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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
Yeomen of the Guard
Originally " Yeomen of the Guard of (the body of) our Lord the King," or in the 15th-century Latin, " Valecti garde (corporis) domini Regis," the title (maintained with but a slight variation since their institution in 1485, the official wording under Edward VII. being " The King's Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard ") of a permanent military corps in attendance on the sovereign of England, as part of the royal household, whose duties, now purely ceremonial, were originally that of the sovereign's personal bodyguard. They are the oldest existing body of the kind, having an unbroken record from 1485, as well as the oldest military body in England. Before that time there had been forms of royal guard, but no permanent institution. Under Edward I. we find in England the " crossbowmen of the household," and under Edward II. an " Archer guard of the King's body "; but the " Archers of the King," " of the crown " or " of the household," who appear in the records up to 1454, seem to have had no continuous establishments. Apparently each sovereign, on coming to the throne, established a new Guard of his own particular followers. It was not till Henry VII. created the " Yeomen of the Guard " that the royal bodyguard came into regular existence. The first warrants to individual " Yeomen of the Guard " date from September 16, 1485, and it is a fair inference that the Guard was created by the king on the battlefield of Bosworth (August 22, 1485), its first members being men who had shared Henry's exile in Brittany, followed him on his return, and fought as his private Guard in that action. The warrant of September 18, 1485, now in the Record Office, " to William Brown, Yeoman of the King's Guard," corroborates this view - " in consideration of the good service that oure humble and faithful subject William Browne Yeoman of oure Garde bath heretofore doon unto us as well beyonde the see as at our victorieux journeye." It is argued by Sir Reginald Hennell that the title of " Yeomen of the Guard " signified Henry VII.'s intention to choose the special protectors of his person not from the ranks of the nobility, but from the class just below them (see Yeoman), who had proved in war the backbone of the national strength. The term valecti, or " valets " (see Valet), was already in use, as signifying personal attendants, with none of the modern menial sense of the word.
The first official recorded appearance of the king's bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard was at the coronation of its founder Henry VII. at Westminster Abbey on the 31st of October 1485, when it numbered 50 members. This number was rapidly increased, for there is an authentic roll of 126 attending the king's funeral in 1509. Henry VIII. raised the strength of the Guard to 600 when he took it to visit Francis I. of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. In Queen Elizabeth's reign it numbered 200. The corps was originally officered by a captain (a post long associated with that of vice-chamberlain), an ensign (or standard-bearer), a clerk of the cheque (or chequer roll, his duty being to keep the roll of every one connected with the household), besides petty officers, captains, sergeants or ushers. In 1669 Charles II. reorganized the Guard and gave it a fixed establishment of loo yeomen, officered by a captain, a lieutenant, an ensign, a clerk of the cheque and four corporals, which is the present organization and strength. The only variation is that the captaincy is now a ministerial appointment filled by a nobleman of distinction under the lord chamberlain, and that the old rank of " corporals " has been changed to " exon," a title derived from " exempt," i.e. exempted from regular regimental duty for employment on the staff. Formerly officers on the active list were given these appointments in addition to their own.
The original duties of the Guard were of the most comprehensive nature. They were the king's personal attendants day and night at home and abroad. They were responsible for his safety not only on journeys and on the battlefield, but also within the precincts of the palace itself. The regulations for making of the king's bed in Tudor times were of the most elaborate formality. No one but the Yeomen of the Guard under an officer might touch it. Each portion was separately examined. Each sheet or coverlet was laid with the greatest ceremony, and the sovereign could not retire to rest until the work was reported as well and truly done. The existence of the custom is verified at the present day by the designations Y. B. H. (" Yeomen Bed-Hangers ") and Y.B.G. (" Yeomen Bed-Goers "), which are still affixed against the names of certain yeomen on the roll of the Guard. Another of their duties outside the palace is retained, viz. the searching of the vaults of the houses of parliament at the opening of each session, dating from the " Gunpowder Plot " in 1605, when the Yeomen of the Guard seized Guy Fawkes and his fellow-traitors and conveyed them to the Tower. Owing to the destruction by fire of most of the records of the Guard in St James's Palace in 1809, the precise history of the search is a matter of controversy. It is recorded in the papers of the House of Lords that the Guard conducted it in 1690 and that it has been continuous since 1760, but Sir Reginald Hennell's contention is that it dated from 1605 and has since been regularly observed.
Though the corps from the earliest day was composed of foot-soldiers, during royal progresses and journeys a portion of the Guard formed a mounted escort to the sovereign until the end of the Georgian period.
The dress worn by the Yeomen of the Guard is in its most striking characteristics the same as it was in Tudor times. It has consisted from the first of a royal red tunic with purple facings and stripes and gold lace ornaments. Sometimes the sleeves have been fuller and the skirts longer. Red knee-breeches and red stockings (white in Georgian period only), flat hat, and black shoes with red, white and blue rosettes are worn. Queen Elizabeth added the ruff. The Stuarts replaced the ruff and round hats with fancy lace and plumed hats. Queen Anne discarded both the ruff and the lace. The Georges reintroduced the ruff, and it has ever since been part of the permanent dress. But the most interesting point connected with the dress is that the gold-embroidered emblems on the back and front of the
coats tell the history of the consolidation of the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland. From 1485, when the Guard was created, till 1603, the emblems were the Tudor crown with the Lancastrian rose, and the initials of the reigning sovereign. When the Stuarts succeeded the Tudors in 1603, they substituted the St Edward's crown for the Tudor, and added under it and the initials the motto " Dieu et mon Droit," which is still worn. When William and Mary came to the throne in 1689, their initials were entwined, W.M.R.R. (William, Mary, Rex, Regina), the only instance of the queen and king's initials being so placed. Anne restored the Tudor crown, and added the thistle to the rose on the official union with Scotland in 1709. The Georges reverted to the St Edward's crown, and on the union with Ireland in 1801 George III. added the shamrock to the rose and thistle. No change was made during Queen Victoria's reign. But Edward VII. ordered the Tudor crown to be substituted for the St Edward's, and now the coats of the Guard are as they were in 1485, with the additions of the motto " Dieu et mon Droit " and the shamrock and the thistle.
Up to 1830 the officers of the Guard wore the same Tudor dress as the non-commissioned officers and men, but when William IV. ordered that in future no civilian should be appointed, and that the purchase and sale of officers' commissions should cease, the old Tudor dress was discontinued, and the officers were given the dress of a field officer of the Peninsular period.
There has also been little or no change in the arms of the Guard. No doubt they retained during Henry VII.'s reign (1485-1509) the pikes with which they had helped to win the battle of Bosworth Field. Under Henry VIII. archery became a national pastime, and the long-bow and arrow were issued to at least one-half of his Guard. When firearms came into use, a certain portion were armed with the harquebus, the Guard being given buff cross belts to support the weight on service. When on duty in the palace gold-embroidered cross belts took the place of the service buff, and are worn now as part of the state dress. The present weapons of the Guard are a steel gilt halberd with a tassel of red and gold, and an ornamental sword.
The real fighting days of this Guard ended with the Tudor period, but it was only at the end of the reign of George II. that the Guard's function of attending a sovereign on the battlefield ceased. Their last duty in this nature was at the battle of Dettingen (1743), when they accompanied the king as personal attendants. For a brief period during the Georgian era the Guard lost to a certain extent its distinctive military character, and a custom crept in of filling vacancies with civilians, who bought their places for considerable sums, the appointments of the yeomen proper and the officers being of great value. But William IV. put a stop to the practice. The last civilian retired in 1848, and the Guard regained its original military character. Every officer (except the captain), non-commissioned officer and yeoman must have served in the Home or Indian army or Royal Marines. They are selected for distinguished conduct in the field, and their pay is looked upon as a pension for the same. The officers must be of the rank of captain and over, and the yeomen of that of sergeant or warrant officer.
The Guard has a permanent orderly room in St James's Palace, where the routine of duty is carried on by the adjutant and " clerk of the cheque," the latter old true designation being retained after the former modern title. Under the orderly room is a guard room lined with lockers in which the uniforms are stored. They are in charge of a resident wardrobe-keeper. Here the division for duty musters once a week in the season and once a fortnight at other times, and here the yeomen dress for state functions. These now are confined to receptions of foreign potentates, levees, courts and state banquets, the Guard still taking part in the searching of the houses of parliament, the ceremony of the distribution of Maundy money in Westminster Abbey and in the Epiphany offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh in the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace. The yeomen live in their own homes.
The nickname " Beef-eaters," which is sometimes associated with the Yeomen of the Guard, had its origin in 1669, when Count Cosimo, grand duke of Tuscany, was in England, and, writing of the size and stature of this magnificent Guard, said, " They are great eaters of beef, of which a very large ration is given them daily at the court, and they might be called Beef-eaters." The supposed derivation from " Buffetier " (i.e. one who attends at the sideboard) has no authority.
A singular misapprehension exists as regards the Tower warders. Wearing as they do the same uniform, except the cross belt which used to hold the harquebus, and being so much more before the public in their daily duty as warders of the Tower, they are often thought erroneously to be Yeomen of the Guard. They had their origin in 1509-10 in the twelve Yeoman of the Guard whom young King Henry VIII. left, when he gave up the Tower of London as a permanent residence, to show that it was still a royal palace. When the Tower was finally given up as a royal residence they became warders and were deprived of the dress, but were given it back in Edward VI.'s reign, on a petition from the lord protector, who had been confined there and to whom the warders had been most considerate. They are now a distinct body, but in an honorary sense still termed " Extraordinary of the Guard." But they perform no state functions, being solely yeomen warders under the orders of the constable of the Tower. They are all old soldiers.
A brief notice of the other royal guard will be appropriate. In 1509, Henry VIII., envying the magnificence of the bodyguard of Francis I. of France, decided to have a noble guard of his own, which he accordingly instituted and called " The Gentlemen Speers." It was composed of young nobles gorgeously attired. In 1 539 this guard was reorganized and called ` Gentleman Pensioners." This title it retained till William IV.'s reign, when the corps regained its military character, the king on their petition giving them their present designation, " The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms." See The History of the King's Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard, by Colonel Sir Reginald Hennell, D.S.Q., Lieutenant of the Yeomen of the Guard (1904). (R. HE.)
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Yeomen of the Guard'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/y/yeomen-of-the-guard.html. 1910.