The Forming of the Yeomen of the Guard
- October 30th 1485 -
The Battle of Bosworth on 22nd June 1485 was a watershed moment in English history in many ways. A new royal house – the Tudors – had taken over, the Wars of the Roses were effectively over with the houses of York and Lancaster united, and a period that was to last from 1485-1603, and saw major changes from Henry VIII and Elizabeth, was about to start. The new monarchy which started with precious little was to grow into one of the powerful England had known. Henry VII inherited a kingdom that was lawless after the civil war, had almost no money, few friends and a group of noblemen used to ruling their own way. Yet when he died 24 years later in 1509 he handed over to Henry VIII a kingdom that was wealthy and with a group of leading noblemen who were subservient to the King. As RJ Unstead says, however, “He couldn’t hand over his own common sense”.
Henry was quick to both save money and generate it. He avoided costly foreign wars and used marriage to strengthen relations with countries which might cause him issues. He married his daughter, Margaret, to the King of Scotland, James IV, and his eldest son, Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, the major players on the European stage. He raised money from loans that were never repaid, imposed harsh fines instead of prison sentences, clamped down on the bribing of judges to secure more convictions and encouraged trade with Europe with trade treaties. How topical! He also encouraged the ship building industry and broke the monopoly of transport in the Mediterranean by Venetian ships. In this way he generated wealth in the country and, without the need to raise taxes, generated greater tax revenue. He knew how unpopular raising taxes would be and with what was at first an unstable grip on the throne, knew that this would be a risky route.
Henry had powerful friends in England that helped him defeat Richard III at Bosworth. The influential Stanley family had fought for him at the battle when Richard had felt they were on his side. Richard was aware that this act of treachery, as he saw it, was a possibility. Lord Stanley was Henry’s step-father and he took Lord Stanley’s son as hostage before the battle, as a safety measure, swearing he would have him killed if Lord Stanley turned and fought for Henry. Stanley’s son survived. Henry was not an experienced military man and left much of the fighting to the Earl of Oxford, John de Vere. Henry’s army was outnumbered by roughly 5,000 to 12,000. He must have been confident that the Stanleys would fight on his side. As it turned out the influential Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland, with 7,000 men in Richard’s army, also took no part in the battle.
Thus after the battle Henry’s position was far from secure. He relied heavily on the support of a few powerful men. He had seen first-hand how power can shift rapidly. He was, though, a cunning politician and he needed to be. He was also concerned for his own personal safety in these dangerous times and, on October 30th formally set up his own bodyguard – the Yeomen of the Guard. A Yeoman, in the military sense, was in the third rank of fighting men below that of knight and squire.
These men were to guard the King on his travels both at home and abroad. They were also there to protect him on the battlefield and within royal palaces. They were to guard the entrances and test his food. Their uniform was, and still is, red, yellow and white with a Tudor rose emblazoned on it. They carried a sword and a pole arm known as a Partisan. This was smaller than a normal pole arm with a spearhead and a double axe head at the bottom of the blade. It was gradually phased out but was used right up until the Napoleonic Wars.
The uniform has not changed since that time. Yeomen of the Guard still carry a sword, never drawn, and the Partisan. The position is not to be confused with the Yeomen of the Tower, nicknamed Beefeaters due possibly to the rations they were given. This split occurred in 1509 when Henry VIII left the Tower of London as his official residence. Although the uniform is the same the belt on the Yeomen of the Guard is worn across the body from the left shoulder.
The Yeomen of the Guard are only called up for official, ceremonial duties – such as the State Opening of Parliament, investitures, summer garden parties, installation of Knights of the Garter, coronations, lyings-in-state and funerals. They also carry out the searching of the cellars of Parliament before a state opening – a tradition that goes back to 1605 when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Westminster on November 5th.
They are the oldest of the Royal bodyguards and the oldest military corps in Britain and they number around 70. To be a member you must have served in the armed forces for 22 years and be aged between 42 and 55 upon appointment, retiring at the age of 70. Traditionally members of the Royal Navy have not been considered but this was changed in 2011. Vacancies are filled by the Lord Chamberlain, the most senior officer in the Royal Household, who makes recommendations to the Monarch. There are 6 officers in the corps the most senior being the Captain followed by the Lieutenant. To be considered for this role the individual must have reached at least the rank of major.
The establishment of the Yeomen of the Guard must have been a success as Henry reigned from 1485 – 1509 and his son, Henry, took over from him in a seamless transition. The Tudors became one of the most powerful royal houses this country has seen – and all because they were kept alive by the Yeomen!