Vocabulary Rocks! Law and Order Edition

Vocabulary Rocks! Law and Order Edition

A collection of common terms and titles for law enforcement officials in England up to and encompassing the Regency Era, with a bit of history thrown in. Enjoy!


Sheriff_of_NottinghamSheriff comes from the Old English scirgerefa, or shire-reeve, meaning: “representative of royal authority in a shire.” In medieval times a reeve (from the Old English gerefa) was a local official or magistrate, often one who supervises the financial affairs of a shire, county, or estate. In pre-Norman invasion days of Saxon rule, a shire-reeve kept the peace.

By 871, under King Alfred the Great, the Sheriff was responsible for maintaining law and order within his own county. As England became more centralized the King distributed huge tracts of land to various nobleman who governed those lands under the King’s authority, and they appointed a Sheriff for their specific counties. By 1066 the Sheriff added the duty of tax collector, and in 1215 King John signed the Magna Carta in which the role of the Sheriff was mentioned nine times to establish their importance and duties.

Whilst the duties of the role have evolved over time, supporting the Crown and the judiciary remain central elements of the role today. In addition, High Sheriffs actively lend support and encouragement to crime prevention agencies, the emergency services, and to the voluntary sector. Today, there are 55 High Sheriffs serving the counties of England and Wales. 

Constable  comes from the Old French conestable, and from the Late Latin stabuli, literally “count of the stable” or “Master of the Horse.” Second element is from Latin stabulum, “stable, standing place.” Additional meanings: “chief household officer, justice of the peace” date from c.1200; “an officer of the peace” is from c. 1600; and “police officer” from 1836.

Constables are the oldest law enforcement position in the world. History records constables in France in the beginning of the 5th century, when they were known as the Counts of the King’s Stables. By the turn of the 6th century they were the Chief Household Officers and commanded the Armies in the King’s absence. These French and English constables were military officers of state, and next in rank to the crown.

In the year 871 King Alfred of England declared the Constable was the highest judge in the military and in matters of chivalry and honor. He was also named by the King to be the supreme arbitrator in tilts, tournaments, and martial displays.

In whatever way they come and on whatever day, it is the duty of the constable to enroll everything in order, for he has record as to the things he sees; but he cannot judge, because there is no judgment at the Tower, since there the third element of a judicial proceeding is lacking, namely a judge and jurisdiction. He has record as to matters of fact, not matters of judgment and law.  ~ Bracton On the Laws and Customs of England, 1220

In 1285, King Edward I passed the Statute of Winchester, with provisions which “constituted two constables in every hundred to prevent defaults in towns and [on] highways”. Parish constables elected by parishioners appear in the early 17th century, but from 1617 onwards they were typically appointed by magistrates in each county.

Drawing of a beadle, 1800

Beadle comes from the Old English bydel meaning “herald, messenger from an authority, preacher,” and from beodan, “to proclaim”. Sense of “warrant officer, tipstaff” was in late Old English, and that of “petty parish officer,” (which has given the job a bad reputation) is from 1590s.

A beadle was a minor officer employed to assist some London constables to communicate orders and execute them, and can be found in a wide range of 18th century institutions. Beadles appear frequently in the records as parish officers, responsible for summoning Coroners’ Inquests, carrying out the orders of church wardens, as officers of Bridewell Hospital, and in implementing the orders of the Court of Governors. Long established ward officers, the beadle was a full-time job with a salary, many serving in the post for year and sometimes acting as constables. Many had subordinates, called warders, who acted as their assistants. Their responsibilities included a range of policing activities: organizing and supervising the night watch; controlling crowds; prohibiting the sale of goods on Sundays; prosecuting nuisances; arresting and prosecuting prostitutes, beggars and vagrants; and even arresting men and women on more serious charges.

Marshal comes from mid-13th century as “high officer of the royal court.” Old French mareschal, “commanding officer of an army; officer in charge of a household,” originally “stable officer, horse tender, groom” (Frankish Latin mariscaluis). Early 14th century transition to “military commander, general in the army.” Also from Germanic scalco, “steward,” and Spanish mariscal.

The City Marshal was a paid, uniformed officer in the city of London who served under the Lord Mayor. He had the responsibility to carry out the orders of London city officials, supervise the night watch, and take up vagrants and other suspected criminals. Assisting the City Marshal was an undermarshal and six men. In the 1770s his role was enhanced to include leadership of the day patrol, by which point he had ten men serving under his authority.

Victorian era “bobby” in London.

Police comes from c.1530, at first essentially the same word as policy (n.) from Middle French police (late 15c.), from Latin politia, meaning “civil administration” and from Greek polis, or “city”. The application as “administration of public order” (1716) is from the French use of the word and originally in English referred to France or other foreign nations exclusively. What this really meant during those troubled times was that the “police” were spies using brutal tactics to search for any infractions and then report it to the government. Napoleon used such police extensively. To the British the very word was repugnant and resistance to anything remotely similar run by the Crown was intense. It was only the massive increase in crime in London, and the staggering loss of revenue from the theft of cargo, that finally led to the formation of a police force.

Police is a term that originated in France in the mid 1700s and applied to those who “administered to the public order.” What this really meant during those troubled times was that they were spies using brutal tactics to search for any infractions and then report it to the government. Napoleon used “police” extensively. To the British the very word was repugnant and resistance to anything remotely similar run by the Crown was intense. It was only the massive increase in crime in London, and the staggering loss of revenue from the theft of cargo, that finally led to the formation of a police force. The first force so-named in England was the Marine Police, set up 1798 to protect merchandise at the Port of London. The Metropolitan Police Force was established in 1829 under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel. As a side note, the common term “bobby” for policemen in the force originated as an homage to Sir Robert “Bobby” Peel.

Magistrate  is from the late 14th century Old French magistrat, meaning a “civil officer in charge of administering laws.” Also from Latin magistratus, “a magistrate, public functionary” or as originally a “magisterial rank or office,” and from magistrare, “serve as a magistrate,” as well as magister, “chief, director.”

Lay magistrates date back to the 12th century when Richard I commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. They were known as “Keepers of the Peace” and for centuries, handled local administrative responsibilities, such as fixing wages, building and controlling roads and bridges, and overseeing other local services. An act passed in 1361 gave them the title “Justices of the Peace” and increased their authority to arrest suspects, investigate alleged crimes, and punish offenders. Justices of the Peace were required to meet four time a year to conduct business, this the origin of Quarter Sessions in the court justice system.

Those men appointed to the Commission of Magistrate were usually landowners or men of great substance, whose social position and economic power meant their authority would not be questioned. As landowners, magistrates had the reputation of being particularly tough on poachers.

Usually their study of the law did not go very deep, and to replace unlearned and corrupt justices of the peace, “Stipendiary magistrates” were introduced in the mid-eighteenth century in London. They were legally qualified, either as barristers or solicitors. In the early 19th century they were also appointed to some of the other large metropolitan areas to complement, not to replace, the lay bench.

Thomas Rowlandson, Bow Street Office, from The Microcosm of London, 1808.


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