‘Beafeater’ is the popular term for the ceremonial guards at the Tower of London, their full title being ‘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’ – doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Nobody knows for sure where their nickname came from, though it’s thought to have something to do with the fact that Yeomen Warders used to be paid part of their salary in beef from the King’s table.
Though today’s Beefeaters act primarily as tour guides, historically their purpose has been to look after prisoners in the tower and guard the Crown Jewels, which are stored there. Formed in 1485 as part of the ‘Yeoman of the Guard’ by the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, the red dress of today’s Yeoman Warders is referred to as Tudor State Dress; it has changed very little since its origins and still features a Tudor Rose emblem. Despite the fame of this costume, it is only worn when the sovereign visits the tower, or during state occasions, with guards wearing a plainer costume of navy blue with red trimmings the rest of the time, known as ‘undress’.
In 1509, Henry VIII moved his official residence out of the Tower of London, although the building retained its status as a Royal Palace. Subsequently, 12 members of the Yeomen of the Guard were left as a garrison, becoming the Yeoman Warders, a distinct group within the wider corps of the Royal Bodyguard.
Today, there are 37 Yeoman Warders and one Chief Warder, all of whom are required to have served with distinction in the armed forces for at least 22 years. The warders and their families live in the Tower of London, with part of their salaries taken as rent. Each night at 10 pm, the warders lock the palace as part of the Ceremony of the Keys, a 700-year-old tradition.
In July 2007, Moira Cameron became the first woman to be permitted to join the Beefeaters, and in April this year, Lawrence Watts became the first black Beefeater.