Camelot International > Tower of London

The Yeoman Warders

Since the Tower's earliest days there will have been men provided to ward the prisoners and attend the gates. An old record once kept in the Tower Warders' hall reads:

The Easter Parade 1997

On the 22nd of August 1485 Henry, Earl of Richmond, was by public acclamation saluted on the Battle field of Bosworth King over England and was crowned on the 30 of October following. In the first year of his reign, the Yeoman of the Guard was first ordered of which the Yeoman Waiters or Warders of the Tower hath the seniority.

It is therefore from Henry VII's reign that the Body of Yeoman Warders claim their origin.

The historical duties of the Yeoman Warders or 'Waiters were to guard the prisoners and attend the gates, hence the name "Waiters", which was in use in earlier time. The daily duty roster is still called 'The Wait'. The popular term "Beefeater" should not be applied to the Yeoman Warders of the Tower. It means what it says and, according to the dictionary, is not entirely complimentary. It certainly does not imply attendance at the King's table and the back formation of a non-existent French word "Buffetier" is an absurdity.

The Royal Livery, the State clothing, has varied in detail over the years and the present style was established during Queen Victoria's reign. It is worn only on special occasions, most frequently at the three annual church parades. The coat, hat and white gloves are worn when Royal salutes are fired. The present blue undress clothing was introduced in 1858 and the present cloth hat in 1885. As can be imagined, there was much early criticism of it. The scarlet Watchcoat, which the public see worn by the Chief Warder and the Watchman at the Ceremony of the Keys, has been in use for a very long time. The Yeoman Warders are armed with a sword and partizan.

Yeoman Warders in the past

For many years the post of a Yeoman Warders was purchased at a price of 250 guineas. The fees paid by prisoners and other perquisites, including lodgings, must have made this a good bargain. It did however, lead to abuse. A further abuse was that some posts were in the personal gift of Lieutenants. Deputy Lieutenants and others and could well be bestowed without proper regard to the competence of the recipients. The Duke of Wellington put an end to this system and awarded the posts to worthy non commissioned officers of the Household Cavalry, Foot Guards and Infantry of the Line solely on their regiment's recommendation. He also abolished an old 5ft 9in height standard. The system of selection remains much the same today. Yeoman Warders are recruited from the Royal Marines, the Army and the Royal Air Force and must have attained the rank of Warrant Officer, Staff Sergeant or Flight Sergeant.

The appointment formerly tended to be for life, which meant that many of the Warders were too old for their duties.

In 1688 all Warders who held warrants for life were ordered to surrender them and to receive new ones to be held at His Majesty's pleasure. This same order removed the lieutenant's right to sell a post without the King's approval. The modern Yeoman Warders have been Civil Servants since 1952 and retire at 65. Today it is a condition of appointment that the Yeoman Warders live in the Tower, but in the past many were permitted to live out and those allotted lodgings had from time to time to be admonished for taking lodgers for profit.

When State prisoners were held in the Tower they were lodged in the various Towers and sometimes in the Warder's lodgings. For their warding, board and upkeep they paid fees to their Warder. These fees were no doubt designed to secure a profit for the Warder concerned but sometimes the prisoner refused to pay. In 1723 Christopher Layer refused to pay after his condemnation and left debts of £52. Each prisoner was allotted a Warder or Warders, who were personally responsible for the prisoner's security. If the prisoner escaped the Warder was immediately dismissed. This happened to several after Lord Nithsdale's celebrated escape. Sometimes a Warder would accompany a prisoner on bail.

The Warders have always been responsible for the Tower fates. There were occasions when disputes arose about the jurisdiction of the Warders and the soldiers of the garrison. In these instances it was always ruled that control of entry was the Warders' concern and the garrison was not interfere. As early as the reign of Elizabeth I Warders were earning fees for escorting visitors round the armoury and remained the only authorised guides in the Tower until the 19th century. A scale of fees was authorised which included visits to the Horse and Spanish Armouries and the Jewel House. In Wellington's time these fees were abolished and Warders' salaries fixed in lieu.

Today the Yeoman Warders are responsible for the security of the Tower and its visitors. They control the gates and the Wharf and all areas open to the public except that the Jewel House and Armouries have their own internal staffs of Wardens. At one time Civil Police were on duty outside Jewel House and at the outer gates, but they were withdrawn in 1924. All Warders are now Special Constables of the Metropolitan Police. The Yeoman Warders also conduct public guided tours in the Tower throughout the day.

The strength of the Body has varied but there have usually been between 30-40 effectives. Reductions used to occur when old and ineffective Warders were removed from the strength and increased when there were many prisoners to be warded, as, for instance at the Glorious Revolution.

The most recent reduction in numbers was on the score of economy some seven years ago. This was soon followed by an increase to meet increased security needs.

The two chief officials of the body are the Chief Yeoman Warder and the Yeoman Gaoler.

The Chief Yeoman Warder

Hugh Thompson
Chief yeoman warder
In Edward III's reign, John of London was appointed Porter (ie Gatekeeper) of the Tower with the especial charge of the gates and drawbridges and portcullises, for which he was paid 4d a day. He received 2d a day for a varlet to carry his keys and was dressed and armed as the other Yeoman. There are some other Porters named in the 15th century including one Thomas Redhead, a servant of Richard III, who ad 6d a day and little house near the Bulward.

Gentlemen Porters continued to be appointed until the last one retired in 1853 after 50 years service. By 1714 there was a Yeoman Porter as well and it seems that the senior office became increasingly a sinecure. In 1831 the Constable reported that his duty was performed by deputy. In 1608 the Porters supervised all those duties of the Warders which did not concern the prisoners, who were the responsibility of the Gentleman Gaoler. In 1746 the Constable ordered the Gentleman Porter to confine his attention to the gates and not to meddle with prisoners or anything else. By 1796 the Yeoman Porter had come to be regarded as head of the Yeoman Warders, but he is not referred to as Chief Warder till 1896. By 1903 the title Yeoman Porter had been dropped.

The mace carried on ceremonial occasions by the Chief Yeoman Warder was purchased by the inhabitants of the Tower Liberties in 1792. It used to be carried in procession by the beadles of the Tower Coroner. It was removed from the Tower in 1805 and returned in 1876, when it was handed to the Resident Governor after Quarter Sessions.

The Yeoman Goaler

Tom Sharp
Yeoman Gaoler
In 1509 it was recorded that :' The lieutenant of the Tower hath always made choice from among the antientest Warders of some trusty persons [sic] to be Gentleman Gaoler to whom there was allowed 12 pence a day' There is no evidence that this precedent was always followed but it does appear that the Gaoler, despite his title, was always of yeoman quality.

The Gentleman Gaoler had the supervision of the prisoners and their warders. He lived in the house on Tower Green between the Queen's House and the Beauchamp Tower and it was in the predecessor of the present house that Nathaniel Partridge acted as host and warder to Lady Jane Grey. The Gaoler accompanied prisoners to and from their trials either by boat or by coach, carrying the ceremonial axe. The blade was pointed away from the prisoner until the verdict. If he was found guilty, the blade was then turned towards him. Lord Balmerino at his trial 1746 treated the Axe with scant respect, using its blade to prevent an eavesdropper listening to his conversation with the Gaoler. On the return journey in the coach he adjured the Gaoler not to break his shins with his 'damn'd axe'. The nature of the Axe is often misunderstood and it is amusing to read that in 1847 the Gaoler was excused carrying it on Muster parades because it exposed him to public obloquy. The record goes on to say, very surprisingly, 'according to ancient and established custom it rests with him (in the extreme case) to provide an executioner or headsman for which services he receives a fee of £500'. The Axe is always carried nowadays when the Yeoman Gaoler parades.

Other Tower Offices

There have been and are other Tower offices filled by Yeoman Warders. There is no evidence that the Clock-keeper and Bellringer, the Waterpumper, the Scavenger and the Lieutenant's Servant, who received warrants in 1714, were Yeoman Warders but they were certainly of that quality. The Scavenger however at one time was a woman. The duties were to clear away soil and dirt occasioned by the Constable, Lieutenant or any house or family of the Tower. By 1866 there was a Yeoman Quartermaster appointed to supervise the Tower's sanitation and fire precautions and in 1891 we find him also undertaking the duties of Bellringer. The curfew bell is still rung by Yeoman Warders but the other duties are now undertaken by civilian staff.

Today Yeoman Warders fill the posts of Clerk and Sexton to the Chapel and Raven Master. The story goes that, when the observatory was in the north-eastern turret of the White Tower, The Astronomer Royal complained to Charles II that the ravens were interfering with his observation. The King then ordered their destruction, only to be told that if the ravens left the Tower the White Tower would fall and the Kingdom with it.

A limited number of ravens were therefore allowed to remain. They are cared for by the Raven Master, a Yeoman Warder whose job it is to ensure their wellbeing. They are now an established feature of the Tower and the inhabitants would regret their disappearance as much as the Warders did in 1946.

Why are the Warders sometimes known as Beefeaters?

The truth is that no-one actually knows for sure how the Yeoman Warders came to be known as 'Beefeaters'. It's a nickname and the most plausible reason behind it comes from years gone by when during times of famine in the city of London the Yeoman Warders were given extra rations of meat to ensure that they were loyal to the throne. It would have been a term of derision from the rest of the populace who would refer to the Yeoman Warders as 'Beefeaters' just to annoy them. (There would have been little else they could have done - sticks and stones etc)

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