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Yeoman (pronounced Yo-man) refers to a farmer who cultivates his own land, historically a lesser freeholder of England, below the gentry but with political rights. More generally, yeoman can be an indicator of a position or social class, varying over time and place, or a diligent, dependable worker. A yeoman could also be a guard, attendant, or subordinate official. An equivalent in Germanymarker is Freibauer ("freehold farmer"); in this context a yeoman is also similar to the Russian odnodvorets.

A yeoman could be a free man holding a small landed estate, a minor landowner, a small prosperous farmer, especially from the Elizabethan era onwards (16th-17th century), a deputy, assistant, journeyman, or loyal or faithful servant. Work "performed or rendered in a loyal, valiant, useful, or workmanlike manner", especially in situations that involve a great deal of effort or labor, such as would be done by a yeoman farmer, came to be described as a yeoman's job. Yeomen became a class of people that gained a reputation for hard toil.

Yeoman also was a rank or position in a noble or royal household, with titles such as Yeoman of the Chamber, Yeoman of the Crown, Yeoman Usher, King's Yeoman, and various others. Most duties were connected with protecting the sovereign and dignitaries as a bodyguard, such as the Yeomen of the Guard, attending the sovereign with various tasks as needed, or duties assigned to his office.

In modern British usage, yeoman may specifically refer to a member of a reserve cavalry unit called a yeomanry (similar to a militia) traditionally raised from respected and moderately wealthy commoners in England and Wales, and today part of the Territorial Army; a member of the Yeomen of the Guard or Yeomen Warders of the Tower of Londonmarker, or servant in the British Royal Household at Windsor Castlemarker, such as the Yeoman of the Cellar; or a supervisory soldier normally between the ranks of staff sergeant to Warrant Officer Class 1 in the Royal Corps of Signals in the British Army, an appointment achieved upon completion of a 14-month technical course and seen as the highest accolade bestowed upon an operator and indeed a Royal Signals soldier.

In the Royal Navy, United States Navy, United States Coast Guard, and other maritime or naval services, a yeoman is a rating with usually secretarial, clerical, payroll or other administrative duties. In the Royal Navy, a Yeoman of Signals is a signalling and tactical communications petty officer.

Origins of the term

The expanded forms of yeoman, such as yongeman or yongerman, are possibly of Anglo-Saxon or northwestern Germanic origin and eventually became yeman or yoman in the Middle Ages (with variations such as yoeman, etc.). In the early 14th century, the word developed the more recognisable modern spelling of yeoman. In 1363 the vernacular form of the English language was officially recognised as the national language of the Kingdom of England, and the French term valet (used as the formal language), and the Latin term valectus (used in the courts) were replaced by the term yeoman. The term yeoman, primarily identified as "servant", is noted throughout the Calendar Patent Rolls in the early 1300s.

The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale appears in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Early Middle Ages

In Germania, Tacitus writes of "young men chosen from every district (pagus), who are swift on foot, and with this swiftness they support the cavalry, fixed in number (100) and from this they take their 'name of honour'". It is not clear what Tacitus means by "name of honor", but he may be referring to "the hundred men". In Anglo-Saxon England the "hundred" became a unit used for raising the fyrd (militia), with its own court and legal status.

In many ways the ancient "yeoman" is very similar to the "yeomanry" today, volunteers of the Territorial Army of the United Kingdommarker. Yeoman military corps takes origin from the volunteer cavalry in the mid-18th century, later becoming known as the Yeomanry Cavalry in the 1790s.

The term "yeoman" is also used to define a man who follows a chief, or a lord, in ancient times known as gau judices (district chiefs). The term is similar in concept to geneatas, meaning a warrior companion. Heartho-geneatas were hearth warriors, who formed the "comitatus" or warrior retinues of lords. Geneatas is the origin of the more modern term knight. In the Brythonic language the term gweis is similarly used in the same context as a young freeborn person in service. The ancient Brythonic word gweis is very similar to gewi- or gawi- prefixes in Gothic. Both languages are now extinct, though ancient Brythonic language has evolved into modern Welsh and Cornish, while Cumbrian and many other Britonnic dialects are now extinct.

High Middle Ages

Throughout the medieval period the term yeoman was used within the royal and noble households to indicate a servant's rank, degree, position or status. A yeoman during the Middle Ages was commonly used in feudal or private warfare. Yeoman is also believed to come from the word yonge man or iunge man ("young man"), possibly as a freeborn servant (serviens or sergeant) ranking between the esquire (shield escort, from scutum) and page (pagus, meaning "rustic" and later "young errand boy").

Long before the concept of chivalry and the Crusades were born from the ideas of Christianity, the term "knight" (from cniht) originally meant "boy." Terms such as radman, radcniht, or radknight ("riding man," "road man," "riding boy," "road boy/page" were used). The difference of terms helped to distinguish the young riding men (yeomen) from the riding boys (pages) who provided a riding or road service. It also indicates a path of career progression within a noble or royal household.

All the fighting classes of men in the Middle Ages from the knighs (in particular knight's bachelors), squires, yeomen, to pages were usually young servants; the degree of importance or status of each changed over time. Many serving men (serviens or sergeants) would usually be promoted to various positions of importance within the king's or lord's household.

The term yongermen is found in text as early as the 12th century, and the term geongramanna is found in Beowulf in a much earlier period (700-800). Serving men of districts, since the days of the Gau polities in Germania, and the stretches of the Germanic peoples throughout Western Europe immediately after the collapse of the Roman Empire would most likely be young men, or young men of the district. Yeoman or gauman within the definition of both land and/or service of a young man appeared mostly settled around the border regions or remote country sides of their districts, or kingdoms (both modern and ancient); thus a connection or association with pagus (pages), or rustics to the term yeoman.

Ancient to modern usage

If the term yeoman is associated with land, or degree of land ownership, then it may have its ancient roots in the early Anglo-Saxon rule of Englandmarker or earlier (thus coming full circle to its most likely etymological roots).In ancient times the land was a strong indicator of social status, and wealth, since the period known as the Dark Ages, and the term yeoman was used in the 16th century to denote the more prosperous, often having a mixture of copyhold, freehold, or leasehold land.

Not all yeomen owned land as many were indentured or feudal servants in a castle. In earlier Anglo Saxon rule, the class of 'geneatas' would most likely be the classification a 'yeoman' in this period as an aristocratic peasantry.

The yeoman would be the connection between royalty and nobility to the peasantry, thus a middling class of sorts in feudal or manorial service to either the king, or a lord. Also possibly identified within a class of libri homini (freemen) within Domesday, the yeoman in service to a king or lord would be known as serviens/sergeants, or valet/valectus during the Norman period. There also men known as 'socmen' or 'sokemen', usually derived from Anglian or Danishmarker sources, equivalent in status as 'radman', thus combining land status and servile status as equals.

Usage as a compliment or praise

This is most likely based upon the historical achievements of winning numerous battles during the Hundred Years' War when the odds and numbers were stacked against the yeoman archers in these conflicts. It also may have been used to denote the excellent or superior service given by a king’s servant performing heroic duties such as preventing an assassination attempt on his life, or protecting his castle or palace (such as we see in the modern day Yeomen of the Guard and the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of Londonmarker).

The term used in context such as:
  • The forester provided ‘yeoman service’ in finding the lost children in the woods.
  • The Hubble Telescope has done ‘yeoman service’ or ‘yeoman’s duty’ since it was launched in 1990.
  • He made a ‘yeoman’s effort’ to clean the garage.
  • The security guard did ‘yeoman’s work’ last night by staying alert and preventing a break-in entry after working very long hours in austere conditions.

The English yeoman

Yeomen were originally a class of British or English landholding (freehold, leasehold and copyhold) farmers in the late 14th century to the 18th century. The amount of land owned and the wealth of the English yeoman varied from place to place. Many yeomen were prosperous, mixed with the minor county or regional gentry and some even rented land to gentleman landowners. Some were entitled to be classed as gentlemen but did not pursue it, as it was cheaper to remain a yeoman. Some yeomen of the later Tudor and Stuart period shared the heritage and ancestry of the occupational medieval yeoman, as attested mainly by weapons found above the fireplace mantles (especially in the border shires) of the West Midlands of England.

Yeomen were called upon to serve their sovereign and their country well after the Middle Ages, for example in the Yeomanry Cavalry of the late 1700s and later Imperial Yeomanry of the late 1890s.

Most yeomen had servants or labourers with whom they would work if they had the means to afford such services. Some yeomen had more wealth than the minor gentry, but remained classed as yeomen by choice rather than by necessity. Often it was hard to distinguish minor gentry from the wealthier yeomen, and wealthier husbandmen from the poorer yeomen.

Sir Anthony Richard Wagner, Garter Principal King of Arms, wrote that "a Yeoman would not normally have less than 100 acres" (40 hectares) and in social status is one step down from the Gentry, but above, say, a husbandman. (English Genealogy, Oxford, 1960, pps: 125-130).

The Concise Oxford Dictionary, (edited by H.W. & F.G. Fowler, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972 reprint, p. 1516) states that a yeoman is "a person qualified by possessing free land of 40/- annual [feudal] value, and who can serve on juries and vote for a Knight of the Shire. He is sometimes described as a small landowner, a farmer of the middle classes."

In the United States, yeomen were identified in the 18th and 19th Centuries as non-slaveholding small landowning family farmers. Yeomen, because they owned no slaves of their own, frequently hired slaves at harvest time to help in the fields. In an area where land was poor, like eastern Tennesseemarker, the landowning yeomen were typically subsistence farmers, but grew some crops for the market. Whether they engaged in subsistence or commercial agriculture, they controlled far more modest landholdings than those of the planters, more likely in the range of over fifty to two hundred acres, rather than five hundred or more acres.

Yeoman medieval obligations

Yeomen were identified in the Middle Ages as persons owning land worth approximately 40 to 80 shillings annually, roughly between ¼ Hide and 1 Hide (about 30 to 120 acres, or 12 to 50 hectares). In the early 12th century, 40 acres (16 hectares) of land was worth about 40 to 50 shillings. The Assize of Arms of 1252 gave instructions for the small landholder to be armed and trained with a bow and those of more wealth (wealthy yeomen) would be required to possess and be trained with sword, dagger and the longbow (the war bow).

The Assize of Arms of 1252 AD identify a class long identified with the ‘yeomanry’, being a 40-shilling freeholder, and indicates "Those with land worth annual 40s-100s will be armed/trained with bow and arrow, sword, buckler and dagger". The description of societal standing of landowning persons mentioned in the 1252 Assize of Arms of who is to own and train with certain weapons epitomises the Knight's Yeoman such as the one in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Yeoman's Portrait in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales).

Yeoman archers and yew war bows

The English war bow, known as the longbow (the main weapon of a yeoman archer) was typically but not always made of yew wood, often Wych Elm and other woods were used for making bow staves. Though yeomen archers are inextricably tied to the English War Yew Bow, it was the Spanish, French and Italian yew that was highly sought after because of its superior qualities of growth and the extremely restricted availability over English Yew in the late Middle Ages.

The 'yeoman archer' was unique to England and Wales (in particular, the southeast Wales area of Monmouthshire with the famed archers of Gwentmarker, Glamorganmarker, Crickhowellmarker, and Abergavennymarker regions, and South West England with the Royal Forest of Deanmarker, Kingswood Royal Forest near Bristol, and the New Forestmarker). Though the Kentish Wealdmarker and indeed Cheshiremarker archers were noted for their skills, as well the Ettrick Archers of Scotland, it appears the bulk of the 'yeomanry' was from the more remote and border regions of England, Wales and Scotland (English and Welsh Marches; The Borders).

The original Yeomen of the Guard (originally archers) chartered in 1485 were all most likely of Briton descent (Welshmarker, Breton, etc), established by King Henry VII, himself a Briton who was exiled in Brittany during the Wars of the Roses. He recruited his forces throughout mostly Walesmarker and the West Midlands of Englandmarker on his victorious journey to Bosworth Fieldmarker.

The Welshmarker have the honour of being the first to be attested in written history in using the 'longbow' made of yew and elm (circa 650 AD) either against the Merciansmarker, or as allies of the Mercians against Northumbriamarker. The incident at Abergavenny Castlemarker, where a Welsh arrow pierced through armour and the legs of an English knight was certainly not unknown to King Henry II, and his grandson Henry III who created or signed the Assize of Arms 1252 identifying the 'war bow' as a national weapon for classes of men who held land under 80s or 100s annually. The 'Yongermen' fell under this classification. By Edward I's reign the bulk of the archers were Welshmarker, who defeated the Scots and eventually would be used with great success by King Edward III in the Hundred Years' War. The famous ‘yeoman archers’ drawn from the Macclesfieldmarker Hundred and the Forest districts of the Cheshiremarker region were specially appointed as bodyguard archers for King Richard II.

Yeoman positions in society

The yeoman represented a status between the aristocratic knights and the lower-class foot soldiers and household servants (pages). The yeoman archer was typically mounted and fought either on foot or on horseback, in contrast with infantry archers, and came to be applied to societal standing as a farmer in particular during the 14th century to 18th century. A yeoman during the 12th century and 13th century was primarily a household and military (semi-feudal and feudal) term later associated with the days of private warfare.

Yeomen are also noted as providing guard escorts to deliveries of victuals and supplies (not only fighting as an elite archer but also as a guard to the baggage train as well a protector of the nobility and royalty) to the expeditions of the Hundred Years' War. They also provided escorts for the sovereign and great nobles on their journeys and their pilgrimages across the realm and overseas. Yeomen of the Crown were essentially agents of the king who were allowed to sit and dine with knights and squires of any lord's house or estate. At retirement they were offered tenure of stewardship of royal forests at the king’s choosing.

Later in Medieval history and through the Renaissance, the yeomanry shared attributes with both the upper class and working classes, though they had little in common with today's urban middle class. The yeomanry was the first class of the commoners (peasants), in Saxon days would be the equivalent to geneatas or villager. The yeoman was more military and bound to the manor or estate, comparable to the radman or radcniht (radknight) who would provide escorts, deliver messages, erect fences for the hunt, and repair bridges. He would be given land (copyhold or sometimes freehold) by his lord for services well rendered. Many similarities exist between radmen/radknights and yeomen of the crown, as yeomen had many of the same tasks, though he was not as heavily imposed with the intense labor requirements as the radman/radknight had during his time.

Historical duties

Duties of yeomen were manifold from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century. They were usually constables of their parish, and sometimes chief constables of the district, shire or hundred. Many yeomen would hold status as bailiffs for the High Sheriff, or for the shire, or hundred. Other civic duties would include churchwarden, bridge warden, and other warden duties. It was also common for a yeoman to be an overseer for his parish.

Yeomen, whether working for a lord, king, shire, knight, district or parish are noted for their civic duties as localised or municipal police forces raised by or led by the gentry. Some of these duties and mostly that of constable and bailiff would be carried down through family traditions. Yeomen are seemingly in a role of ranging, roaming, surveying, and policing throughout their social history. In Chaucer's Canterbury Friar's Tale, a yeoman who is a bailiff of the forest who tricks the Summoner turns out to be the devil ready to grant wishes already made. Yeomen also had much wealth and free time. They were excellent farmers and did much excavating.

In the early Middle English period (noted in the text Pseudo Cnut De Foresta Constitutiones written in the late 11th century), the ‘yonger men’ chosen of liberi homini mediocre were to range the royal forests and is the first known use of the word yeoman being associated with the forests (both greenwood and royal or manorial hunting forests). The chief forester of such royal forests was stationed at the nearest castle and was also the constable of the castle with his deputy foresters or yeomen assisting in the maintenance and affairs of the royal forests.

The earlier word Franklin was the yeoman's equivalent (a wealthy peasant landowner or freeholder or village official). Franklins in their days would typically be village leaders (aldermen), constables or mayors. Yeomen would find that status in the 14th century as many of them became leaders, constables, sheriffs, justices of the peace, mayors and significant leaders of their country districts. It was too much, for even ‘valets’ known as ‘yeoman archers’ were forbidden to be returned to parliament, indicating they even held power at a level never before held by the upper class of commoners. The further away the district from gentry or burgess, the more power a yeoman held in office, as well attested in statutes during the reign of Henry VIII indicating yeomen along with knights and squires who have the leading of men to be in charge of certain functions.

A yeoman could be equally comfortable working on his farm, educating himself from books, or enjoying country sports such as shooting and hunting. By contrast members of the landed gentry and the aristocracy did not farm their land themselves, but let it to tenant farmers. Yeomen in the Tudor and Stuart period could also be found leasing or renting lands to the minor gentry. However, ‘yeomen’ and ‘tenant farmers’ were the two main divisions of the rural middle class in traditional British society, and the yeoman was a respectable, honorable class and ranked above the husbandmen, artisans, and laborers.

Isaac Newton, as well many other famous people such as Thomas Jefferson hailed from the yeoman class of society. Isaac Newton inherited a small farm which paid the bills for his academic work. Many yeoman fathers would have the means to send their sons to school to qualify to join the professions, and become classed as gentlemen. Many families of yeoman status and established good standing would also have sons who would serve in the royal or great noble households providing not menial, but honorable service, as his social status or degree in society was equal in the royal or noble household.


The term also suggests someone upright, sturdy, honest and trustworthy, qualities attributed to the Yeomen of the Crown; and in the 13th century the Yeomen of the Chamber were described as virtuous, cunning, skillful, courteous, and experts in archery chosen out of every great Noble's house in England. The King's Yeoman or King's Valectus (Valetti) is the earliest usage in a recognisable form such as King's Yeman or King's Yoman. Possibly the concept is derived from King's Geneatas, meaning either companion or a follower of a king. In ancient times before the establishments of feudalism and manorialism, a yeoman was a follower of a district (gau) chief or judice.

Comparable classes of people

The term is sometimes applied to people of similar status in other traditional societies. The ‘franklin’ is an example meaning a freeman and sometimes meaning a French or Norman freeholder. Franklin milities would basically be the equivalent of a yeoman in the middle-ages and the yeoman the equivalent of a franklin in the late middle-ages.

The yeoman belonged to a class or status of fighter (usually known as in the third order of the fighting class between that of a squire and a page). This status was very different from what was occurring on the continent in the days of feudalism, where the gap between commoners and gentry was far wider, causing much division between the two classes in medieval society. Though a middling class existed on the continent, it was not well respected or held in such high-esteem as the yeoman of England was during the time when the class existed.

Other references to yeoman

  • Yeomanry Cavalry refers to the extrajudicial military force organised by the property-owning class to defend against French invasion in 18th-century England as well as to protect British occupation in 18th-century Ireland. Yeomanry Cavalry was officially formed in 1794 (formed unofficially circa. 1760s as a Volunteer Cavalry), it eventually became an expeditionary force known as the Imperial Yeomanry in 1899, and then was absorbed into the Territorial Army in 1907. Many units retain their 'Yeomanry' designation today and have seen service in both the World Wars and modern times, including the current "War on Terrorism". This contrasts with the title of Gentlemen Cavaliers of the Household Cavalry regiments.
  • Yeoman Riders of the Coursers Stables, Yeoman Riders of the Hunting Stables, Yeoman Riders of the Race and Running Horses, First Yeoman Rider, Second Yeoman Rider. (See British History Online.)
  • Yeomen of the Guard were established in 1485 AD after the Battle of Bosworth Fieldmarker and were officially chartered by King Henry VII for their loyal service during the war. Later, King Henry VIII established the Yeomen Warders of the Tower of Londonmarker, which is the oldest of the Royal Bodyguards in England, and one of the oldest Royal Bodyguards and military organisations in the world. In essence Yeomen of the Guard and Yeomen Warders are direct modern day links to the days of warfare in the Middle Ages.
  • Yeoman Usher of the Black Rod is a deputy position to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod and is the deputy sergeant-at-arms in the House of Lordsmarker. The position is an official figure in the parliaments of some Commonwealth countries.
  • There are several Yeoman positions in the staff of the Royal Household, under the Master of the Household.
  • According to Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Robin Hood's band of Merry Men is largely Yeomen.
  • In William Caxton's print of the Canterbury Tales there is a woodcut engraving of the knight's yeoman.
  • In falconry, the bird for the Yeoman is a Goshawk, a forest bird.
  • Sir Gawain states that he was made a yeoman at Yule in Le Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.
  • The Yeoman is also the mascot for the Oberlin Collegemarker athletic teams.
  • The Yeoman is the mascot for York University in Toronto, Ontario.
  • University of Cambridgemarker, and some other traditional universities, possess (or once possessed) an office by the name of the Yeoman Bedell (cf. Esquire Bedell), which originally consisted primarily of running errands, such as serving summons to appear in the University's courts. Largely the office has either been abolished as a medievealism, or retained in a purely ceremonial form. At the University of Sydney the office has been retained as the manager in charge of the University's caretaking and security services.
  • Yeoman is also a petty officer's job (or rating) in both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, as well as a similar clerical position in Starfleet in the fictional universe of Star Trek: The Original Series. During World War I, women were enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve Force as Yeomen to provide some of the additional workforce needed to support the war, working mainly in clerical positions. They were designated Yeoman to distinguish them from their male counterparts and were released from the service shortly after the war ended.
  • The sinister supporter of the arms of Wisconsinmarker is a yeoman, though the figure incorrectly shown on the flag seems to be a miner, a miner's helmet not being mentioned in the blazon.
  • The sergeant flagman at Windsor Castlemarker carries the title of 'Yeoman of the Round Tower'.
  • The Dr. Seuss book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins includes a 'Yeoman of the Bowmen', a master archer who shoots a hat off the title character's head.
  • In JAG, Petty Officer First Class Jason Tiner is the commanding officer, AJ Chegwidden's yeoman.
  • In Chasers, William McNamara plays the "timid but trampish" yeoman, Seaman Apprentice Eddie Devane.

See Also


Further reading

  • Allen, Robert C. Enclosure and the Yeoman (1992) Oxford U. Press 376p.
  • Broad, John. "The Fate of the Midland Yeoman: Tenants, Copyholders, and Freeholders as Farmers in North Buckinghamshire, 1620-1800," Continuity & Change 1999 14(3): 325-347,
  • Campbell, Mildred. The English Yeoman
  • Hallas, Christine S. "Yeomen and Peasants? Landownership Patterns in the North Yorkshire Pennines c. 1770-1900," Rural History 1998 9(2): 157-176,

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