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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

About History: The Who’s Who of Beefeaters

Updated: Feb 17

It seems nobody knows for certain why the King’s Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard are called ‘Beefeaters’. Over the years various explanations have been offered. Perhaps the term originated in Old English for a servant. One of the Beefeaters’ original roles was to attend the monarch at mealtimes so perhaps the name comes from buffetier, Old French for a type of waiter.


After the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, the new king, Henry VII, conferred the title of ‘Yeomen of the Guard’ on the men chosen to protect his person. In doing so, Henry was also proclaiming to the people that his body-guard had been selected not from the nobility, but from that class just below them [1] who had proved themselves to be the national strength of the country at home and abroad. The Yeoman of the Guard are, therefore, the oldest of the Royal bodyguards and the oldest military corps in existence in Britain. Today there are 73 Yeomen of the Guard, all of whom are former warrant or non-commissioned officers of the British Armed Forces, who wear a distinctive Tudor-style uniform of red, white and gold symbolic of their origin.


It is thought that the nickname ‘Beefeater’ may reflect that the Yeoman of the Guard received a substantial beef ration from the Tudor king’s table. Much later an Italian visitor to the court of Charles II noted the guardsmen were called ‘beef-eaters’ for this very reason.

People often confuse the Yeoman of the Guard (The Body Guard) with the Yeoman Warders who guard the Tower of London. The reason for this is easily understood as both are popularly known as ‘Beefeaters’, and their ‘State dress’ uniforms are similarly styled. To confuse the matter further, the Yeomen Warders also wear the ceremonial Tudor-style scarlet uniform but only on specific ceremonial occasions and crucially without a cross-belt. The everyday dark blue and red ‘undress’ uniform is the one generally seen being worn by Warders on duty at the Tower of London.



The Yeoman of the Guard, however, are solely headquartered in St James’ Palace and have no duties at The Tower of London. Indeed, most Yeomen have a full time second career outside of The Body Guard. Most also live across the British Isles and are only summoned for duty on Ceremonial Occasions (see box above).


When wearing their scarlet uniforms, the Yeomen of the Guard can be distinguished by the distinctive cross belt worn from the left shoulder. Originally this belt had a practical function to support the weight of a cumbersome Arquebus [2] when this heavy matchlock firearm was carried. While the Arquabus has not been fielded since the 1600s, the cross-belt has been retained and is worn with pride. The Yeoman of the Guard also carry a sword, which is never drawn unless to protect the sovereign, and a polearm known as a 'partisan'. The latter’s blued steel head is gilded with the Royal Arms and Royal Cypher and Crown, and is attached to long gilt socket, below which is a large yellow and crimson tassel. The blade is attached to a wood shaft just under 2m long.

 

References:


BBC History Magazine, November 2022, ‘Q&A’, p. 60.


‘The Royal Family’ website, ‘Yeoman of the Guard’, available online (accessed December 6th, 2022).


The King's Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard‘ website (2022), available online (accessed December 7th, 2022).


Endnotes:


1. In the social class structure of the 15th century Yeomen were ‘gentlemen just below the rank of esquire.’


2. The muzzle-loading Arquebus, also called Harquebus or Hackbut, was a long, portable smoothbore matchlock gun. Although it was the first gun fired from the shoulder it was generally fired from a support, against which the recoil was transferred from a hook on the gun. Invented in Spain in the mid-15th century, the weapon’s name seems derived from the German Hakenbüchse meaning ‘hooked gun’. The harquebus had an effective range of less than 200 m. It was superseded by the larger musket in the mid-16th century.


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