Benford's G&S Lexicon Entries for The Yeomen of the Guard

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About the Opera

The Yeomen of the Guard

Ruddigore’s disappointing reception accentuated Sullivan’s distaste for further collaboration with Gilbert. Hailed as the Mendelssohn of his day (for his serious compositions), Sir Arthur found greater attractions in hobnobbing with the nobility at soirees, racetracks, and gambling casinos. Always the driving force behind the pair, Gilbert tried in vain to reintroduce the lozenge plot. Sullivan refused, his back stiffened by Queen Victoria’s offhand suggestion that he write a grand opera. Carte, meanwhile, refloated H.M.S. Pinafore at the Savoy as he strained to hold his partners together. Then Gilbert hit on the idea of an opera set in the Tower of London during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). Gilbert conceived a romantic, adventuresome plot and an interesting cast of characters. Sullivan was pleased, and the two collaborators stepped back into harness. Carte kept the Company together with other revivals until October 3, 1888, when the Savoy’s curtain went up on The Yeomen of the Guard. Although the new opera was initially well received and ran for 423 performances, Gilbert, and more particularly Sullivan, were disappointed that it was not another Mikado in the public’s esteem.

The Yeomen of the Guard holds a special place in the Savoy canon, being unique in its mixture of comedy and pathos. The jester, Jack Point, contains a good deal of Gilbertian self-portraiture, and several of the other characters are recognizably human –– in contrast to so many of Gilbert’s farcical portraits. In their later years, both Gilbert and Sullivan counted Yeomen as their favorite collaboration (163, 318).



The Tower of London is a fortress dating back in part to William the Conqueror. Located on the north bank of the Thames, it occupies about eighteen acres and includes more than a dozen individual towers. Rich in history and bloodshed, the Tower is a centerpiece of British history (107).


In England a yeoman was originally a man who owned and farmed his own land. The term later came to be applied to archers and cavalry soldiers recruited from among the nation’s farmers and countrymen. The Yeomen of the Guard was originated in 1485 as a bodyguard for the monarch. Until 1548 their duties included service at the Tower of London. Ever since that date a similar group, called the Corps of Yeomen Warders, has had that specific duty. The Tudor uniforms worn by the two corps are almost identical and this causes the two to be confused. There are those who think Gilbert made that mistake. Goodman (140), however, notes that Gilbert specifies that the opera is set in the sixteenth century. If we assume that the action takes place before 1548, then Gilbert cannot be accused of misnaming the opus. For a complete exposition on the history of the actual Yeomen of the Guard, see Paget (230).


If you see the letters HR on the front of the uniforms, that would be Henry VIII’s insignia, standing for Henricus Rex (King Henry).

Sir Richard Cholmondeley

Pronunciation: CHUM-lee

The most important thing to know about Sir Richard is that his family name is pronounced “Chumley.” You may also want to know that there really was such a person in command of the Tower during the time of Henry VIII (319). Extensive wrangles have developed over Gilbert’s intent in using the name. Was he using the character or just the name? No one knows; nor need we be much concerned. Let us press on.

Lieutenant of the Tower

The lieutenant served under the constable of the Tower. The constable was Henry VIII’s chief security officer throughout the greater London area. The lieutenant of the Tower was in charge of day-to-day operation of the Tower itself, the most important stronghold in the nation. As a royal appointment, it was an exceedingly important and prestigious post (319).


Tower Green

An open square within the Tower of London. Most public executions took place on Tower Hill, just outside the walls of the Tower. Especially important prisoners, however, were executed in the relative privacy of Tower Green. Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were accorded that privilege (319). Why should Colonel Fairfax be so honored? To simplify staging, I presume.

Act I

Heigho [With a sad heigho!]

Applegate (8) raises a question about how this should be pronounced. The favored American way is “hi-ho,” and that is the way the old D’Oyly Carte Opera Company sang it for a time. Then they changed to “hay-ho.” The switch is staunchly defended by Williams (316) in a letter to The Gilbert and Sullivan Journal. But, let it be noted that in Princess Ida “heigho-let” must rhyme with violet. In any event, Webster (307) says the expression is “used typically to express boredom, weariness or sadness and sometimes to serve as a cry of encouragement.” (That last must have been what those seven dwarfs had in mind.) The dictionaries all seem to split heigho with a hyphen (heigh-ho), but perhaps they will change now that we point out how Gilbert spelled it.

Littered [The wild beasts all littered down?]

Phoebe is asking Wilfred if he has provided straw for all the prisoners’ beds. On a more literate plane, Knight (178) finds that before 1828 one of the functions of the Tower, for several centuries, was to keep wild animals. In the context, however, it would seem more likely that Phoebe had the prisoners in mind.

Little Ease [Is the Little Ease sufficiently uncomfortable]

A narrow place of confinement; specifically, the name of a dungeon cell in the White Tower (286). The cell is reportedly so small that the prisoner can neither stand up nor lie down. Guy Fawkes is thought to have spent fifty days there after trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament (47). Wilson (319), however, avers that no one has ever proven that such a cell actually existed within the Tower.

Racks [racks, pincers, and thumbscrews all ready for work?]

A rack was an instrument of torture in which the victim’s arm and leg bones could be pulled out of their sockets.


Hinged, plier-like tools with sharp points.


Torture instruments used to compress a thumb until the joint was crushed. But, let’s move on to pleasanter things.

Sorcerers [We can’t all be sorcerers]

Magicians who foretell the future with the help of evil spirits. See also The Sorcerer

Sketch of an Alchemist

Alchemists sought to convert base metals into gold. Wilson (319) says that in 1605 Henry Percy, a son of the earl of Northumberland, was imprisoned in the Tower for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. He practiced alchemy, astrology, and philosophy. He also spent much time in concocting medicines and potions. All this esoteric activity led to his being dubbed “The Wizard Earl.” Perhaps he was in part the inspiration for Colonel Fairfax. (See the definition of “Alchemy” in the Princess Ida.)

Beauchamp Tower

Pronunciation: BEE-chum

One of the main towers in the Tower of London. Goodman (140) tells us it was built around 1300 and remained nameless until 1397, when Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, was imprisoned there and his name thereby became associated with it. It was used as a place of confinement for high ranking prisoners. Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s henchman, spent time there, too.

Jade [You are a heartless jade]
Sketch of a Heartless jade

A word of many meanings. Here it means a cruel woman.

Warders [Tower Warders]

Warders are guards, watchmen, caretakers, or officers in charge of prisoners.

Pikemen [gallant pikemen]

Soldiers armed with spears (of the jabbing, not throwing, variety). Johnson (165) says a pike is “a long lance used by the foot soldiers to keep off the horse, to which bayonets have succeeded.”

Bearing [Brave in bearing]

Manner of acting or behaving.

Autumn [In the autumn of our life]

Referring to post-middle age years. Members of the corps were selected from among recently retired warrant (i.e., low-level) military officers.

Ample clover

Economic security.

Repining [We recall without repining all the heat of bygone noon]

The phrase means that they recall their bygone passions but are just as happy to have outgrown them. See also The Grand Duke.

Richard Colfax, et al.

These are all imaginary names, of which only Colonel Fairfax is heard from again.

Cold Harbour

Another tower in the Tower of London. Wilkes (315) calls attention to an apparent slip on Gilbert’s part. The two words should be joined, thus: “Coldharbour.” Wilson (319) says it was used as the queen’s residence during the time of Henry VII. Goodman (140) adds that the tower was demolished in about 1670.

Blunderbore [or it’s not good enough for the old Blunderbore]

This was “the cruel giant in Jack the Giant Killer cycle of folk tales, who imprisoned Jack” (223). Stedman (273) adds, “I think the point here is that Blunderbore was a carnivorous giant, who ground men’s bones to make his bread –– just as the Tower grinds and devours living men … The tower is personified as the giant.”

Keep [I was born in the old keep]

A keep is the strong, innermost structure in a fort or castle. In this case the reference is probably to the White Tower (315).

Norman [our gallant Norman foes]
Sketch of a Norman

Here we had better review a bit of English history. William, the Duke of Normandy (ca. 1027-87), claimed that his cousin, the late King Edward the Confessor, had bequeathed to him the crown of England. To enforce his claim he led his army across the English Channel and invaded England. He was opposed by the Saxon King Harold II, whom he defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William subsequently appended a well-justified “the Conqueror” to his name and built the first part of the Tower of London, the White Tower.


During the fifth century A.D. England was overrun by waves of Teutonic invaders: the Jutes, the Angles, and the Saxons. Those three tribes came to rule over most of England. By A.D. 800 the Saxons, centered in Wessex (West Saxony), predominated, and it was their self-proclaimed king, Harold, who was the target of William the Conqueror’s invasion in 1066 (43).

The Conqueror

The aforementioned William.