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Historically, a constable was an officer of state in western European countries from medieval times and also of certain executive legal officials in Great Britain and the United States. Initially there were five great officers of state: constable; chancellor; chamberlain; steward/butler; and seneschal. Within the French model, military titles such as the Marshals of France, the Grand Master of Artillery, or the Colonels General were offices granted to individuals and not military ranks.

The title ‘comes stabuli’, or count of the stables, is found in the Roman and particularly in the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire from the 5th century AD as that of the head of the stables at the imperial court. The Franks (Frankia, later France) borrowed the title, and under the Merovingian and Carolingian kings of Western Europe the ‘comes stabuli’ was in charge of the royal stud, with the marshal (marescallus) as his subordinate officer.

During the 11th century the constable (connétable) of France became one of the five great officers of state, with limited powers of jurisdiction and with command of the cavalry, being established by King Philip I in 1060. The constable’s military duties and judicial powers increased until, by the mid-1300s, he held supreme military command of the army.

After the treason of the constable Charles de Bourbon (1523), however, French kings distrusted the power of the office, and for many years in the 1500s it was allowed to remain vacant. It was eliminated in 1627, after the death of François de Bonne, Duke de Lesdiguières, by Prime Minister Cardinal Richelieu in order to strengthen the immediate authority of the King over his armed forces. It was revived by Napoleon I, who appointed his brother Louis Bonaparte grand constable. It was finally abolished upon the restoration of the Bourbons.

In England, the office of constable, which was similar to that of the pre-Conquest staller, was in existence during Henry I’s reign (1100–35). The principal duty of the constable and marshal was the command of the army. The Court of the Constable and Marshal, also known as the Court of Chivalry, came into existence at least as early as the reign of Edward I (1272–1307). Lord high constables are now appointed only for coronations.

Officers with important military commands and in control of garrisons and castles were also known as constables, for example the constables of Windsor, Dover, Caernarvon (Caernarfon), Conway, Harlech, and Flint castles and the Tower of London. Sometimes the appointment was coupled with that of conservator (later justice) of the peace, who assisted the sheriff in enforcing the law. This gave rise to constables’ exercising civil jurisdiction. Under the Statute of Winchester (1285), the civil and military organisations were linked.

A chief or high constable in every local area (hundred or franchise) was responsible for suppressing riots and violent crimes and for arming the militia to enable him to do so. Under him were petty constables in each tithing, or village. The high and petty, or parish, constables remained the executive legal officers in counties until the County Police Acts of 1839 and 1840 allowed certain justices to establish a paid police force. In Scotland bodies of high constables, formed to carry out such municipal duties as curbing riots, still exist at Edinburgh, Leith, Perth, and Holyroodhouse, the last named being prominent on state occasions. In the rural districts of the US, the constable had the same status as in England before the act of 1842 but during the 20th century gradually lost most of his power in criminal matters to the uniformed police, being thereafter chiefly concerned with the issuing of writs, processes, and election notices.

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