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Humorous drawing of a 19th-century beadle with mace (staff)

A beadle, sometimes spelled bedel, is an official of a church or synagogue who may usher, keep order, make reports, and assist in religious functions; or a minor official who carries out various civil, educational, or ceremonial duties on the manor.

The term has pre-Conquest origins in Old English, deriving from the Old English bydel ("herald, messenger from an authority, preacher"), itself deriving from beodan ("to proclaim", which has a modern descendant in the English verb bid).[1] In Old English it was a title given to an Anglo-Saxon officer who summoned householders to council. It is also known in Medieval Latin as bedellus.

The Domesday Book refers to Beadles as bedelli or undersheriffs of manors.[2]

In religion[edit]

Mr. Bumble, a beadle in Oliver Twist, by 'Kyd' (Joseph Clayton Clarke)

In England, the word came to refer to a parish constable of the Anglican Church, one often charged with duties of charity. A famous fictional constabulary beadle is Mr. Bumble from Charles Dickens's classic novel Oliver Twist, who oversees the parish workhouse and orphanage of a country town more than 75 miles from London.[3] The work of a real constabulary beadle of Whitechapel in that period may be exemplified by Richard Plunkett.

In the Church of Scotland, the title is used for one who attends the minister during divine service as an assistant.

In Judaism, the term beadle or sexton (in Hebrew: שמש, romanizedshammash) is sometimes used for the gabbai, the caretaker or "man of all work", in a synagogue. Moishe the Beadle, the caretaker of a synagogue in Sighet in the 1940s, is an important character in Night by Elie Wiesel.

In education[edit]

In the medieval universities, beadles were students chosen by instructors to act as assistants: carrying books, taking attendance, and assisting in classroom management.

The Esquire Bedell of the University of Cambridge, carrying one of the university maces

In the some universities in England the post of bedel or esquire bedell still exists as a ceremonial role. At the University of Oxford there are six bedels whose role is defined as being to "attend upon the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, the Proctors and other participating dignitaries on such occasions, and assist them and other University members to carry out ceremonial duties" and to "deputise for the University Verger as necessary".[4] At the University of Cambridge there are two esquire bedells who "have certain important responsibilities at congregations", including carrying the university's ceremonial maces, the senior esquire bedell also having "general responsibility for the correct formulation and wearing of academical dress".[5][6] At Durham University there are two bedels;[7] their roles are to lead the graduand and academic processions carrying the university mace and Durham Cathedral's verge, and to direct students and honorary graduates at graduation and matriculation ceremonies.[8] The University of London has an esquire bedell who carries the mace and a number of bedells who carry wands (poles with the university's coat of arms at the top), who also have the responsibility for controlling the line of graduates.[9] Bedels are also used at Newcastle University and the University of Bath, where they bear the university mace at graduation ceremonies,[10][11] and at Keele University, where they bear a ceremonial baton and are accompanied by a mace bearer.[12]

The Ceremonial Bedellus of Glasgow Caledonian University carrying the university's ceremonial mace

Some universities in Scotland, including the University of St Andrews, the University of Glasgow and the University of Dundee, have a ceremonial bedellus, who may also be the head janitor and be responsible for the maintenance of the university buildings. The bedellus traditionally carries or leads the mace in procession and may also be responsible for hooding graduates.[13][14][15][16][17][18]

Some Commonwealth and US universities also have beadles in ceremonial roles, under a variety of different spellings. These include the bedel at Emory University, who is traditionally the president of the Student Government Association,[19] the esquire or madam bedel at the University of Canterbury,[20] the bedel at McMaster University, the esquire bedel at the Australian National University,[21] the esquire bedell at the University of New England,[22] and the beadle at the University of Queensland.[23]

At some Dutch universities, including the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, University of Amsterdam, and Utrecht University the Office of the Beadle manages doctoral and other ceremonies.[24][25]

Jesuit secondary schools formerly maintained the post of beadle—some still do. In each classroom, a student designated as beadle reports attendance to the teacher, acts as messenger, assists in distributing materials, and leads the class in activities.[citation needed]

The position of Beadle also exists at the King's School, Canterbury, where the beadle's task is making sure that pupils are dressed correctly and arrive at lessons on time.[citation needed]

Other uses[edit]

Outside of religious and educational institutions, the designation of "beadle" is most often held by officers of secular bodies of some antiquity.

Sometimes the title is used by uniformed security guards. For example, security duties at the Burlington Arcade, an upmarket shopping mall in Piccadilly, London, are carried out by staff called beadles wearing what appear to be nineteenth century uniforms.[26] The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire employs a Beadle to perform ceremonial duties.[27]

City of London[edit]

In the City of London the title is held by two distinct groups; both originated as "executors" or police for more senior persons.

Ward beadles[edit]

The first group are the ward beadles,[28] who hold the oldest elected office in the City (as functionaries, not as representatives) in their wards. Their duties today are largely ceremonial in that they accompany the aldermen in the eight major ceremonies of the civic calendar and open and close the wardmotes (the election meetings for members of the City's courts of Aldermen and Common Council).

Livery companies[edit]

The second group are paid employees of the livery companies of the City. These beadles are usually assistants to the company's clerk, being responsible for attendance on the court and master of the company, originally to enforce its trade policy and uphold discipline (especially among the company's apprentices) but now to act as masters-of-ceremony at formal banquets and to accompany the master on civic occasions.[29] The title "hall beadle" is sometimes used by the hall manager of a livery hall responsible for the company's treasure and the efficient running of the hall, especially if let on a commercial basis.


  1. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary".
  2. ^ The National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge Vol III, (1846) Charles, Kinght, London, p.26
  3. ^ Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress (first book edition, Richard Bentley, London 1838): location, see Chapter VIII.
  4. ^ "Bedel (Ceremonial Officer)". University of Oxford. 6 February 2018. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  5. ^ "Glossary of Cambridge terminology". University of Cambridge. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  6. ^ "Maces". Cambridge University Library. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  7. ^ "Winter congregation". Dialogue. Durham University (22): 10. March 2012.
  8. ^ "University Bedel Vacancy". Durham University. 2 March 2017. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  9. ^ David Eames (17 November 2020). "Fine robes, a gold mace and paparazzi: The life of an Esquire Bedell".
  10. ^ "Newcastle University London celebrates first graduation ceremony". Newcastle University. 24 November 2016. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  11. ^ "Or ceremonial mace". University of Bath. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  12. ^ "Graduation Ceremonial". Keele University. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  13. ^ "Bedellus". Dictionary of the Scots Language. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  14. ^ "Bedellus (Head Janitor)". University of St Andrews. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  15. ^ "Standing ovation for retired University Bedellus". University of St Andrews. 24 June 2016. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  16. ^ "Central Services". University of Glasgow. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  17. ^ "Head Janitor retires". University of Dundee. 25 January 2001. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  18. ^ "The Ceremony - On The Day". University of Dundee. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  19. ^ "The Circumstances of Pomp". Emory University. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  20. ^ "History of Graduation". University of Canterbury. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  21. ^ "The Ceremony". Australian National University. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  22. ^ "Chancellor pays tribute to long-serving Esquire Bedell". University of New England. 4 April 2011. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  23. ^ "New Beadle to shoulder a heavy burden". University of Queensland. 17 August 1999. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  24. ^ "Office of the Beadle". University of Amsterdam. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  25. ^ "Office of the Beadle". Utrecht University. Retrieved 28 May 2020.
  26. ^ "Burlington Arcade Beadles". Archived from the original on August 23, 2012.
  27. ^ "The Company". Archived from the original on 2019-01-04. Retrieved 2019-01-04.
  28. ^ "City of London Ward Beadles".
  29. ^ "The Beadles of London".

External links[edit]