Constables: High Royal Officials in the Leading Courts of Europe
ETYMOLOGY: the word constable comes from the Latin comes stabili, which means “count of the stable”. This literal meaning refers to the Constable’s original function as head of the royal stables and commander of the royal cavalry.
HISTORICAL PRECEDENTS: when we come to explore the historical roots of the figure of the Constable, several clear precedents could be cited:
- Greece: in several Greek cities during the Classical period, such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes and Thespiae, there was a magistrate called the Polemarch, who took command of the armies on campaign. In Athens a single Polemarch was appointed, whilst in Sparta there were six. Moreover, a notable feature of the Spartan Polemarchs was that they were often of royal lineage. Similarly, in Thebes two Polemarchs were chosen every year, and as well as their military functions they assumed executive power in the city.
- Carthage: in Carthage the dual status of high military and political magistracy of an elective nature was the characteristic feature of the figures known as Suffetes. The most famous Carthaginian Suffete was undoubtedly Hannibal, the most outstanding general of the Ancient World.
- Rome: in the Roman Kingdom the figure of the Magister Equitum, a magistrate who was in charge of the cavalry and took orders only from the king, persisted under both the Latin-Sabine and the Etruscan monarchs.
- Byzantine Empire: the Empire’s need for mercenary troops led to the creation of a figure known as the Grand Constable (Megas Konostaulos), who was in command of all mercenary cavalry units and contingents and was appointed by the Emperor.
Rome: With the advent of the Republic in the year 509 BC, the post fell into decline, for two basic reasons. The first was the Republican political constitution, which replaced the Monarchy and with which the Magister Equitum was not really compatible, since it was a position dependent upon the trust of the king. The second was the lessening of the importance of cavalry in favour of infantry, which became the core of the Roman armies in the following centuries.
A further development in the Republican period was the emergence of the Consulate. Two eponymous Consuls, chosen annually, held military and executive power, although there were numerous exceptions to this practice during the civil wars which Rome underwent. Among the most celebrated Consuls were Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Julius Caesar.
During the turbulent years between the Republic and the Principate another form of magistracy came to the fore: Dictatorship. At times when the state was in grave danger the Senate could appoint a Dictator, who assumed special powers. To assist the Dictator in his political functions a Magister Equitum could be appointed; as under the Monarchy, he was the most senior official of the Dictator, to whom he was solely responsible, and he assumed command of the cavalry.
EMERGENCE OF CONSTABLES IN EUROPE
In many European countries the figure of the Constable existed historically as a high royal official who was solely responsible to the king and took command of his armies on campaign.
Specifically, Constables emerged in several European monarchies from the first centuries of the medieval period to the late Middle Ages, when they became more widespread and important through the strengthening of royal power. With the passage of the centuries and the modernisation of warfare, Constables gradually lost their military powers, but they retained their honorary status and privileges as high officials of the Crown appointed by the king.
COMMON FEATURES OF CONSTABLES
It is possible to trace certain characteristics common to Constables in the various monarchies and royal households of Europe. These are essentially as follows:
- They were high royal officials, genuinely in the confidence of the king, who freely appointed and dismissed them.
- They were active members of royal courts and retinues.
- They were usually from the high nobility. If not, they were granted titles and high honours.
- They commanded the king’s armies.
- They usually performed jurisdictional and ceremonial functions.
- The post often became hereditary within a family in perpetuity.
- They were answerable for their actions only to the sovereign.
It is useful at this point to document how this position arose and developed in the principal European monarchies.
CONSTABLES IN THE HISPANIC KINGDOMS
There were Constables in Castile, Aragon and Navarre.
- Castile: the office of Constable was created by John I in 1382, the first holder being Alfonso of Aragon, Marquis of Villena, Count of Denia and Ribagorza, grandson of James II of Aragon.
From 1473 the position passed to the Dukes of Frías and became hereditary within that House.
- Aragon: Peter IV of Aragon appointed the first Constable of this kingdom in 1369, choosing Alonso of Aragon, Duke of Gandia.
The post subsequently passed to the House of the Dukes of Segorbe, later absorbed into the Dukedom of Medinaceli, where it remained in perpetuity.
- Navarre: the position was created by Blanche I in 1430.
In due course it became a hereditary office of the Counts of Lerin, a title later absorbed into the Dukedom of Alba de Tormes.
CONSTABLES IN FRANCE
In the French Monarchy the office of Constable was created in 1060 by Henry I, who appointed Albéric de Montmorency first Constable of France. A distinctive feature of French Constables was that as well as exercising the highest military command they were also in charge of all the officials of the Royal Household.
Constables played a very important role throughout the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between France and England. An example of this was the legendary Bertrand du Guesclin, perhaps the most famous of them all, in the reign of Charles V. During the siege of Caen (1346), the French troops were led by the Constable Raoul de Brienne, Count of Eu and Guînes. At the Battle of Agincourt (1415), the French army was under the command of the Constable Charles d’Albret, and at the Battle of Formigny, the commander was the Constable Arthur de Richemont, Count of Clairmont.
During the Middle Ages the French armies were more commonly led on the battlefield by generals. Nevertheless, the Constable still took command in important battles such as that of Saint-Quentin (1557), where the commander-in-chief was the Duke of Montmorency, against the armies of Philip II of Spain. As a result of this battle, in which France suffered a severe defeat at the hands of the Spanish, Montmorency was taken prisoner and the position of Constable remained vacant until 1593, when Henry IV appointed Henri de Montmorency Constable of France.
The office of Constable was permanently abolished by Louis XIII on 13 March 1627, at the instigation of Cardinal Richelieu, who was suspicious of the powers still held by the Constables as persons who enjoyed the confidence of the King. The last Constable of France was François de Bonne, who held the post between 1622 and his death in 1626.
Napoleon I considered the idea of reviving the office of Constable, which was to occupy the prelature of the fifth Great Dignitary of the Empire, but the relevant decree never came to be approved.
CONSTABLES IN ENGLAND
The introduction of the figure of the Lord High Constable was due to French influence arising from the Norman Conquest carried out by William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, from 1066. William later became King of England, adopting the name William I.
Specifically, the office of Constable was created by Queen Matilda, daughter of Henry I and Edith of Scotland, who granted it in 1139 to Miles of Gloucester, 1st Earl of Hereford and Lord of Brecknock, with the feudal territory of the earldom. Between 1139 and 1372 the position was granted on a hereditary basis to the Earls of Hereford. In 1372, Edward III appointed his youngest son Thomas of Woodstock, 1st Duke of Gloucester, as Constable.
With the strengthening of royal power which took place at the advent of the early modern era, Henry VIII merged the office in the Crown. From then on the Constable lost his military functions and became exclusively a high royal official.
The great peculiarity of England compared with other countries is that the office of Constable still exists today, ranking seventh among the Great Officers of State, although it is vacant. These Great Officers, in order of precedence, are:
- Lord High Steward
- Lord High Chancellor
- Lord High Treasurer
- Lord President of the Council
- Lord Privy Seal
- Lord Great Chamberlain
- Lord High Constable
- Earl Marshal
- Lord High Admiral
From the reign of Henry VIII onwards the powers of the Constable became honorary. His presence has always been required at the coronations of all the kings and queens of England.
The office has invariably been performed by persons holding the title of duke (with the sole exceptions of the Marquess of Crewe in 1937 and Viscount Alanbrooke in 1953).
At the same time, as has been said, the position still exists today. The Constables who have attended the coronations of the sovereigns of England since then are:
- Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk and 3rd Marquess of Dorset, at the coronation of Edward VI in 1547
- Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel, at the coronations of Mary I in 1554 and of Elizabeth I in 1559
- Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester, at the coronation of James I in 1603
- George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, at the coronation of Charles I in 1626
- Algernon Percy, 10th Earl of Northumberland, at the coronation of Charles II in 1660
- Henry FitzRoy, 1st Duke of Grafton, at the coronation of James II in 1685
- James Butler, 2nd Duke of Ormonde, at the coronation of William III in 1689
- Wriothesley Russell, 2nd Duke of Bedford, at the coronation of Queen Anne in 1702
- John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu, at the coronation of George I in 1714
- Charles Lennox, 2nd Duke of Richmond, at the coronation of George II in 1727
- John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford, at the coronation of George III in 1761
- Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke Wellington, at the coronations of George IV in 1821, Willliam IV in 1831 and Queen Victoria in 1838
- Alexander Duff, 1st Duke of Fife, at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 and that of George V in 1911
- Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe, at the coronation of George VI in 1937
- Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, at the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953
CONSTABLES IN IRELAND
The figure of the Lord High Constable also existed in Ireland. Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries it became a hereditary office of the Houses of Lacy and Verdun.
After the Act of Union of 1800, the Constables of Ireland attended the coronations of the Kings and Queens of the United Kingdom:
- Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 3rd Marquess of Landsdowne, at the coronation of George IV in 1821
- Augustus FitzGerald, 3rd Duke of Leinster, at the coronation of William IV in 1831 and that of Queen Victoria in 1838
- James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercorn, at the coronation of Edward VII in 1901 and that of George V in 1911
The office of Constable was abolished following the proclamation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
CONSTABLES IN SCOTLAND
The position of Lord High Constable was created in Scotland by David I in 1138 as the supreme royal officer in charge of the army, solely under the orders of the king. From the thirteenth century its powers were gradually expanded, extending its area of competence to matters of jurisdiction and public order. When James Stuart ascended the throne of England and Scotland, the Constable’s role became that of a representative of royal power.
With the Act of Union of 1707, the Constables lost most of their effective powers and the position became purely honorary. It still survives in this form today.
Since 1314 it has been a hereditary office of the Earls of Erroll. Diana Hay, 23rd Countess of Erroll, attended the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953 as Constable of Scotland. The present Constable is Merlin Hay, 24th Earl of Erroll.
Coat of arms of the Crown of Scotland until the accession of James Stuart in 1603
CONSTABLES IN PORTUGAL
In the Kingdom of Portugal the office of Constable was created by Ferdinand I in 1382. As in Castile, France and England it was originally instituted as a royal official who assumed supreme command of the armies on campaign, being subordinate only to the sovereign, to whom he was solely responsible.
The first Constable of Portugal was Álvaro Pires de Castro, Count of Arraiolos. His successor, Nuno Alvares Pereira, was undoubtedly the most famous holder of the office, who defeated the Castilians at the decisive Battle of Aljubarrota (1385), in which he demonstrated his great military gifts. He was beatified by Benedict XV on 23 January 1918 and canonised by Benedict XVI on 26 April 2009. He has been known since then as Saint Nuno, the “Holy Constable”.
Nuno Alvares Pereira, Constable of Portugal
In 1580 Philip II of Spain became the new King of Portugal, bringing the rule of the House of Aviz to an end. Being suspicious of the intentions of the Portuguese military and nobility he appointed Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, 3rd Duke of Alba de Tormes, as Constable in place of John I of Braganza and Lancaster, 6th Duke of Braganza. The Duke of Alba was one of the most outstanding soldiers of the Universal Spanish Monarchy, famous for his victories in the Low Countries.
In 1640 Portugal seceded from Spain and its Crown was thereafter held uninterruptedly by the House of Braganza until the proclamation of the Republic in 1910. Under the first sovereign in this dynasty, John IV, the office of Constable lost its military powers and became an honorary position, though it retained its status as a high royal official.
The Duke of Alba de Tormes was appointed Constable of Portugal by Philip II of Spain
One feature of the Constables of Portugal compared with other countries is that on several occasions this position has been held by the immediate heir to the throne, who has resigned as Constable on his coronation. For example, John IV renounced his position as Constable in 1640 to be proclaimed king, and others who were initially Constables and subsequently crowned were Peter II, John VI, Michael I and Louis I.
The list of Constables of Portugal is as follows:
- Álvaro Pires de Castro, Count of Arraiolos (1382–1384)
- Nuno Alvares Pereira, the Holy Constable (1384–1431)
- John of Aviz and Lancaster, Count of Aveiro, Infante of Portugal (1431–1442)
- Diogo of Aviz (1442–1443)
- Peter of Aviz and Aragon (1443–1446)
- Ferdinand of Aviz and Trastamara, Duke of Viseu, Infante of Portugal (1466–1470)
- John of Braganza and Castro, Marquis of Montemor-o-novo (1470?)
- Afonso of Viseu (?–1504)
- Luís of Aviz and Trastamara (?–1555)
- Duarte II, Duke of Guimaraes (1555–1576)
- John I, Duke de Braganza (1576–1581)
- Fernando Álvarez de Toledo y Pimentel, Duke of Alba de Tormes (1581–1582)
- Teodósio II of Braganza (1582–1630)
- John IV of Portugal (1630–1640)
- Francisco de Melo, Marquis of Ferreira (1641–1645)
- John, Duke of Braganza, was Constable until 1792. He reigned as John VI from 1816.
- Peter II of Portugal (1648–1668)
- Nuno Alvares Pereira de Melo, Duke of Cadaval (1668–1727)
- Francisco of Braganza, Duke of Beja (1727–1742)
- John VI of Portugal (?–1792)
- Michael I of Portugal (1821–1824)
- Nuno Caetano Alvares Pereira de Melo, Duke of Cadaval (1824–1837)
- António de Vasconcelos e Sousa, Marquis of Castelo Melhor (1837–1858)
- Louis I of Portugal (1858–1861)
- João de Braganza, Duke of Beja (1861)
- Afonso de Braganza, Duke of Oporto (1865–1910)