The chief warder raises the pewter punchbowl and, with the words ‘May you never die a yeoman warder’ welcomes another new recruit to the centuries-old ranks of the Beefeaters. For arcane ritual, curious titles and elaborate ceremony, there are not many places on earth to beat the Tower of London.
The Tower gave the sprinkling of Middlesex villages around its walls the collective name of ‘the tower hamlets’ and hence the borough’s name to this day. But why beefeaters? It’s all part of the strange mixture of palace, prison and pantomime that is the Tower of London.
Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London
The select band of beefeaters (there are 36 yeoman warders at the Tower, plus the yeoman gaoler and the chief yeoman warder) have to be a special sort: part soldier, part tour guide and ever-mindful of the solemn history of the Tower of London. There’s plenty of ceremonial to master, including the nightly Ceremony of the Keys, 900 years of history to learn and they are, should you be deceived by the colourful uniforms, all hardened professional servicemen.
There’s no shortage of men putting themselves forward for the job … but most are turned away. Even to apply for a position as a Yeoman Warder, the men have to have 19 years of service with good conduct as a senior non-commissioned offer from the Army, RAF, Royal Marines or Royal Navy. So the typical Warder is a sergeant-major, retiring in their late forties from active service.
Bloodsoaked past of Tower of London
The typical sergeant-major character comes in pretty handy with the tour guide side of the job too. Dealing all day with tourists, questions and recounting grisly tales of the Tower’s bloodsoaked past is a basic part of the job. The gallows humour, boundless self confidence and loud voice that comes from years of knocking soldiers into shape on the parade ground must come in handy.
Of course officially you’re not a Beefeater but a ‘Yeoman Warder of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary’. The Beefeater nickname arose from jealousy at the special privileges this elite guard enjoyed through the ages.
Ann Boleyn and the Bloody Tower
At a time when meat was an expensive luxury, rarely seen by the common people, the Yeomanry always got their ration. And in Georgian times they were still munching their way through extraordinary quantities of flesh. In 1813, the daily ration for the 30 men on duty was 18lb of mutton, 16lb of veal, and of course beef … 24lb of it.
The new Warders have to do a ‘knowledge’ of the Tower similar to that demanded of black cab drivers. Where was Ann Boleyn beheaded? (The usual answer is just below her chin)? Why is the Bloody Tower so called? What happened to the Princes in the Tower? All these and hundreds more are asked of Beefeaters every day.
German spies in Tower of London
The Warders get two uniforms, the ceremonial red-and-gold worn for state occasions, such as when the monarch visits the Tower, and the everyday blue ‘undress’ uniform. They and their families get a grace-and-favour residence at the Tower (the tidy little houses faces Tower Green) though they must own a home elsewhere so they have somewhere to go when they retire.
It is many centuries since the Tower of London was a royal palace (it was first established by William the Conqueror to secure his hold on London and the Thames of course). And it’s a long time since it was a prison, though interestingly it has been pressed back into service during times of threat to the nation.
During both World Wars, German spies were held and then executed at the Tower. The Government, recognising the propaganda value, felt that executions at this symbolic spot would have the greatest impact in Britain and Germany.
Queen’s House, Tower of London
But the Warders consider their role far more than mere symbol. Having sworn an oath of allegiance (and oath that dates back to 1337) they still take the nightly Ceremony of the Keys seriously. A Yeoman Warder hands over the prison keys to the Queen’s House within the Tower, and this most ancient of English palaces is safe for another night.