Synopsis: The Yeomen of the Guard


Tower Green (Time – Sixteenth Century)

Colonel Fairfax, a man of science, but formerly a soldier of great and dashing bravery, is confined in the Tower of London. He is under sentence of death as a sorcerer. Although he is a student of alchemy, Fairfax is still young and handsome, and Phoebe has lost her heart to him, for she sees him occasionally taking exercise on the Beauchamp Tower.

As the curtain rises the unhappy girl is discovered sitting at her spinning wheel sighing over her hopeless love for the prisoner. Wilfred Shadbolt, head jailer and assistant tormenter, is greatly put out, for Phoebe will have none of him, though before the arrival of Fairfax she had not been so averse to his attentions. Dame Carruthers, the housekeeper to the Tower, believing Fairfax to be guilty, resents Phoebe’s praise of him, and her criticisms of the Tower. The Dame was born in the old Keep, and the Tower is very dear to her; she leaves no doubt of her sentiments in the noble air “When our gallant Norman foes”.

Sergeant Meryll, of the Yeomen of the Guard, is saddened by the thought of the approaching execution of Fairfax. He greatly admires Fairfax for his brilliant career as a soldier and not even the imminent arrival of his son, Leonard Meryll, can raise his despondent spirits, though there is a hope that Leonard may bring a reprieve from Court with him for Fairfax.

Leonard arrives even while Phoebe and her father are discussing the sad case of the unfortunate prisoner; there is no reprieve. None saw him enter, and the unheralded coming gives Sergeant Meryll an idea. “Give me the dispatch,” he says … “lie hidden for a space”. Leonard does so willingly, for Fairfax was once his great friend. A moment later Fairfax passes by, under guard, on his way to the Cold Harbour Tower to await his end in solitude. He sees and recognizes Sergeant Meryll and bids him cheer up; as a soldier, he says, he knows how to die. If life is a boon, he says, death must inevitably come too soon. Phoebe and her father are overcome with emotion and leave him.

Fairfax asks the Lieutenant of the Tower to grant him a favor. He is, he says, imprisoned as a result of the machinations of his cousin, Sir Clarence Poltwhistle – a greedy fellow to whom the Fairfax estates must naturally fall if Colonel Fairfax should die unmarried. Fairfax’s request is therefore that the Lieutenant shall find him a woman willing to go through a form of marriage with him: her dower shall be Fairfax’s name and a hundred crowns. Since he is to be executed in an hour’s time it should be easy enough to find someone.

As Fairfax moves on his way there is laughing and shouting, and a roistering throng of men and women, pursuing a wandering jester and a merrymaid, appear. The jester, Jack Point, and the girl, Elsie Maynard, are both more than a little terrified, for the crowd, in demanding entertainment, threaten to throw them into the river if they do not come up to expectations. They sing them the “singing farce of the Merryman and his maid”, and are about to be mobbed by the less appreciative members of the audience when the Lieutenant reappears from the Cold Harbour Tower.

The crowd is dispersed and the Lieutenant, learning all about Elsie and Jack Point, suggests to Elsie that she be Fairfax’s bride for the short hour he has to live. The hundred crowns which she is to receive tempt and persuade her. She is led blindfolded to the cell where Fairfax and his confessor await her. While she is gone Point (in the song “I’ve jibe and joke”) explains his calling of a jester and is engaged by the Lieutenant as his jester.

Then Phoebe reflects on her state, and finally finds Wilfred alone. She determines to get the keys of Fairfax’s cell from him. Exerting all her charms and flattering Wilfred, she compliments him on his jollity and wit, though he is in truth the heaviest-minded dolt. Slyly she takes the keys from his belt and hands them to her father, who disappears immediately.

Whilst her father is away she sings a tempting little ditty “Were I thy bride”. As she begins the last verse the keys are pushed back into her hand and she cleverly puts them back on Wilfred’s belt. She runs off and Wilfred wanders away bewildered and happy.

No sooner has he gone than Sergeant Meryll and Fairfax appear from the Tower. Fairfax has shaved off his beard and has put on the dress of a Yeoman of the Guard. He is to pose as the Sergeant’s son Leonard. Sergeant Meryll presents his “son” to the assembled yeomen, who cheer him to the echo. Phoebe, too, welcomes this “brother” far more lingeringly and ecstatically than might be considered perfectly natural. Then while “brother and sister” are greeting one another the clock of St Peter’s begins to toll and crowds surge around to witness the execution of Fairfax. Fairfax (alias Leonard) and two other Yeomen are ordered to fetch the prisoner, but are back in a moment: the prisoner has escaped!


The same, two days later Moonlight

Jack Point is now in a quandary. He has agreed to Elsie’s marrying the imprisoned Fairfax because he was assured that Fairfax would die within the hour. Now that Fairfax has escaped Elsie is still a married woman, and Jack Point cannot himself marry her. He conceives a plan, however. With the dazzling bribe of a free schooling in the trade of a jester he persuades Wilfred to help him in his scheme. They move off mysteriously.

Meanwhile Fairfax, free of his physical bonds, muses about the fetters of matrimony that have replaced them. He is joined by Sergeant Meryll, but their conversation is interrupted by Dame Carruthers – her niece, Kate, has overheard Elsie talking in her troubled sleep about the man she has married for what should have been just an hour.

Having thus learned of the identity of the woman whom he married, Fairfax resolves to woo her and thus test her fidelity. A shot from the tower sets everyone agog and an excited crowd quickly gathers. Wilfred and Point both appear with an air of importance. Wilfred asserts that he has had a desperate struggle with Colonel Fairfax, whom he discovered in a dark corner of the battlements. Fairfax, after a cunning twist, eluded Wilfred and dived into the river. Wilfred, however, was equal to the occasion and shot Fairfax with his arquebus as he swam in the Thames. All this Jack Point endorses most heartily.

Point tells Elsie that she is now free to marry again, and he is the obvious choice! But Fairfax, declaring that the jester “knowest not how to woo”, proceeds to give him so life-like a lesson in his trio with the two girls that both Point and Phoebe grow alarmed, and the scene ends with Elsie admitting her love to the supposed Leonard Meryll.

Wilfred finds Phoebe weeping and, when Wilfred taunts her, she confesses it is because Meryll/Fairfax is to marry Elsie and not her. This reveals their secret, so Phoebe has to promise to marry Wilfred to ensure his silence.

The newly-betrothed couple are then interrupted by the real Leonard, with news that a pardon for Fairfax has arrived. When they are joined by Sergeant Meryll, the general excitement leads them not to notice the listening ear of Dame Carruthers, who threatens exposure of their plot and forces Sergeant Meryll into a proposal.

Fairfax is returning to claim his bride. Poor Elsie is distracted: she must follow Fairfax, though her heart is elsewhere. She comes forward with bowed head, lamenting her cruel fate. Then she looks up, and with a start she sees that the “Leonard” she loves is none other than this detested Fairfax. With a cry of joy she falls into his arms.

The final scene is one of general rejoicing- only Jack Point is left without a partner – and still singing the refrain “Heigh-dy, heigh-dy! Misery me, lack-a-day-dee! … all for the love of a ladye!” he falls insensible at the feet of the now happily united couple.

Adapted from the plot summary in The Victor Book of the Opera, RCA Manufacturing Co., Camden, NJ, 1936
[found at the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive]

Next appearance

Your next chance to see the Society on stage at Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline will be on 13–15 February 2025 for the première run of The Jury’s Out.

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