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).
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. 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, 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 aquired 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).
- Harvey, P.D.A. (1984). Manorial Records. Archives and the User. 5. London: British Records Association. p. 47. ISBN 0-900222-06-9.
- White (1895:200).
- "headborough". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.) (subscription required)
- White, Archer M. (1895). Outlines of Legal History. London: Swan Sonneschein & Co.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "Borough-Head, or Headborough". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
- Bouvier's Law Dictionary. Revised 6th Ed. 1856.
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