A beefeater is a member of the Yeoman Warders, a ceremonial guard which oversees the Tower of London in England. Technically, the polite term is “Yeoman Warder,” although most people know the members of the iconic guard by their nickname.
In order to serve as a Yeoman Warder, an applicant must have 22 years of service in the British armed forces, along with awards for distinction and good conduct. Positions among this historic body are very coveted, and competition for open positions can be fierce.
The beefeaters were founded in 1485 under the reign of Henry VII. They are charged with the duty of guarding prisoners in the Tower of London, along with supervising the safety of the Crown Jewels. The modern Yeoman Warders also offer information and tours to visitors, and they care for the ravens which are housed at the Tower of London. Tourists readily identify the beefeaters by their distinctive uniforms, which are modeled on those used by the Yeoman Warders in the Tudor era.
The origins of the term “beefeater” are a bit obscure. Some historians believe that the original Warders may have been partially paid in meats, while others suggest that they have the privilege of eating beef from the Royal Kitchens, and that the nickname may have been a pejorative term applied by jealous locals. In actuality, the only creatures at the Tower with a steady diet of beef are the ravens, who serve as a symbol of the British monarchy. According to superstition, if the ravens leave the tower, the monarchy will collapse; one Yeoman Warder, the Ravenmaster, is charged with their care.
It is easy to confuse the Yeoman Warders with the Yeoman of the Guard, a ceremonial bodyguard which protects the British monarch. Both bodies wear similar uniforms, require former military service, and perform a number of annual and daily ceremonies which are steeped in British history. The Yeoman Warders, for example, perform a nightly “Ceremony of the Keys” when they lock up the Tower each night, while the Yeoman of the Guard famously search Parliament for threats annually before the opening ceremony.
Each beefeater has accommodations in the Tower of London as long as he or she serves; in 2007, the first female beefeater, Moira Cameron, joined the elite team of 35 warders. Work as a beefeater can be demanding, but also very fulfilling, as the warders are a part of living history.