In surely one of the saddest pieces of news to emerge from the capital’s coronavirus crisis, it’s been reported that the Yeoman Warders at the Tower of London – commonly known as ‘Beefeaters’ – may now be facing redundancy along with thousands of other Londoners. The warders are some of London’s most instantly recognisable figures, with uniforms and rituals that date back hundreds of years. To become one, you must be a military veteran with more than 22 years’ service. The Yeoman Warders live with their families in accommodation within the Tower of London and have a range of ceremonial duties, plus acting as tour guides and visitor assistants. They even have their own pub within the fortress, The Keys.
The redundancies come in response to a huge drop in revenue for the Tower of London, which has only just reopened to visitors after months of enforced closure. The Tower usually welcomes more than 3 million visitors a year, but with social-distancing measures in place, it has reduced its numbers to just 1,000 a day, with a consequent loss of income. John Barnes, chief executive of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity which runs the Tower, said in a statement: ‘We depend on visitors for 80 percent of our income. We have taken every possible measure to secure our financial position, but we need to do more to survive in the long term. We simply have no choice but to reduce our payroll costs.’ He described HRP as ‘heartbroken’ that warders and other staff might lose their jobs.
The Yeoman Warders date back to Tudor times – hence their fetching get-up. They are similar to, but distinct from, the Yeoman of the Guard, a ceremonial elite private bodyguard for the monarch. Their guardianship of the Tower of London dates from the reign of Henry VIII, when it was an official royal residence. Among their duties, they look after the Tower’s ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall, followed by the country. The possible loss of their ancient keepers feels – symbolically – just as significant.