The word constable was originally coined to denote a particular function or position in the English royal house. The word comes from a combination of the Saxon word, cynning, meaning a king, and staple, or rather, horse-stable; it essentially meant king of the stable (i.e. keeper of the horses). In order to maintain discipline, the constable had far reaching powers. According to A New Law Dictionary, written by Giles Jacob and published in 1744, the position held by the Lord Constable of England was "antiently o extenive, that ome time ince that Office hath been thought too great for any Subject..." (By the word Subject, Mr. Jacob meant the common folk rather than the royalty.) As a result, from the reign of Henry the Fourth (1399-1413) onward, the position was made hereditary, and the position was filled successively by the families of the Bohuns, Staffords and Buckinghams. According to Mr. Jacob, "The Power and Juridiction of the Lord High Contable was the ame with the Earl Marhal, and he at as Judge having Precedence of the Earl Marhal in the Marhals Court." By the time that Mr. Jacob wrote his dictionary the position of constable was almost synonymous with that of the marshal, and Mr. Jacob noted that the constable "had originally everal Courts under him; but has now only the marhalea."
The duties of the Lord High Constable in maintaining law and order were too much for any one man. Therefore, out of the single position in the royal government sprang what became known as Constables of Hundreds. The hundred was a measure of population devised in Great Britain, and adopted to an extent, in some of the colonies. An hundred consisted of ten districts, or tithings, which were each composed of ten divisions, or friburgs, which in turn were each composed of ten families. The Constable of Hundreds, therefore, had jurisdiction to maintain law and order over roughly one thousand families. Mr. Jacob noted in his book, that at that time (1740s) there were actually two Constables of Hundreds appointed within each hundred due to the number of offences that had to be dealt with on a daily basis. The Constable of Hundreds was assisted by the tithing-men who maintained law and order within their respective tithings and referred disputes between neighbors to the Constable of Hundreds only if they could not determine a proper resolution themselves.
The tithing-men were sometimes referred to as Petty Constables, or as in some of the larger towns, the Petty Constables occupied a position just below the Constable of Hundreds and had a few tithing-men answering to them.
The constable, regardless of the particular title, was essentially the front line of the law. He, therefore, functioned in much the same way that we would today think of a local police officer. Again referring to Jacobs 1744 New Law Dictionary, the constables were supposed:
The constables duties were to:
The constable was expected:
But that was not all:
The position within the scheme of the local government, and the duties of the con-stable remained somewhat the same through the Eighteenth Century and into the first half of the Nineteenth. Although Bedford County, in the 1770s and later, was not divided into districts known as Hundreds, it was divided into townships, according to population. As population increased within a township, it would be divided into physically smaller, but highly populated, townships. Each township division was patrolled by its own constable, who was responsible to the Sheriff and the Justices of the Peace. The constable was one of the officers elected by the residents of the townships and boroughs well into the 1900s in the various present-day counties of Old~Bedford.
It is interesting to note that the position of constable was something that was not necessarily desired by the person chosen and elected to serve. From Mr. Jacobs New Law Dictionary, it would appear that performing the job of the constable had, by the 1740s, become a required duty of the residents whether they liked it or not, much like serving on a jury is considered at the present time. In Purdons Digest Of The Laws Of Pennsylvania, published in 1824, it was stated that, by the Act of 20th March 1810:
There is no mention that the two residents so chosen had any say on the matter. Fines were levied against men who were elected but refused to serve. The authors ancestor, Jacob Schmitt, Jr was one individual who refused to serve when he was elected to the position of constable for Greenfield Township, Bedford County. The April Sessions of the Court of Quarter Sessions for the year 1816 includes the following entry.
On the same day, David Storm also appeared before the Bedford County Court of Quarter Sessions and likewise refused to take the oath of the office of constable.
The constable continued to be an ever-present symbol and enforcer of law and order until the advent of police departments. In essence, the constable simply became known as the chief of police. The duties remained the same.
The constable wrote down reports about the various incidents that he was obliged to deal with. Those reports, which include everything from the arrest of vagrants, to neighbor disputes, to charges made by fathers against men who got their daughter big with child can be found in many of the court houses of Old~Bedford in files labeled as "Constable Reports". It may prove to be well worth your while to check these out because of the wealth of information you might find out about your ancestors if they had any sort of brush with the law" (whether by making a complaint against someone else, or by themselves being complained against).