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.
In the collegiate universities in the United Kingdom (for example Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, and the University of London) and in universities in some other countries, the post of Esquire Bedell still exists. The beadle has varying duties, always relating to management or security (but not instruction), and often represents the college to outsiders through wearing a uniform and providing information. The position of Beadle still 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.
In Scotland, the ancient universities, as well as other newer universities, have a ceremonial bedellus, who is also sometimes given the designation of head janitor. Officially, the bedellus is responsible for the administration of the university buildings. The most notable responsibility of the bedellus is carrying the university mace in academic processions.