, and introduced a Poll Tax – no doubt extremely unpopular, and yet another difficulty for the constables to administer. The taxes were means tested, which meant constables must go door to door to assess the rate of tax – a task that was hardly going to enamour you with your neighbours. The taxes were resented because Parliament had promised that the poor would not be taxed. (Sound familiar?)
Added to this already unpopular Poll Tax, the constable had to administer the Hearth Tax, introduced in 1662, 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

Not only all this, but the constables were in charge of keeping the roads passable, and the bridges mended, and preventing vagrants from entering their boundaries. Vagrants were obliged to return to their place of origin, which resulted in many a poor beggar being turned away from one parish, and sent onwards to the next, spending their time sleeping in barns and calling on charity. More often than not the charity was supplied by the parish constable. No travelling was allowed on a Sunday, and canny travellers 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 Kinge, and who was in great want whose wiffe was with him 4d”

“Given to a souldier 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 the King after the end of the Civil War could be treated with kindness and respect, or they could be moved on, like common beggars.

Unpaid Civil Servant

The duties of the constable combined the duties of our police force with the duties of a charitable institution, and the constable was at the heart of the community. His house was taken over for a year as a gaol, a minor court, a meeting house, and a poor man’s soup kitchen. The constable had to be a record-holder and thus was required to be literate and numerate, and thank goodness, for it is from constables’ records that we know so much about the workings of the law in this period.


Rude Forefathers – F.H. West

The Gaol  –  Kelly Grovier

Every One A Witness – The Stuart Age: A.F. Scott