“The Truth and Nothing But the Truth”: Its first use in popular culture

By Stephen Basdeo

‘The truth and nothing but the truth’—it’s a well-known phrase used in courts of law and most of us have probably heard it in some police procedural drama. The principle that one should not lie in a court of law has been around since time immemorial, but can the first use of the famous phrase in the English language be traced?

marcia-cross-on-trial-law-order-svu-2015
The phrase “The Truth and Nothing But the Truth” can be heard regularly in crime dramas such as Law and Order.

I believe that an obscure song from 1626, titled ‘The Song of a Constable’, contains the first use of the phrase (quite willing to be corrected on this however, so please do comment below if there are earlier examples).

England did not have a professional police force until 1829, when the Metropolitan Police Act was passed. Before that year, the keeping of law and order fell on the shoulders of part time constables, and, in the eighteenth century, thief takers and Henry Fielding’sBow Street Runners. In the case of serious rioting, the militia might be called in. English people rejected a police force because it was seen as an instrument of government tyranny; the memory of the English Revolution and subsequent dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, who used a standing army to police the people of England, loomed large in discussions of law enforcement; the fact that many despotic rulers on the continent also had police forces in their employ did little to convince hearts and minds for the need of a uniformed police force. So Englishmen, ever jealous of their political liberties, were contented with a haphazard system of law enforcement.

Image of Joseph Ritson
Joseph Ritson began researching the history of the office of constable in the late eighteenth century

Joseph Ritson, a lawyer from Stockton-on-Tees born in 1752, began researching the history of the office of constable during the 1780s. He published several works on the history of crime and law enforcement, some of which were also intended to serve as manuals for would-be constables, in order that they might know the powers they had. Such was Ritson’s The Office of Constable, published in 1811.

Ritson Constable
Joseph Ritson’s Office of Constable (second edition)

This book was important because a person did not apply to become a constable, like people apply for a job in the police force today, but they were chosen much as jurors are chosen in the UK today: a person would simply receive a letter telling him that he had been selected to serve as a constable. The person chosen would then be summoned in front of a jury to take the Oath of a Constable. If the person refused, he would be fined for not attending to his civic duty. A person had to serve as a constable while also carrying on his own daily business. It is no wonder that people often tried to wriggle out of the obligation to serve as a constable. In his Digest, Ritson recorded several people in the Liberty of the Savoy alone who had either refused to take the office or absconded from their duties such as Benjamin Walwyn, a glover, and Michael Connor, a peruke maker, who in 1761 were each fined £7 for refusing to take the constable’s oath.[1]

constable pic 1
A constable from before 1829

The historian in Ritson shines through at the beginning of the book, for in the introduction he delves into the etymology of the word ‘constable’ in his introduction, and the appearance of constables in classical, medieval, and early modern literature. The word, so Ritson remarked, came from the office of comes stabuli in the Eastern Roman Empire:

The origin of the word CONSTABLE, which some etymologists have erroneously sought for in the Saxon language is undoubtedly to be found in the Comes Stabuli of the Eastern empire: hence the constabularies, constabulus, &c. of barbarous Latinity; the connestable of the French; the conestabile of the Italians … this signification, appears to have been introduced into England at the Norman conquest, of perhaps sooner.[2]

Modern etymological dictionaries agree with Ritson: the word is indeed taken from an office in the Ancient Roman Empire which means ‘count of the stable’.[3] Ritson goes on to point out the many different kinds of constables that have existed in various parts of England since the Middle Ages, such as the Lord High Constable of England, who was the leader of the king’s armies; constables of the castles; constable of the exchequer and so forth. Ritson’s focus, however, was upon those constables who were charged with maintaining law and order, namely, the High Constable of the Hundred and his subordinate, the petty constable.[4] The main part of the book is, as its title suggests, spelling out in precise detail the powers of arrest that constables had and how they might use them. A constable—and they were always men—was

To take such as make affray, and imprison them until they are bound to the peace. He is forthwith to arrest all roberdsmen, wastours, or drawlatches, upon suspicion of evil from them by any man, and to deliver them, if arrested in a franchise, to the bailiff, if in gildable, to the sheriff, to be kept in prison till the jail delivery.[5]

The constable also had further powers: he may take into custody any ‘ruffian’ who verbally or physically assaults him, and he may also beat the said villain in self-defence; he may detain any ‘madman’ who poses a threat to public order; he might, if needed, command his neighbours to assist him in arresting someone, and he may, if necessary, deputize another citizen to serve temporarily in his stead, and fine anyone who refused. The constable could also dispense punishments for minor offences such as drunk and disorderly by placing such persons in the stocks without needing to haul them in front of a magistrate.[6]

However, one of the most interesting parts of Ritson’s book was his reprinting song which, as I stated above, contains perhaps the earliest use of that well-known phrase: The truth and nothing but the truth.

The Song of a Constable

Made by James Gyffon, Constable of Albury, Anno 1626.

To the Tune of Jump to me, Cousin.

 

I a constable have took mine oath,

By which shall plain appear

The truth and nothing but the truth,

Whos’ever my song will hear.

Our Great Constable of England was,

Another late should have been,

But little ones now ‘tis found will serve,

So they be but honest men.

A Constable must be honest and just,

Have knowledge and good report,

And able to strain with body and brain,

Else he is not fitting for’t.

 

Some parish puts a constable on,

Alas! Without understanding,

Because they’d rule him when they have done,

And have him at their commanding;

And if he commands the poor, they’ll grutch,

And twit him with partial blindness;

Again, if he commands the rich,

They’ll threaten him with unkindness.

To charge or compel ‘em he’s busy, they’ll tell ‘im;

In paying of rates they’ll brawl;

Falls he but unto do that he should do,

I’ll warrant you displease them all.

 

Whip he the rogues, they’ll rail and they’ll curse,

Soldiers as rude ‘cause they are,

Sent to the treasurer with their pass,

And may not beg everywhere.

If warrants do come, as often they do,

For money, then he it demands;

To everyone with ‘s rate he does go,

Wherein they are levied by lands.

They’ll say then, he gathers up money of others

To put to use for increase

Else gathers it up to run away w’it:

 

Hearing a press for soldiers, they’ll start,

Else hide themselves when we come.

Their wives then will say, “To press we ye may:

Our husbands are not at home.”

Coin for magazines, sent in haste,

Much ado was ere they yielded,

Yet’s gathered and paid, and I am afraid

They will not in haste be builded.

The justices will set us by the heels,

If we do not as we should;

Which if we perform, the townsmen will storm;

Some of them hang ‘s if they could.

 

The constables warned to th’ Sessions then;

Unwilling some goes, alas!

Yet there may wit and experience learn,

If that he be not an ass.

There shall he see the Justices set,

Hear three of Oyes’es, and,

Then shall he hear the Commission read,

Though little he understand.

Four free-landed men are called for in then,

To be of the Great Inquest,

The chief of our towns with hoar on the crowns,

That what should be done knows best.

 

Choice men of every town in the shire,

Three juries there must be more,

Called unto the book with “Here, Sir, here,”

The wisest of twenty before.

Then there shall he see whom hath transgressed

Punished for his offence;

There shall he hear a number amerced

Along of their negligence.

What things are amiss, what doings there is,

Justices charge them enquire,

‘fore Clerk of the Peace, and bailies at least

A dozen, besides the crier.

 

Verdicts must come from these juries then,

But howsoe’er they indict them,

They’ll not be took till next day at ten,

Unless that their clerks do right them.

Rough words or smooth are all but in vain;

All courts of profit to savour;

And though the case never be so plain

Yet kissing shall go by favour.

They’ll punish the leastest, and favour the greatest,

Nought may against them proceed;

And who dare speak ‘gainst one that is great?

Law with a powder indeed!

 

Thus now my constableship’s near done;

Mark, hearers, sayers and singers:

Not an officer under the sun,

But does look through his fingers!

Yet where I see one willing to mend,

Not prating nor making excuses,

Such a one if I can I’ll befriend,

And punish the gross abuses.

My counsel now use, you that are to choose,

Put able men ever in place,

For knaves and fools in authority do,

But themselves and their country disgrace.

 

FINIS.[7]


[1] Joseph Ritson, A Digest of the Proceedings of the Court Leet (London: Printed in the Year 1789), pp. 8–9.

[2] Joseph Ritson, The Office of Constable (London: W. Clarke, 1815). p. 7.

[3] Marco Sampaolo et al., [online], ‘constable’, in Encyclopædia Britannica cited 15 October 2019. Available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/constable

[4] Ritson, The Office of Constable, pp. 8–10.

[5] Ritson, The Office of Constable, p. 44.

[6] Ritson, The Office of Constable, pp. 46–47.

[7] James Gyffon, ‘Song of a Constable’, in The Elizabethan Underworld, ed. by A. V. Judges (London: Routledge, 1930), pp. 489–91.

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