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). 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.
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. The work of a real constabulary beadle of Whitechapel in that period may be exemplified by Richard Plunkett.
In Judaism, the term beadle or sexton (in Hebrew: שמש, translit. shammash) 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 the medieval universities, beadles were students chosen by instructors to act as assistants: carrying books, taking attendance, and assisting in classroom management.