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Foundation Day

Fine robes, a gold mace and paparazzi: The life of an Esquire Bedell


Written by
David Eames

David Eames is Esquire Bedell of the University of London. This year he will commemorate our Virtual Foundation Day by looking back over his illustrious career.

Esquire Bedell David Eames with ceremonial mace at top of Senate House ceremonial staircase

I have the honour of being the University of London’s Esquire Bedell, an office I have held since 1995 after consultation with the Chancellor, HRH The Princess Royal. Those who have studied degree ceremonies as attentively as I have over the years will have seen in the precessions of graduates making their way to and from the stage, people sometimes not in academic dress but carrying a pole with a university crest at the top. These are the Bedells and what they carry is called a wand. A Bedell’s principal function is to help keep the line of graduates under control. 

When arriving at the stage, these Bedells walk across holding their wand, unannounced and with a nod or curtsy to whoever is presiding. They then leave the stage, leading their line of graduates back to their seats. Serving initially as a Bedell of this kind, I had a small part to play in degree ceremonies. However, my role soon evolved more significance, and included shepherding graduates across the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, where Foundation Day used to be held, to be presented to the Chancellor. This early experience as a Bedell, together with an enjoyment of stage work as part of the University’s Drama Society, meant that very little additional preparation was required in order to slip comfortably into the part of Esquire Bedell.  

Ceremonial mace in box

The role of the Esquire Bedell of the University of London is largely ceremonial. On Foundation Day, it involves leading the in academic precessions. The Esquire Bedell carries the Chancellor’s Mace, and wears a fine robe specially designed and made by Ede and Ravenscroft, London’s oldest tailor and robe maker. The robe is very grand but entirely black so as not to detract from the colourful array of the robes and hoods of graduates and academic staff. 

I enjoy being Esquire Bedell immensely and consider myself extremely fortunate to have been given the many opportunities the office has presented over the years. 

It has taken me to venues all over London and occasionally beyond. Among the more memorable were ceremonies held at the British Embassy in Paris for the presentation of graduates from what was formerly the British Institute in Paris, now the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP). I took the valuable mace in the boot of my car together with a letter from the Vice-Chancellor in case challenged by Customs. To my lasting disappointment, and despite  my best efforts, I was not once stopped and searched.  

Ceremonial mace close up

Famous alumnus

On another occasion when the Chancellor and I emerged from a ceremony into the beautiful sunlit grounds of Royal Holloway College we were confronted by a wall of paparazzi with cameras flashing. And there we both were in the very next edition of ‘Hello’ magazine. A similar thing happened outside Marylebone Parish Church on the occasion when Sir Elton John was presented with an honorary award for his support of the Royal Academy of Music. 

Very many well-known people have featured in University and College ceremonies over the years, some famous, some less so but no less significant. If asked to mention just a few of the more recognisable I would include Desmond Tutu, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Barbra Windsor, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Sir Simon Rattle, Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Jonathan Miller. The list would be almost endless. 

Esquire Bedell David Eames with ceremonial mace

A day to remember

There is a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction to be gained from being Esquire Bedell. Some of this lies in the people one meets, in the places one is fortunate to visit, and in the sense of theatre that every ceremony creates. But first and foremost it is about the graduates and their families and friends. The joy in their faces and the pride they feel is truly palpable, and it’s magnified many hundreds of times in a full hall.  

For so many, their degree ceremony is likely to be one of the most significant events of their lives, and it truly is one that they will remember for ever and in great detail. It’s so very important that everything goes smoothly and that those memories will always be positive ones. The feeling of satisfaction from being even a small part of this and of seeing a job well done is overwhelming, and even after so many ceremonies and so many years, it isn’t a feeling that ever fades.