...or, The Yeoman Warders of Her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign's Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary,
to give them their full title.

But that's a bit of a mouthful.

You could call them Beefeaters.

But they don't tend to like that.

And you don't want to confuse them with the Yeomen of the Guard, who form a distinct section of the monarch's bodyguard.

Upsetting one of these people would be a bad idea.

Which means that we'll be sticking to Yeoman Warder, then.

So, who are these Yeoman Warder dudes?

Traditionally, the Yeoman Warders acted as the gaolers of the prisoners incarcerated in the Tower of London, and guarded the Crown Jewels, which are housed there. Given that the Tower is no longer used a prison, that role has somewhat diminished. Now, their primary day-to-day role is to act as tour guides for the Tower, in addition to the various ceremonial duties that they fulfil.

They've been doing this for a while, then?

Yes, just a few years. The oath of allegiance sworn by newly-inducted warders dates back to 1337, but there has been a body of people dedicated to guarding the Tower since it was built in 1078.

What's this I heard you say about ceremonial duties?

As the official gaolers of the Tower, the Yeoman Warders are responsible for its security, thus each night just before 10 pm they perform the Ceremony of the Keys, when they lock up the Tower and deposit the keys in the Queen's House. The Yeoman Warders are also responsible for the eyrie of ravens that reside at the Tower. The Yeoman Warder bearing primary responsibility for the ravens is known as the Ravenmaster. The original purpose of the ravens was to pluck out the eyes of executed criminals. Now, six ravens are kept in order to safeguard the security of the kingdom: legend has it that should the ravens flee the Tower, something terrible will befell the nation. Aside from these daily duties Yeoman Warders also take part in the Lord Mayor's Show, and attend the coronation and lying in state of a sovereign.

How did they end up with the name 'Beefeaters'?

How the Yeoman Warders acquired the nickname 'Beefeaters' is unexplained, but there are two potential theories. The first is that it was a jealous reference to the substantial ration of meat to which the thirty men who were on duty each day were entitled. In times when meat was a luxury 24lbs of beef, 18lbs mutton and 16lbs of veal went a very long way. The second theory is that it derives from the French term buffetier: one who guarded the king's food. Personally, I prefer the first theory, but I'm not in the habit of offending these people, and seeing as its origins were derogatory, I don't use it.

Any ideas why it's a bad idea to offend the Beef... sorry, Yeoman Warders?

There are 36 Yeoman Warders, the Yeoman Gaoler, and the Chief Yeoman Warder. All of them have served in Her (or His) Majesty's Armed Forces (Army, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or Royal Navy) for a minimum of 22 years, and achieved the rank of a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer. Furthermore, they all hold Long Service and Good Conduct medals. They are a fairly formidable crew.

Granted, offending one of these men would not be a good idea

Stop right there! Women can be appointed Yeoman Warders, too. The first female Yeoman Warder — the term remains Yeoman, because it is a reference to an old English social class — was appointed in January 2007. It hasn't been until recently that women have been able to serve in the Armed Forces at the requisite class for the prescribed length of time that would allow them to meet the selection criteria.

Ooops! Anyway, you've served as a Senior NCO, you've got your medals, what then?

Seeing as the Yeoman Warders act as tour guides at the Tower, they need to have an exhaustive knowledge of its 900 year history. This is something that's tested before appointment. Induction to the group takes place on Tower Green, after the Tower has been closed to the public. The new recruit will swear the oath of allegiance, and then his or her health will be toasted by the other Yeoman Warders, led by the Chief Yeoman Warder, from a ceremonial pewter punch bowl. The punch bowl was a gift from the errant Yeoman Warder Wilkins, back in 1722. He'd been keeping in a tavern in Southwark rather than keeping the Tower safe. The punch bowl was part of his apology. The toast — 'May you never die a Yeoman Warder!' — isn't as morbid as it seems. Yeoman Warders pay 250 guineas on appointment. When they retire, £250 of this is returned, whilst the constable who appointed them retains £12.50. Should a Yeoman Warder die before retirement, the constable is entitled to the full 250 guineas.

You have to pay 250 guineas for the privilege? Surely there must be some perks to the job?

How about being the only people permitted to reside within the grounds of the Tower? The terrace of houses overlooking Tower Green are the residences of the Yeoman Warders and their families. Then of course there are the fabulous uniforms. The red and gold dress uniform, which dates back to 1552, is worn on State Occasions or if the monarch is visiting the Tower of London. It consists of red and gold tunic emblazoned with the monarch's initials, red stockings, black bonnet and shoes, white ruff (a fashionable addition made by Elizabeth I), and halberd. You can distinguish a Yeoman Warder from a Yeoman of the Guard by the absence of a cross sash on the Yeoman Warder's uniform. The blue and red undress uniform comes in two weights: one for summer and one for winter. Female Yeoman Warders wear the same uniform as their male colleagues, although it is cut slightly differently to accommodate the figure.

Anything else I should know?

These people are mines of information, take advantage of this when you visit the Tower.

Not getting locked up for plagiarism:

  • Getting scared halfway to death by one of these guys on one of my visits to the Tower
  • http://www.historicroyalpalaces.org/webcode/content.asp?ID=544
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/london/6226963.stm
  • http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/questions/Beefeaters.htm
  • http://www.eastlondonhistory.com/beefeaters.htm