Guarding Britain’s crown jewels was a secure job for over 500 years. Not anymore

July 20, 2020, 2:32 PM UTC

The Tower of London’s iconic ceremonial guards, popularly known as beefeaters, are facing job losses for the first time since their formation in the late 15th century, thanks to COVID-19.

The charity that looks after Britain’s historic royal palaces, including the Tower of London, is facing a $124 million budget shortfall as tourist numbers have plunged during the pandemic and aren’t projected to recover for years.

That means redundancies for the tower’s garrison of 37 yeomen warders—as the beefeaters are officially known. Ostensibly there to safeguard the crown jewels, which the tower houses, as well as to keep any prisoners (which the tower currently does not house), the yeomen warders greet visitors to the tower and conduct guided tours of the fortress. One of the yeomen warders, known as the ravenmaster, is also responsible for looking after the tower’s resident flock of ravens.

The Tower of London is currently seeing only about 800 visitors a day, compared with the 15,000 that might be expected at the height of Britain’s summer tourism season. With social distancing measures in place, the tower can accommodate about 1,000 people daily.

The staff of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that pays the yeomen warders’ salaries as well as those of employees at five other historic sites, including Henry VIII’s former palace at Hampton Court, have already agreed to a 20% pay cut from July to October and taken unpaid leave to try to alleviate budget pressures. Two beefeaters have also agreed to take voluntary redundancy, but further mandatory cuts are expected, the Guardian newspaper reported.

The charity has received no government aid since the pandemic began. The Guardian reported that the charity plans to apply for a $33 million loan from its bank.

The finances for the Tower of London are particularly strained because of the high cost of protecting the crown jewels. Even though they are used by Queen Elizabeth II in royal ceremonies, neither the British government nor the royal family contribute to their security costs.

The yeomen warders were constituted by King Henry VII in 1485. Their signature scarlet-and-gold dress uniforms and Tudor-style hats—immortalized on countless postcards, not to mention a well-known brand of gin—date back to the mid–16th century.

All current yeomen warders are retired members of the British armed forces, with at least 22 years of regular service. They and their families live inside the Tower of London, although most also maintain a home elsewhere.

No one knows for certain how the yeomen warders came to be known as beefeaters: Contrary to common misperception, they did not sample the monarch’s beef to ascertain if it had been poisoned. One theory is that the name may derive from Cosimo III de’ Medici, the duke of Tuscany, who visited the English court in 1669 and remarked that a different, but similarly named and attired, group of guards—the yeomen of the guard—ate such a large ration of meat that they might be called beefeaters.

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