Salisbury’s close constables’ history can be traced back to the 14th century when the city area around the cathedral was policed by parish constables. In 1611 King James I freed Salisbury from its fealty to the bishop and incorporated it as a free city. However, the Liberty of the Close remained and as late as 1851 the Close was still not described as part of the city. Up to the mid 19th century the Close had its own Poor-way rate (taxation), as well as justices of the peace, quarter sessions, workhouse etc. Although the Liberty has now gone in all but name, the Chapter has kept its responsibility for the maintenance of the Close roads and lighting.
Responsibilities of the constables, who policed the Cathedral in the 17th century, included collecting the ‘way rate,’ a local tax levied upon residents of the Close, and ensuring adherence to the bye-laws set by Chapter, neither any longer in existence.
A very notable event involving Close constables is the part one of them played in the death in 1687 of cathedral’s organist and choir master Michael Wise. A distinguished composer, Wise had previously served as a countertenor in St George's Chapel, Windsor from 1666 until 1668, when he joined Salisbury Cathedral. In 1676 he was made a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.
Local legend has it that on 24 August (St Bartholomew’s day) 1687, Wise had been drinking following a domestic with his wife. Later that evening he was involved in an altercation with one of the Close constables. Challenged for his use of profane language, in the subsequent violent struggle Wise was hit over the head by the Close constable. His skull fractured, Wise died of the injury he sustained.
Like York Minster Police, the exact point at which the Close constables ceased to be attested is lost to antiquity. It may well have occurred around the mid 19th century. The city’s Watch Committee decided in 1836 to create a modern police force, as did many similar committees and corporations, under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835. In doing so, they disbanded the four high constables and 13 constables who had previously overseen law and order in the city, including that of the Liberty of the Close.
The modern force created, named the New Sarum Police, comprised one 'Superintending High Constable,' one 'High Constable,' four 'Day Constables' and ten 'Night Constables.' This force’s history was short. Disbanded it was reformed as Salisbury City Police in 1838. It stayed as a separate city force for over 100 years, when in 1943, the force amalgamated with Wiltshire Constabulary. The Cathedral, however, continued to employ Close constables maintaining its own private constabulary until December 2010; its officers serving as loyally, and with equal dedication, as those who went before them.
Sadly, on Friday 23 July 2010, the Cathedral issued a statement about its plans to carry out a reorganisation of some of its departments. This followed a strategic financial review into the Cathedral’s finances. Salisbury, like many cathedrals, needed to ensure its financial stability at a time of great economic uncertainty. The plans, put forward by Chapter, included disbanding the Close constables, and replacing them with parking managers.
Opposition to the announcement of the proposals was quick to follow; especially from residents of the Close, concerned at the possible risk to their community from drunks and drug addicts. It would seem that the constables were particularly effective at keeping anti-social behaviour at bay. No easy task since the constables no longer held the powers and privileges of constable. Instead relying on tact, diplomacy, and good humour to deal with difficult situations.
Although residents opposition to the plans reached the local and national press and regional television, sadly the Cathedral moved forward with its plans to disband the constabulary.
December 2010, the last of the constables left the Cathedral, officially ending over 700 years of history and tradition.