Of imperturbable Yeoman Warders in London’s old Tower
A light drizzle has been the constant companion throughout the morning and you cannot help but feel an unwelcome chilliness slowly seeping through your coat and boots – and still you find yourself part of a long queue, eager to get into one of London’s oldest and most iconic sights.
For most of its almost 1000 years of history the Tower of London has not been a place people were keen to visit and spend time at, but rather prison to countless and a site of torture and execution. The Tower can only partially live up to its notorious reputation though, knows Robert Loughlin, MBE. “Many people think lots of executions were done here – they weren’t. Most of them were outside at Tower Hill.” But then he goes on, points at a beautiful memorial made out of glass and tells about the executions of three Queens of England. “Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Lady Jane Grey – all done there.”
This is only one of the many fascinating stories and facts one learns while following Loughlin around the grounds of the old castle. At its centre is the White Tower at its centre, built on the orders of William the Conquerer in 1078. In his dark blue Tudor uniform with red trimming Loughlin is easily recognisable as one of the friendly guides at the Tower. “We are known to most of you as a Beefeater. This is just a nickname – we don’t like it much. Proper title is Yeoman Warder. We are free men at the Queen’s court. In my case, Yeoman Sergeant. I am in charge of one of the teams,” says Loughlin.
And as such Loughlin not only guides tourists and answers their questions; he officially guards the Tower of London. Originally in charge of prisoners and the gates, the Yeoman Warders date back to 1485 and the reign of Henry VII. Today, Loughlin is one of only 37 men and one woman to wear the distinctive uniform.
To become one of the Yeoman Warders one has to have served at least 22 years in the military. “I did 36 years of service”, tells Loughlin, “I have the Long Service and Good Conduct medal twice Silver and as Chief of air staff warrant officer was in charge of 95,000 people.” Sworn in at Tower Green and additionally at St. James’ Palace as Member of the Sovereign’s Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard in Extraordinary, every Yeoman Warder further on lives within the Tower of London, ready to attend duty at all times.
The present day’s responsibilities of a Yeoman Warder vary. Loughlin, being in the role of current supervisor, ensures that all security checks are done, the Warders are in the right position and the Tower is safe for the public to enter. During his night duty, he is also part of one of the most famous ceremonial acts within the Tower. “During the Ceremony of the Keys we lock up the Tower of London each and every night. This tradition is 700 years old and nothing stops the keys,” says Loughlin in his deep, authoritative voice, daring anyone to even try. ”The keys will continue every night without fail.”
On top of this, Robert Loughlin knows many upsides to this life on the historic castle grounds. “We get to meet interesting people every day,” tells Loughlin, “and of course I am very proud to be one of Her Majesty’s Bodyguards in Extraordinary, which means we can escort Her Majesty. And I like seeing the Crown jewels. Not a bad bit of bling is it, to see every day? Largest cut diamond in the world plus thousands of other diamonds and rubies and emeralds up there.”
It is with this sense of pride and responsibility that Loughlin not only fulfills his duties as guard, but also embraces his role as a guide at the Tower. “You stand still for more than two minutes, there is already somebody talking to you about something or is asking questions or wanting pictures.” But Loughlin does not seem to mind this attention and makes time for every curious tourist. “Well, I mean obviously we weren’t built as a tourist attraction. But we are a tourist attraction today. We are a World Heritage Sight and we are very well aware of that. So we must behave accordingly”, says Loughlin, “and people come here, they want to learn, they want to see things, they bring their family and children and it is a good experience.”
And so walking around the grounds with Robert Loughlin one soon forgets the ongoing light rain and the coldness, and listens closely to every intruiging story the Yeoman Warder knows about this historic place, every little detail one might easily miss – like the large gold crowns and weather vanes with the royal standard on top of each tower, indicating that Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, the Tower of London is in fact still a palace. Would the Queen come to the Tower now, she could still live in the Queen’s house, a half-timbered building from the 16th century – “Henry VIII built it for Anne Boleyn, however she was finished before that was.”
In the end, it is hard to tell if it is this dry humour, the friendliness or the closeness to tradition and history which lets people to associate the Yeoman Warders in their blue and red uniforms so closely with Great Britain and London – a fact that Loughlin is aware of, too. “Well, some people say we are what people imagine British people should be like. All I know is I work with a bunch of guys who are proud, who are very proud to be British. We are part of our heritage, our history. We are unique. And I think, for me this is probably the best job I could have done.”