John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower of London
Spitalfields is one of the hamlets in the vicinity of the Tower of London that today make up the Borough of Tower Hamlets and consequently all residents of the Borough enjoy a special relationship with the Tower which means we can gain entry for just one pound, simply by showing a library card. As a result, it is a place that I delight to visit throughout the seasons of the year and each time I discover more wonders. On a recent bright Winter’s day of frost and sunlight I took a walk from Spitalfields down to the Tower, where I found golden leaves scattered across the old yards surrounding the mythic White Tower, gleaming in the light. When William the Conquerer built this citadel nearly a thousand years ago in 1068, there was little else here and while the modern city has grown around it, the White Tower remains almost unchanged.
The purpose of my visit was to meet the Chief Yeoman Warder and it was an adventure in itself to be escorted into the inner sanctum of John Keohane’s office overlooking the White Tower, where he sat behind a desk, distinguished in his scarlet and black uniform beneath a portrait of the Queen. John has the quiet eyes of an old soldier, reflecting his long record of military service since 1964, when he signed up for a career that took him to Singapore, Thailand, Oman, the Falkland Islands, Belgium, Germany and Northern Ireland, resulting in a whole string of medals. Though for the sake of levity – in case I should be too overawed by his loftiness – John brought out an iphone from a special pocket in his uniform to show me a picture of him in costume as the Fat Controller on the South Devon steam railway, where he enjoys his month’s holiday each year.
In 1485, when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, he brought his personal bodyguard back to his residence at the Tower and appointed them Yeoman Warders. “The privilege is that the appointment is for life,” explained John Keohane who continues this unbroken line of Chief Warders spanning five centuries,“though at New Year we have a toast, ‘May you never die a Yeoman Warder!’” The toast dates from the period before 1826, when the position, which includes accommodation in the Tower, was purchased, thus creating an imperative for the warder to sell out while they were still alive so that their wives would have a pension fund, because you could not sell the position once you were dead.
“In Northern Ireland, I served at the height of the troubles, and you were restricted where you could go. You had to be careful.”, John confided to me, with a glance to the window. And I understood that when you have spent your life living in barracks, as he has done, then it is a sympathetic transition to move into the Tower of London, an edifice which contains a veritable city within the City. To be eligible to apply, you must have a minimum of twenty-two years service in the armed forces and a record of good conduct, a fact which John was quick to qualify as being not so much about the lack of misbehaviour as the lack of being caught. Year in, year out, John lives and works here with his fellow Beefeaters and their families, pursuing an existence circumscribed by duty and ritual. Even the guard rota follows a time-honoured pattern referred to as the “daily waite.” “It doesn’t mean you can’t go out, but you have to follow the rules. People in civilian life would not be satisfied with it.” admitted John, who has made his home inside these walls since 1991.
He explained to me that, until 1603, the Tower was a royal residence and his predecessors ate at the King’s table. In those days cattle were primarily used for milking and their meat was a luxury food, although beef was served to the King and, by tradition, the Yeoman Warders were entitled to what was left – giving birth to the nickname ‘Beefeater,’ the term by which they are most commonly known today. It was the creation of Beefeater London Gin in 1871 which took this name to world with such success that the Yeoman Warders now accept they will always be Beefeaters in the popular imagination.
“You can get photographed as many as four hundred times in one day. Some of the warders take detours walking outside between the offices and their homes because otherwise you can be photographed five or six times just crossing the yard,” John revealed, rolling his eyes at the absurdity of it. Yet as we left the building, he was entirely magnanimous to the visitors who wanted to be photographed beside him. Then as we walked on beneath the White Tower, looming overhead, John cast his eyes around in pleasure at the spectacle and said, “What a place to bring your children and grandchildren to! That’s what sold the job to me. I hated history at school but now I am passionate about it – because this is where it happened.”
He took me into the Tower of London Club, the private bar lined with hundreds of tributes from all the regiments in which the warders have served, and it was a sober image to manifest the integral connection between the Yeoman Warders and the armed services. Then on another wall I came across evidence of a different kind of recognition, pictures of the Yeoman Warders with celebrities including Johnny Depp, Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Barack Obama (John showed Michelle and the girls around), Matt Damon, Bruce Forsyth, Sylvester Stallone, and Paul McCartney. These pictures raised the question of who was being photographed with who. The celebrity with the Beefeater? Or the Beefeater with the celebrity? It does seem Yeoman Warders like being photographed with colourful characters, just like rest of us. There is an undeniable poetry to this notion of senior soldiers having a new life in the Tower of London, sedate yet basking in adulation of the two and half million visitors each year. Secluded in their cloistered existence but leaving the confines to accompany the Queen at state occasions – existing at the very centre of their own particular world.
John says the years pass quickly here. Every night at ten precisely, he supervises the Ceremony of the Keys at which the Tower is locked for the night. Twice a year is the Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues when a visiting Naval ship’s Captain reports to the Tower to pay a due to the Constable of the Tower. Annually in May is the Lillies & Roses Ceremony commemorating Henry VI, the founder of Eton College and Kings College Cambridge, who was murdered at the Tower of London in 1471. Every three years is the Beating of the Bounds Ceremony on Ascension Day when the Yeoman Warders visit all the boundary markers in a circle around the Tower to beat them with willow wands. And every five years a new Constable of the Tower is installed as the monarch’s representative at the Tower.
Aware that his twenty years dwelling among these ancient walls is a mere blink in their nine hundred year history, time runs smoothly for John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warden of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace of the Tower of London.
John Keohane points out the figure of the Sultan of Oman in this painting of the state visit to the Tower, of special significance to John because he served in Oman in the seventies.
John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warden of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace of the Tower of London
Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne