yeoman (yōˈmən) [key], class in English society. The term has always been ill-defined, but generally it means a freeholder of a lower status than gentleman who cultivates his own land. With the breakdown of medieval systems of tenure the numbers of this class increased and formed the basis for a rural middle class. Certain retainers of a fairly high rank in noble households were also called yeomen, and thus the name was given to specific branches of the royal household, e.g., Yeomen of the Horse or Yeomen of the Guard. The yeoman foot soldiers of the Hundred Years War were the troops most personally in the service of the king. The more modern military use of the term dates from the 18th cent., when voluntary cavalry units called the yeomanry were used to suppress riots. From 1794 they were organized into regiments. Their service in the South African War (1899–1902) earned them the name Imperial Yeomanry, and in 1907 they became a part of the Territorial Army.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.