A “French-style security force” – the origin of the yeomen of the guard

In Thomas Penn’s ‘The Winter King’, Henry VII is depicted as neurotically protecting his precarious grasp on the English throne. On page 20, Penn describes the security measures the new monarch puts in place:

“One of his first acts was to create a new French-style security force, three hundred strong: the yeoman of the guard.”

The Yeoman of the Guard? French? This was enough to pique my interest and find out more about the force I had always assumed was as British as the beef they legendarily consumed (or not – see below).

The Body Guard of the Yeoman of the Guard was formed by Henry VII in the dazed aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Richard III was slain during this bloody culmination to the Wars of the Roses and Henry was determined to avoid a similar fate.

The Yeoman of the Guard is said to have been created at Bosworth but this is not certain. What is known is that the body was definitely created at some point between the battle (on 22 August 1485) and 18 September 1485 when a warrant was issued identifying the ‘King’s Guard’:

“To William Browne, Yeoman of the King’s Guard, for good service that our humble and faithful servant hath heretofore done unto us as well beyond the seas as at our late victoreuse journeye”.

And what about the French influence? Henry VII spent most of his formative years in exile in France, and spent time at the court of the King of France, Louis XI. He would have seen the King’s bodyguard, the Garde du Corps within the Maison du Roi.

The Yeoman of the Guard have developed into an honorary and ceremonial body whose distinctive red, gold and black uniforms add colour to many Royal ceremonies. Yeoman of the Guard:

  • conduct the search of the cellars of the Houses of Parliament before the State Opening of Parliament;
  • accompany the monarch at the annual Royal Maundy Service;
  • attend at all investitures and summer Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace; and
  • have key ceremonial roles at the coronations, lying-in-state and funeral of the Soveriegn.

With its unbroken record of service, the Yeoman of the Guard are the oldest of the Royal bodyguards and the oldest military corps in existence in Britain. They should not be confused with the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London and neither group should be called Beefeaters – at least not to their faces!

There are 60 Yeoman of the Guard plus 6 Officers, who are drawn from the retired members of the British armed forces. Originally, Royal Navy veterans were not eligible as they belonged to the only service whose oath is not given to the Crown (instead, sailors pledge an oath to the Admiralty).

The exception to this rule is that the Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard is a political appointment — the Captain is always the government’s Deputy Chief Whip in the House of Lords.