The Beefeaters are the rather strangely dressed gentlemen that you see on tourist images and postcards of London. They wear a uniform that has changed little across the centuries and as such they stand out as being part of the history of the city rather than a modern addition. The men that we rather lovingly refer to as ‘Beefeaters’ are actually the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London. While the main guard duties at the Tower are undertaken by the Foot Guards, the Yeoman Warders serve as a ceremonial guard. One of the main ceremonies that they are involved in is the ‘Ceremony of the Keys’ which takes place every day. During the ceremony it is the responsibility of the chief warder to ensure that the gates to the Tower are closed and secured just before 10pm; he is escorted during the procedure by a four man armed escort, after all he is charged with the securing of and the protection of the crown jewels. Once he has secured the gates he needs to gain entry back into the Tower proper and in doing so is ritually challenged by the sentry guard. He is allowed to pass after being recognised as the keeper of the Queen’s keys. This is of course only part of the ceremony, a ritual which has been played out on the same area of the Tower grounds for more than 700 years.
Duties and Responsibilities
There is one state ceremony which takes place outside of the grounds of the Tower of London in which the Yeoman Warders take part. It is the coronation ceremony and their duty is form the guard of honour which is positioned within the annexe inside Westminster Abbey. Originally it was the duty of the yeoman warders to guard the prisoners incarcerated within the Tower, as well as guard the crown jewels. These days they tend to act more as your guides for the millions of visitors that flock to the Tower of London each year. There are in fact only twelve yeoman warders at the Tower, though their title is hardly ever used as they are widely regarded as ‘Beefeaters’ by the general public as well as by visitors from overseas.
So why Beefeaters? It is widely believed that the term comes from the French word ‘Buffetier’ used to describe the guards charged with guarding the King’s palaces. However there is also a popular school of thought which believes that the name came about as up until as late as the 1800’s they received a payment in the form of beef as part of their salary.
Who Are the Beefeaters?
The Yeoman Warders as well as the Yeoman of the Guard are all former military personnel from the British armed forces. The Yeoman of the Guard is the oldest military unit still in existence in the UK as it was originally formed in 1485 under the orders of King Henry VII. Victorious after the Battle of Bosworth the King ordered the creation of a personal bodyguard to accompany him at all times. The Yeoman Warders came into existence under King Henry VIII. Leaving twelve of the more infirm and elderly of the Yeoman of the Guard to watch over the Tower of London in 1509, he took the remainder of the guard with him on his travels. Twelve remained and there are still twelve in the same role today.