The Tower of London is England’s oldest permanently garrisoned fortress and Royal Palace famous for the Army’s Tower Guards and the Yeoman Warders who are all former serving soldiers. Its security and upkeep have been the responsibility of a Constable (Keeper of the Tower) since 1078, who for the last two centuries has always been an Army General or Field Marshall. Prior to that, the important role has been held by Barons, Dukes, and even a Saint, but this year, for the first time, the responsibility has been given to a Royal Marine.
General Sir Gordon Messenger was Vice Chief of the Defence Staff of the Ministry of Defence until he retired in May 2019. During an illustrious military career, he commanded the Royal Marines during the Iraq War leading 40 Commando in the assault on the Al Faw Peninsula. He was the British Commander of Task Force Helmand in Afghanistan in 2008, served on the 2004 tsunami relief effort, and was awarded an OBE for his services in Kosovo in 2000. The first four-star Royal Marine General to be appointed since 1977, he is also the first Royal Marine to ever become Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom.
His new role is a dramatic contrast to his operationally heavy career. Today the Constable of Britain’s most popular paid-for tourist attraction is concerned with largely ceremonial duties. But he will still be notionally in charge of the operation, upkeep and security of the Tower and all those who live and work within it, from the Yeoman Warders, to the Ravens, the Crown Jewels and The Tower Guards who protect them.
In keeping with the historic grandeur of the role, the new Constable’s first day at work is a spectacular event, heralded by fanfares, processions and ancient ceremony which form part of his formal “installation” in His Majesty’s Tower of London.
HM Royal Marines Band Collingwood set the mood for the guests who had gathered to witness the installation of the Tower’s 161st Constable. They performed a rousing musical and marching display in front of the New Armouries, ending with distinctive climax.
As the sun set over the Norman White Tower, Flank Guards from The Honourable Artillery Company (HAC), the City of London’s Army Reserve, and Army Regulars from the 1st Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, led the Royal Marines Guard of Honour in procession to form up with the Band. They formed a hollow square which was then lined with Yeoman Warders in their distinctive heavily embroidered Tudor scarlet uniforms.
Although the HAC regularly fire Gun Salutes from The Tower of London this was Lance Corporal Will Prior’s first visit since being a child when he was there as a tourist with his parents. By day he’s a freelance copywriter in the City, and although a member of the Army Reserve for the past 7 years, he’s a member of the Corps of Drums and a Forward Tactical Observer in his operational role. He was fortunate to be on parade at the Royal Exchange for the Proclamation of the King in the City of London, so this is his second major ceremonial event in a month. He said: “It’s another first for me, and that’s what’s so rewarding about my Reserve role; the British Army is constantly offering new experiences for me, and it’s great to be working with the Navy”.
Royal Marine Trumpeters marched into position on the White Tower and played a fanfare to signal the start of the arrival of the new Constable, General Sir Gordon Messenger, and his supporters who were made up of Defence Chiefs and senior staff.
As the Band of HM Royal Marines played, and another trumpet fanfare sounded, the Lord Chamberlain, carrying the Keys to His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower, left the Regimental Headquarters of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, which lies at the heart of the Tower’s complex. He marched at a stately 96 paces per minute to take up his place within the protective cordon of the Yeoman Warders. The Officers of the Tower of London and all those in uniform saluted and the Band played the National Anthem.
Letters patent were read out to the assembled crowd officially appointing the Constable of the Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower.
As another trumpet fanfare sounded, The Lord Chamberlain, representing HM The King, handed over The King’s Keys (the Tower’s golden keys) to the new Constable as a symbol of his custodianship of the Tower, saying: General Sir Gordon Messenger, in the King’s name and on His Majesty’s behalf, I deliver to you the Keys and Custody of the Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London”.
The new Constable replied: “Lord Chamberlain, I accept the Keys and Custody of the Fortress, which in the King’s name you confide to my charge. As Constable, I will maintain His Majesty’s Tower, its rights and privileges against all comers.”
The Chief Yeoman Warder doffed his cap and cried: “God save The King!”
The Chaplain then blessed the Constable, and the Constable inspected the Yeoman Warders and the Guards. Then the Lord Chamberlain declared: “General Sir Gordon Messenger, in The King’s name and on His Majesty’s behalf, I grant you full possession of King’s House in the Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London.”
To which he replied: “Lord Chamberlain, I accept the possession of King’s House which you give me in The King’s name. Please convey my humble duty to His Majesty and my gratitude for this favour shown to me.”
They all then processed solemnly back to the Fusiliers Regimental HQ and the Guard was dismissed, the ceremony complete, the Constable formally installed.
The first Keeper is thought to be Geoffrey de Mandeville, a powerful Norman baron who fought alongside William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. At first, the office was a hereditary right of the de Mandeville family but that right was confiscated by the king as a punishment after William de Mandeville allowed the first prisoner of the Tower, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, to escape. One of the earliest non-hereditary appointees was Thomas Becket, later Archbishop of Canterbury, the only holder of the office to date to be made a saint.
Constables of the Tower are now appointed from senior military officers, the most famous being the former Head of the Army and victor of Waterloo, The Duke of Wellington, who remained in the role for 26 years. The Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are now on display, was built while he was Constable. It was he also who reformed the Body of Yeoman Warders by establishing the criteria that they too must be ex-military.
Historically, in return for his service, the Constable was given the right to seize any swan that swims under London Bridge; as well as any horse, ox, cow, pig or sheep that falls into the Thames. Such treats are rarely claimed now, but one remaining perk is still maintained. In the past, every ship that came upstream to the city had to moor at Tower Wharf to unload a portion of its cargo for the Constable. These included oysters, mussels, cockles, rushes and wine. Although ships moor elsewhere on The Thames today, the tradition remains for Royal Naval vessels visiting the Port of London. The Captain, with an escort from the ship’s company, must still present a barrel of rum (the “Dues”) to the Constable on Tower Green.