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What in the World is a Yeoman?

April 13, 2011


President Krislov and the the Tower of London's sole female warder. The initials E and R on the yeopersons’ uniforms stand for Elizabeth Regina. When there is a new king or queen, the initials will be changed.

My family had always wondered what a yeoman or yeowoman actually looked like. Over spring break, we found out when we met one live and in person.

On our family vacation to France and England, we visited the legendary Tower of London. Touring the historic castle complex on the banks of the Thames, we learned that the guards of the tower, where many kings and queens of England resided and some were beheaded, are called yeomen warders. The yeomen warders are popularly referred to as “beefeaters,” the derivation of which is uncertain but may have been because they were able to feast with the monarch, and therefore ate well, or at least expensively.

Today’s yeomen and yeowomen—there is one female warder—are former members of the British armed forces. They live within the walls of the Tower of London with their families, guard the castle and the Crown Jewels, which are housed there and are amazing, and close the tower tight every night.


President Krislov ran into Oberlin sophomore Jade LaCroix and her mother, who happened to be touring the Tower of London during spring break, too.

But one of their main functions is guiding groups of tourists through the complex, explaining its history. The yeomen and yeowoman wear colorful, period uniforms and are an outgoing group of people. The tours they give are highly informative and quite entertaining. If you’re ever in London, I highly recommend visiting the tower. The ticket is not cheap, but it is worth the price.

This experience led me to wonder why the yeomen and women were selected as Oberlin’s representative mascot. Was this a secret royalist impulse in the supposedly egalitarian and humble Oberlin populace? Were the yeomen and women chosen because the mission and values of Oberlin are equivalent to the royal jewels and treasures, and therefore guarding them is a sacred duty? Was it related to the 19-century Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Yeomen of the Guard, reflecting Oberlin’s musical taste?

When in doubt, do research. Ken Grossi, Oberlin’s archivist, helped by providing the history of the selection of a name for Oberlin’s athletic teams. As Oberlin Review articles reveal, a committee that included Athletics Director C.W. Savage selected from 40 suggestions five finalists: High-O’s, Kingbirds, Ocats, Savages, Yeomen. The final ballot showed that Yeomen received 146 votes and Savages only 103. On November 9, 1926, the Review reported that “Yeomen was derived from a combination of Ye-O-Men and was chosen because of its cleverness of implication of fighting warriors.”


The Yeomen/Yeowomen moniker has occasionally not been embraced by our athletics squads. During the 1998-99 academic year, for example, the football team voted to adopt the nickname “Crimson Thunder.” That sounds today like a Ben Stiller-Will Farrell movie about ex-Green Berets turned vampire NASCAR drivers. The name didn’t catch on. Regardless of its origins, the Yeomen/Yeowomen name suits Oberlin. Our athletes compete hard and do a fine job of representing Oberlin’s values of learning, labor, inclusion, and fairness. The name is also distinctive. There are a lot of tigers, wildcats, and huskies out there. But only Oberlin has the Yeomen and Yeowomen.

However, in a nod to history and our great internationalist tradition, perhaps we could model our uniforms on those snappy Tudor outfits we saw at the Tower of London. The suits date back to the founding of the yeomen warders under King Henry VII in 1485.

Just joking. Oberlin is egalitarian by nature, and the tower guards said their suits are pretty uncomfortable. So go Yeo! Speaking of the Oberlin Review, kudos to it and all the other sponsors of a spectacular symposium on April 7 and 8 that featured an all-star cast of alumni journalists. Thanks to all for an innovative and provocative set of discussions about the future of the media and the opportunities for today’s students who are aspiring journalists.

Finally, as further evidence that Oberlin is everywhere we go, if we just know how to find it (aw, shucks), I visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris over break. The organist, Philippe Lefebvre, is one of three official organists who play the cathedral's magnificent instrument. His colleague, Olivier Latry, was here last year, and Philippe will be coming to Oberlin in 2012.

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  • Write anything you like as long as it’s civil and productive. Attack ideas if you wish, but not people. Oberlin = love, remember? (Seriously. Be nice or your comment will be removed.)

I'm not sure if this was a thing beyond the late 80's years I attended Oberlin, but the women's athletic teams I was on adopted the delightfully shoutable moniker of "Yeo-Mommas."

R. A. K. H. (Oct. 2, 2016)

We as a family had been to Britain in the summer of 2011.It was my fond wish to visit the British Isles at least once during my lifetime and our son fulfilled our wish.I have been brought up on Jane Austen,,Keats,Wordsworth,etc and it was a treat to visit their homes-and,of course Mary Queen of Scots' palace,Cambridge,Oxford,etc.People were generally very civil and friendly. But,everything was not tickety boo.During our visit to the Tower of London,an obnoxious yeoman took jibes at some of the tourists who couldn't obviously speak or understand English.He said in a raucous tone,Those of you who can't speak English,please go back,learn English and come back"-Mind you these were folks who had paid good money to be there.At one point he looked directly at one of our group whose English is impeccable,better than many an Englishman's. A voice piped in,"He seems to be still hung up on the past,-doesn't seem to have moved past the colonial period",sending a titter through the crowd. I write this because such things don't augur well for British tourism and leaves a bad taste in the mouth.I thought I should share this with you. On the flip side,we had a great time otherwise.One of our British/American friends hosted us at his parents' home at Somerset.A marvellous vacation,altogether.Hope to revisit sometime.

Asha Ramachandran (March 14, 2013)

Coach Grossman and my AP European history teacher both told me that a Yeoman is a middle class farmer, and that the mascot might be after them as well, suiting the school's theme of "Learning and Labor."

Patrick (April 27, 2011)

Embrace the Obie predisposition towards farming as a form of environmental sustainability! The yeoman returns as a symbol of Oberlin's progressive idealism, and in a form slightly less complicated than the Jeffersonian.

Ms. Wu (April 14, 2011)

Yeomen were also small successful farmers in England, as close to the middle class as you could get back then. I think this fits in right along with the Oberlin work ethic and support of the middle class.

Krissy Welch (April 14, 2011)

The royalist yeoman is not the same as the American one. For political theorists in the 18th-19th centuries, the yeoman was the ideal citizen, the self-sufficient landowning farmer. The paradox is that the yeomanry in the US were mainly subsistence farmers who were idealized by slaveholding gentry like Jefferson. This is the contradictory heritage we uphold in Oberlin: learning about the power of ideals even as we acknowledge the difficult labor involved in making them real.

Greggor Mattson (April 14, 2011)