Exploring the lives of iconic Londoners. Marianka Swain gets an insider’s tour from a Beefeater.
The Tower of London is a living, working royal palace, so we’re part of living history,” explains Yeoman Serjeant Jim Duncan, one of 37 current Yeoman Warders, also known as Beefeaters. “We’re so aware of everyone who came before us. The Tower has always been here – it’s the city’s protector.”
Why are they called beefeaters?
In the 15th century, King Henry VII gathered a group of soldiers to become his personal bodyguard, and in 1509 Henry VIII chose 12 of them to protect the Tower. The “Beefeater” designation most likely refers to the guards receiving a larger food ration than other royal servants.
Today, Beefeaters must have at least 22 years’ military service, the rank of Warrant Officer, and the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. Jim served in the Queen’s Regiment, everywhere from Northern Ireland to the Falklands, before returning to his home town of London. “I was at the Tower quite a bit when I was with the Horseguards, and I always hoped to join the Wardens one day.”
Applicants have to give a presentation on a historic subject, and Jim did “a quick history of 1,000 years of the Tower of London in 20 minutes! It’s fascinating, as each tower has its own name and purpose.”
There’s a historic hierarchy, from the Chief Yeoman Warder to four Yeoman Serjeants and then the other Beefeaters, including the Raven Master, “responsible for upkeep of the ravens – legend has it that if they ever leave the Tower, the monarchy will fall. We don’t want to risk that, so we clip their rings.”
The first task as a Beefeater is “learning your Tower ‘story’, so you can give guided tours to the public”. As Yeoman Serjeant, Jim also supervises the team and the daily ceremonies. These include the Opening Ceremony, the Ceremony of the Word, where the guard forms to collect the day’s password, and locking the two sets of gates during the Ceremony of the Keys.
Security is vital: after all, the Tower of London holds the Crown Jewels.
One of Jim’s favourite aspects is answering visitor questions, whether historic or “wanting to know if something they saw in a film is really true. You show them sites of famous executions and tell the story of each one – like with Walter Raleigh, I’ll talk about why he was in the Bloody Tower, plus his life and adventures. It’s fantastic when youngsters come in with the Learning and Engagement programme. And people always enjoy the Past Pleasures reenactments – it’s amazing seeing the trial of Anne Boleyn right in front of you, or two knights fighting. History coming to life.”
Other special events include the Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses, on the anniversary of Henry VI’s death, and the Constable’s Dues. “Back in the day, ships had to pay tax with part of their cargo. Now, when a warship comes in, the company parades and they bring a barrel of rum.”
Most important is the Warders’ swearing-in ceremony on Tower Green, involving an oath to HM the Queen. “There’s also a toast: ‘May you never die a Yeoman.’ Historically, you bought the position and sold it on when you retired – if you died first, the Constable of the Tower would sell it and keep the money instead!”
Yeoman Warders wear their red and gold Tudor uniform, with gold braid, on state occasions, consisting of a tunic, breeches, stockings and bonnet – “it’s very expensive and heavy”. The daily uniform is a lighter Victorian design in royal blue with red trimming, plus seasonal extras such as a cape in winter. Both feature the initials “ER” for “Elizabetha Regina”.
Jim loves living in the Tower itself, “in buildings that have been inhabited by royalty. I’m in the Casemates near the moat, and it’s the most incredible view.” There’s also the honour of showing round visiting dignitaries and, reflecting his key role in the project, Jim presented a wreath to the Queen when she came to see the poppy installation in 2014.
“That was special, because it really emphasised what soldiers go through, and it captured people’s imagination.”
Jim notes most Beefeaters stay on until retirement age. “It’s such a fantastic job, and a great way to serve Queen and country. You get the whole world coming to you, and you see how thrilled they are to be here in London, engaging with this rich history. That’s a pleasure every single day.”
The Inside Track: A Yeoman Warder’s Picks
Favourite London attraction
St James’s Park – from Admiralty Arch up to the Mall and Buckingham Palace.
Favourite London view
Standing on London Bridge, looking back to Tower Bridge. The Olympic rings hanging underneath were an awesome sight.
Favourite London meal
I’m a vegetarian, and Covent Garden and St Katharine Docks markets both have great choices, plus a fantastic atmosphere.
Robert Peel. He saw what London was lacking and provided security and policing that’s second to none.