Beefeaters are one of the Tower of London’s most iconic images. They are the colorfully attired Yeoman Warders who have guarded the Tower since Tudor times. Although the role is largely ceremonial today, their distinctive uniforms remain instantly recognizable.
Nine things to look out for with a Beefeater’s uniform are:
- Red or blue uniform
- The Tudor Rose
- ER to CR
- The Thistle and Shamrock
- The belt
- The Beefeater’s hat
- Trousers or stockings
- The Insignia
- The Ravenmaster’s badge
Beefeaters enhance the experience of visiting the Tower of London as guides and fonts of extensive historical knowledge.
In this article, I shall look at the nine distinctive elements of their uniform to look out for.
What Are Beefeaters?
Beefeaters are the Yeoman Warders who have guarded the Tower of London since Tudor times. They were formed from the Yeoman of the Guard, the personal bodyguard established by Henry VII in 1485 after his victory at Bosworth.
Henry VIII decided the Tower of London needed a permanent force to guard this strategically important site. This was the task given to the Yeoman Warders. The Warders protected the Tower and the precious Crown Jewels, as well as guarding the prisoners held within its walls.
Today, most people will associate the role of the Beefeater as guide to the thousands of visitors who descend on the Tower of London. However, the Warders still have 21 duties to attend to each day.
One of the most famous and traditional events is the Ceremony of the Keys, which oversees the locking of the Tower’s main gates each night. It is one of the oldest rituals of its kind still performed today.
Yeoman Warders have ceremonial duties beyond the Tower walls too, including at the Coronation of a new sovereign.
To be considered as a Yeoman Warder you need to have 22 years of service in the armed forces and reached the rank of Warrant Officer. You will also need to show your long service and good conduct medal.
The official name is the Yeoman Warders of His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. Not too much of a surprise then why people tend to stick to the term Beefeaters instead!
So, where does the term Beefeaters originate?
There is an element of conjecture about this. The most simple offering is that the term is a derivative of an old French word buffetier, meaning waiter or servant.
A part of a Beefeater’s job used to be serving the monarch their meals and ensuring the food was not laced with poison.
The term may also have been coined due to the Yeoman Warders being allowed to eat as much beef as they wished when dining in the presence of the monarch. It is said the Grand Duke of Tuscany commented on this in the 17th century.
The surviving quote has him saying “A very large ration of beef is given to them daily at the court, and they might be called beefeaters.”
9 Things To Look Out For In The Beefeaters Uniform
The red Beefeater uniform with its gold trimmings is known across the world.
Instantly recognizable at state events, the uniform screams tradition.
However, red is not always the color worn by Beefeaters. This and eight further features of a Beefeater’s uniform will be delved into in the following section.
1. Red or Blue Uniform
The Yeoman Warders were formed from the Yeoman of the Guard, the corps that formed the monarch’s bodyguard. The Warders were detailed to guard the Tower, a job they have done for the last 500 years plus.
However, anyone who visits the Tower today will note the absence of the red uniform.
This was not always the case. The Yeoman Warders were soon allowed to don the famous red uniform after their formation. However, today the red and gold will only be brought out for ceremonial duties.
One of these is the ancient daily ritual of the Ceremony of the Keys. Performed every day since the 14th century, the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the main gates in a ceremony that always begins at 9.53 pm on the dot.
Resplendent in red, the Warder hands the keys to the Tower’s resident governor once the gates are locked (source).
The color of the Yeoman Warder’s uniform for everyday duties is blue with red trimmings. This is the uniform the visitors that flock to the Tower will see.
The main role of a Warder is to assist the visitors and help ensure they have an informative and enjoyable time exploring the Tower.
The blue uniform was introduced in 1858 and is seen as more practical and durable for the role of the modern Yeoman Warder. Therefore, your selfie with a Beefeater at the Tower of London will be one with a Warder wearing blue, not the famed red.
The following clip shows both the uniforms worn by Yeoman Warders.
2. The Tudor Rose
The everyday duties blue uniform is more simply adorned than the state dress red uniform. One of the prominent features to note on the state dress worn by Beefeaters is the Tudor rose. This acknowledges the period in which the Yeoman Warders were formed.
Although formed in 1485, it was Henry VIII who decided to leave a permanent detachment of Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London. At this time Henry VIII had set up his main residence at Richmond Palace, before acquiring Hampton Court Palace.
The Tower of London remained a Royal Palace but was better known as a prison from then on. However, the Yeoman Warders retained the Tudor Rose on their state dress uniforms.
3. ER to CR
One part of the uniforms does change from time to time. This follows the death of the reigning monarch. Prominent on both the blue and red uniforms for the best part of the last 70 was the letters ER. These denote Elizabeth Regina. There is also the Roman numeral II between the letters, signifying Queen Elizabeth the Second.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the uniform is set to replace ER with CR in 2023. This will denote Charles Rex and will have the numeral III between the letters to signify King Charles III.
A crown sits above the royal cipher on the uniform. This further symbolizes that the Beefeaters have their foundation as a protective corps for the royal household and their palaces.
4. The Thistle and Shamrock
As well as the English Tudor Rose, the state dress of the Beefeater also contains a thistle and shamrock. Therefore, England, Scotland, and Ireland are represented when the state dress is donned on ceremonial occasions.
It is not too difficult to note a missing Welsh emblem.
Henry Tudor who became Henry VII was born at Pembroke Castle in Wales and made great play of his Welsh ancestry on his way to taking the throne.
Although the debate about how Wales fared under Henry VII continues, the Welsh dragon was on his heraldic coat of arms if not on the Beefeaters’ uniform.
5. The Belt
At state ceremonies, the Yeoman Warders are often mistaken for the corps they descended from, the Yeoman of the Guard. The state dress is the same distinctive red with gold trimmings for both the Yeoman Warders and the Yeoman Guards.
The Yeoman of the Guard are the oldest of the sovereign’s bodyguards. Many of their original duties such as guarding the interior of Royal palaces and tasting the sovereign’s food have gone.
They would also take to the battlefield in times of war. Today their role is also primarily ceremonial and like the Warders, their members will have served 22 years in the military.
Both the Yeoman Warders and Guards look the archetypal Beefeater in state dress uniforms. However, one clue to separate them is their belt.
Whereas Yeoman Warders wear a traditional style belt, the Yeoman of the Guard wear a cross-belt that runs diagonally across the front of their red tunic (source).
6. The Beefeater’s Hat
A common misconception is that Beefeaters wear a Bearskin hat. These are the tall fur hats that most of us will recognize as worn by guards such as those outside Buckingham Palace. They are amusingly called caps by the army, although not the idea of a cap most of us have.
Bearskin hats are worn by members of the regiment of foot guards assigned to protect the sovereign. Beefeaters wear a flat hat that is garlanded with bows in the colors of the Union Jack for state dress.
The hat worn for everyday duties at the Tower is less adorned. Visitors to the Tower will see the Yeoman Warders wearing a blue flat hat with red trimmings that matches the color of the rest of their day-to-day uniform.
7. Trousers or Stockings
Once again, there is a difference in garment choice between everyday duty wear and state dress when it comes to the legs. In their role as Tower guides, Yeoman Warders wear blue trousers as a part of their everyday duties uniform.
The more elaborate state dress uniform harks back to the Tudor times.
Therefore, the trousers are dispensed with. In their place are red knee breeches and red stockings, matching the scarlet red tunic. This is the traditional view of the Yeoman Warder.
It is one we imagine the Tower of London guards wearing back in Tudor times when they were first permitted to don the famous uniform.
8. Look for the Insignia
As you would expect, rank still plays a role within the Beefeaters at the Tower of London.
The Chief Yeoman Warden is the person in overall charge. They oversee the management of the Yeoman Warders and play a significant role in the ceremonial duties carried out by the Yeoman Warders.
Being Chief Yeoman Warder is a prestigious role and they will be the ones responsible for meeting visiting royalty.
They will also take part in the Ceremony of the Keys ritual each night that sees the locking and securing of the Tower’s gates.
Chief Yeoman Warder’s number two is the Yeoman Gaoler. There may be no prisoners to look after these days. However, the Yeoman Gaoler plays a prominent role in ceremonies as well as helping with the management of the Yeoman Warders.
To determine rank, look for the insignia on the right arm of the uniform. They are as follows:
|Chief Yeoman Warder||Four chevrons with crossed keys set below a crown|
|Yeoman Gaoler||Four chevrons with image of White Tower set below a crown|
|Yeoman Clerk||Four chevrons set below a crown|
|Yeoman Warder Sarjeant||Four chevrons|
|Yeoman Warder||No insignia|
|Ravenmaster||No insignia, badge with raven head, three merlons and laurel wreath|
9. The Ravenmaster
It may sound like something out of Doctor Who, but the Ravenmaster remains an important position at the Tower of London. Ravens have been at the Tower since the 17th century.
Legend has it that “if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom of Britain will fall.” No pressure then!
Today, the ravens are housed in cages in the Wakefield Tower. The cages are open during the day, so the birds are free to roam the Tower grounds and beyond.
There are at least six resident ravens at any given time. Their wings are trimmed slightly to try and prevent them from flying too far away and putting the old legend to the test.
This video explores the Ravenmaster’s job.
The Ravenmaster has regular Yeoman Warder duties to attend as well as looking after the ravens, including ensuring they are fed and housed each night. A look at the uniform will confirm who is the Ravenmaster as they go about their daily duty assisting the visitors to the Tower.
The Ravenmaster wears a badge on the lower right arm of their tunic to signal the position. The role is by appointment and does not represent a rank.
The circular badge has a red background and unsurprisingly depicts a raven’s head in the center. The head is atop three gold merlons with a gold laurel wreath circling the base of the badge.