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In English law, the term headborough, head-borough, borough-head, borrowhead, or chief pledge, referred historically to the head of the legal, administrative, and territorial unit known as a tithing, which sometimes, particularly in Kent, Surrey and Sussex, was known as a borgh, borow, or borough. The office was rendered in Latin documents as capitalis plegius (chief pledge) or decennarius (tenner).[1]

In the Anglo-Saxon system of frankpledge, or frith-borh, the headborough presided over the borhsmen in his jurisdiction, who in turn presided over the local tithingmen.[2] Frankpledge was a system that existed to create an incentive for a tithing to police itself, and consequently, the headborough was effectively obliged to police his tithing, as well as dealing with more administrative matters. By the early 16th century,[3] it had evolved into the position of parish constable, a parochial officer subordinate to a hundred-constable.

Although the parish constable and hundred-constable share the term constable, the two roles had different functions, and origins. While the hundred-constable originated from senior military officers enforcing civil order, the parish constable had a wide range of civil administration functions in addition to a recognisable policing role. It is the hundred-constable which originated the term constable, and the parish constable acquired it by comparison; where the term headborough or chief pledge is used in contrast to a constable, the term constable is likely to refers specifically to the role of a hundred-constable.

In this sense it is found in the induction to Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (written c. 1590–92), when the Hostess of an alehouse, arguing with a drunken troublemaker, declares, "I know my remedie, I must go fetch the Headborough" (Induction, i); and again in Much Ado About Nothing (written c. 1598–9), where the dramatis personae describes Verges as a Headborough, subordinate to Constable Dogberry (Act 3, scene 5).


  1. ^ Harvey, P.D.A. (1984). Manorial Records. Archives and the User. 5. London: British Records Association. p. 47. ISBN 0-900222-06-9. 
  2. ^ White (1895:200).
  3. ^ "headborough". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)