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Tower of London History With the Chief Yeoman Warder

Yeoman warders Peter McGowran (left)  and Bob Loughlin (right)
Yeoman warders Peter McGowran (left) and Bob Loughlin (right) | © Channel 5
Colloquially known as Beefeaters, Yeoman Warders are responsible for safeguarding the Tower of London, its Crown Jewels, its ravens – and its history. Chief Yeoman Warder Peter McGowran talks about some of his favourite parts of caring for England’s most infamous former prison.

Sandwiched between the crush of city traffic and the River Thames, the Tower of London is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. It has witnessed nearly 1,000 years of the UK capital’s history since it was first built by William the Conqueror in 1078.

Within its walls reside the Yeoman Warders, commonly known as Beefeaters, who regale tourists with the incredible – and often bloody – tales of the Tower’s past.

What are Beefeaters?

The official title of the Tower of London’s watchmen is 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. However, they usually refer to themselves more simply as Yeoman Warders.

“No one really knows where the name ‘Beefeater’ comes from,” says Chief Yeoman Warder Peter McGowran. “There’s loads of stories, but the majority of us think it comes from when we used to get paid with rations of food.”

Yeoman Warder, Chris Clawson, conducting a tour. © Channel 5

Individuals can only qualify for the position of Yeoman Warder once they have served 22 years in the armed forces, reached the rank of Sergeant Major (or its equivalent) and received the Long Service and Good Conduct Medals.

“And if you get the job, you have to live here with your family. No ifs, ands or buts about it,” says McGowran, who has lived at the Tower for 10 years.

What is history of the Tower of London?

The Chief Warder doesn’t seem to mind his living arrangement, calling the Tower “a tiny village”. His passion is evident as he effortlessly recalls some of the site’s uses over the past millennium.

“It has been home to the Crown Jewels since 1303, the Royal Mint until 1810 and the Royal Observatory until it moved to Greenwich in the 17th century,” he explains. “It was an armoury, and royal records were stored here until the Public Records Office was created in the 1800s. It was also the Royal Menagerie. People are completely baffled by that last bit. Sometimes heads of state would give animals as gifts to our kings and queens and they ended up at the Tower until the late 1830s when they were moved to a strip of grass called Regent’s Park.”

Today, wire sculptures depicting animals that once called the Tower home can be seen around the grounds. They were designed by British wildlife sculptor Kendra Haste.

Why are there ravens?

There is one animal that will always receive royal treatment at the Tower: the raven. Legend has it that, if the ravens leave the Tower, it will mean an end for the British monarchy.

“King Charles II declared in a royal decree that there should always be six ravens at the Tower, but we always have one or two spare, just in case,” says McGowran of his feathered neighbours.

Tower of London Raven perched on a carved stone railing. © Channel 5

One raven, called Merlina, is sure never to leave her post. “We’re in a bit of a love affair; she still follows me around,” says McGowran, who used to assist the Yeoman Ravenmaster.

Tower Green

Merlina’s favourite perch overlooks Tower Green, a green space spliced with gravelled visitor paths and home to a small garden inspired by the one that famous prisoner Sir Walter Raleigh developed during his internment. “He was kept here for about 13 years on three occasions for various reasons. You don’t marry the Queen’s best friend and not tell her about it – he was a bit of a boyo,” McGowran laughs.

At Tower Green’s centre rests a memorial to the building’s darker history. The tribute “stands approximately where the scaffolds were, inscribed with the names of those executed by block and axe within the Tower walls – or, if you were Anne Boleyn, double-handed sword,” McGowran explains. “She actually asked to be executed with a sword because she knew the axe usually missed.”

McGowran continues: “There were about half a dozen private executions done behind the walls, but up to 1,000 prisoners were publicly executed on Tower Hill.”

Why were some executions held publicly while others were private? “It was a matter of respect,” says McGowran. High-status prisoners such as queens Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey were among the dozen or so spared the indignity of dying as part of a public spectacle.

The Bell Tower and St Thomas More’s cell

Before it was a prison, the Tower of London was a place where royalty lived and held court. However, it was soon realised that the White Tower’s robust construction made it the perfect place to confine prisoners.

The Bell Tower is McGowran’s favourite spot on the grounds. “It contains the oldest surviving bell in the city of London and it’s the strongest of the 13 towers on the inner wall. It’s just massive – 20 feet of concrete below ground, and 10 feet of solid concrete under the ground floor,” he explains.

19th century painting of St. Thomas More embracing his daughter before his execution on Tower Hill with Yeoman Warder's watching him © Edward Matthews Ward / Wikicommons

It is also the place that St Thomas More was imprisoned for 15 months before his execution.

“He was a great adviser to Henry VIII but, as a Roman Catholic, More objected to Henry’s divorce and got thrown in jail. Henry VIII thought he could sway More, but as time got on, there was no bending him, and More was made an example of on 6 July 1535,” says McGowran.

More was canonised as a martyr by Pope Pius XI in 1935, and his cell is a pilgrimage site for Catholics, but access is limited. McGowran explains: “We would love for everyone to see Thomas More’s cell – we love showing off our history – but it’s just too delicate inside.”

Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains)

More’s Catholicism was once practised at the Tower’s Chapel Royal of St Peter in Chains when it was built in 1520, but after Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church of England in 1533, it became Anglican.

The Tower’s 3 million yearly visitors can see inside the chapel, but usually only on a tour guided by a Yeoman Warder.

The chapel is also the Yeoman Warders’ parish church, meaning it holds both historical and personal significance for McGowran. The Chief Warder’s daughter and son both held their weddings in this chapel, and his grandchildren were baptised here.

Until 1857, prisoners who met their end within the Tower walls and on Tower Hill were buried under the chapel floor. But, as McGowran explains, “Queen Victoria was not happy that all those bodies were under the floor, so she ordered to exhume and put them into caskets.” A plaque with the names of the deceased rests on a chapel wall, in front of the place where the bodies are now interred in a crypt.

The crypt

Inside the Tower’s crypt lie more pieces of the Tower’s history, including a record of the births, deaths and marriages of people involved with the Tower of London dating back to the 16th century.

McGowran knows this side of the chapel well: “I used to be the chapel archivist and families all over the world get in contact for information about ancestors at the Tower. I had to learn Old English to find some of it,” he says.

The White Tower was built between 1078 and 1096. This is where royalty used to hold court. © Channel 5

The crypt, like More’s cell, is kept out of sight from the general public. “This is one of the oldest parts of the Tower. It’s a really protected space. For a while you couldn’t make more than a pin-hole in the walls,” says McGowran. Luckily, some restrictions have been lifted, meaning McGowran and his colleagues could mount plaques honouring people who lived at the Tower, voluntarily or otherwise.

If the wealth of knowledge proffered by Chief Warder McGowran is any indication, guided tours are a must for visitors to the Tower of London. Whether it’s the macabre wall etchings of Tudor prisoners, the superstition-cloaked ravens or the glittering Crown Jewels, you’ll easily find something to capture your imagination here. After all, the Tower still manages to inspire those who have lived within its walls for many years.