The History of The Tower of London’s Iconic Beefeaters


Colloquially called Beefeaters, today’s guardians of the iconic Tower of London are more correctly known as 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.

And yes, a salute is probably in order, even though a yeoman was originally a term for the servant of a royal or noble household.

For one to be in service at the Tower of London at any time in its almost thousand-year history, has always meant going way above and beyond the call of duty of a servant. The Crown Jewels and other priceless Royal collections are still kept safe at the Tower and some 3 million people a year visit to explore, discover and peel back the layers of time.

The office of the Yeoman Warder is one of the oldest in the world and a proud London tradition. Going all the way back to his resounding victory at Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror made his mark on London.  In the words of his biographer, William of Poitiers, on marching to London and needing to establish his rule, “certain fortifications were completed in the city against the restlessness of the huge and brutal populace. For he realised that it was of the first importance to overawe the Londoners”. So, it was that trustworthy guards, who became the forefathers of today’s Yeoman Warders, were installed when building commenced in 1078.  Using the sturdy Roman Wall (which came to be called the London Wall) construction began on what we now know as the White Tower in 1078. From that day to this, the Tower of London has never been unguarded.

As seen in many castles, there was always place for imprisonment – usually in the dungeons. In the 16th century, after Henry Vlll moved the royal family to Hampton Court, he left 12 guards at the Tower. Upon being repurposed as a prison, the term Yeoman Warders became preferable to Beefeaters because the English word “warder” refers to a prison guard. The Tower prison complex was reserved for people of high status. Prisoners could purchase amenities via the Lieutenant of the Tower and lived in relative comfort. A case in point was Sir Walter Raleigh. During his imprisonment, the Tower rooms were altered to accommodate his family and a son was born to him there in 1605.

The Tower prison was deemed safer than other London prisons, which were rife with disease. The duties of the Yeoman Warders came to include less desirable aspects when it came to dealing with prisoners.  Executions took place more commonly on Tower Hill. Only those for whom public execution was considered dangerous, met their death either in the Tower or within the castle walls, on Tower Green.

Tower Home For Beefeater Families

Today, the iconic Tower of London complex is home for some 37 Yeoman Warder families, who take great pride in their knowledge of its intrigues and rich history. The families live in a village-type setting run by a governor (who lives in the actual Tower itself), a chaplain, a doctor and a pub. There are drawbacks to living there, we are told. For one thing, it’s all but impossible to get outside the complex once the Tower gates have closed and don’t ever try ordering in because no one believes that’s your real address!

The Yeoman Warders always dress in uniform – blue for normal day use and the red and gold uniform for ceremonies and State occasions. Once suited up, they share the 21 various duties, taking turns in shifts. A vital part of any Yeoman Warder’s day is to learn, by rote, the 8,500-word script of the Yeoman Warder Tour, after which they then can lead their own tours. The guided tours are absorbing, educational and entertaining. They start every half hour and last for about an hour.

Where the Beefeater designation came from is anyone’s guess, from the rather uncomplimentary reference to eating as much beef as they wanted from the king’s table to the more likely tale that they often received pay in the form of food rations. Or, it could also refer to the resident ravens who required their daily doses of meat, in which case their guardians became today’s Beefeaters.

To qualify for today’s elite Yeoman Warder corps, a minimum of 22 years spent in the armed forces, the rank of Sergeant Major – or any senior non-commissioned office must have been achieved and Long Service and Good Conduct medals must be in hand. Either way, the designation differentiated them from other Royal Bodyguards and the name has stuck.

The Chief Yeoman Warder and the Ceremony Of The Keys

For just a moment, one might be forgiven for thinking one was back in the past as a lone Yeoman Warder wearing a long red overcoat and bearing a shiny old brass lantern in one hand a huge brass ring of keys in the other, walks down the narrow, cobbled street for the nightly Ceremony of the Keys.

The Yeoman Warder is joined by four members of the British duty regiment of Footguards and they all march on toward the heavy wooden Tower doors. A soldier takes the lantern as the keys are used and each lock is checked. Precisely at the end of the ceremony, the clock strikes ten. It’s the oldest, longest-running ceremony in the world – uninterrupted for 700 years!

There was once a 7-minute delay, however, after a World War II bomb was dropped nearby. The Governor wrote to the then King (George VI) with a report that there were no injuries suffered, to apologise for the delay and offer his resignation. The king accepted the apology, replying that he was glad no was killed and hoped it would not happen again.

It cannot but be a life-changing experience to visit the Beefeaters at the Tower of London. Would you care to join us for an unforgettable personalised experience at the Tower of London?