The Ceremony of the Keys in the Tower of London is one of London’s longest-running rituals. But what is it exactly and how do you see it? Here’s what you need to know before you go.
London isn’t short on a historical ceremony or two. Let’s face it, between the pomp of the Changing of the Guard (the Buckingham Palace, Saint James’s Palace and Wellington Barracks versions) and numerous rituals scattered across the city’s annual calendar, there’s no shortage of history and tradition for you to explore.
Even so the Ceremony of the Keys is something special – which is why I’m so excited to see it resuming when the Tower of London reopens to the public today.
Ignore the fact that the lead time for the (free) tickets is incredibly long… and by incredibly long I mean six months kind of long. To put it quite simply – you really should take the opportunity to witness one of London’s most fascinating traditions.
The ceremony has taken place every single night at the Tower of London for over 700 years. Let’s just take a minute to let that soak in.
Over 700 years every single night without fail: while London was being bombed during the Blitz, during the Black Plague, during the Great Fire of London, even through lockdown – the Beefeaters and Tower Guard have been ensuring that the Tower of London was safe and sound from outside attack.
What is the Ceremony of the Keys?
But what is the Ceremony of the Keys? The Ceremony of the Keys is the ritual during which the gates to the Tower of London are locked each night.
During the ceremony, the Tower Guard march with the Chief Yeoman Warder, keeping him safe as he protects what was historically the most important palace in London.
It’s an opulent and bizarre yet fascinating tradition that every person visiting or living in London should see at least once in their lives.
Why Should I Expect When Visiting?
Somehow, despite living in London for the majority of my life I hadn’t actually seen the Ceremony of the Keys… until late last year. I had taken a sneak peek at descriptions I still didn’t know quite what to expect.
Having booked tickets in April, I’d all but forgotten about it until I received an email a couple of weeks before I was due to attend reminding me of the date and the strict time (the tickets are very clear that anyone who arrives after 9:25 on the dot will not be admitted).
Finally, the day arrived – we headed to the designated point and waited… a small group of people of all ages waiting with a thinly-veiled sense of anticipation.
It started suddenly, with a clang of metal, the gate to the Tower entrance was unlocked and one of the Yeoman Warders (more commonly known as the Beefeaters) emerged, a smile on his face and a booming voice that ran through the roll call of attendees before he ushered us inside.
“I’m Terry Briggs, Yeoman Warder number 408 at the Tower of London, nickname Basher,” he started with a cheeky smile on his face.
Whatever I’d expected, I’m not sure it was this. Basher was fun and engaging, peppering his verbal walkthrough of the ceremony we were about to see with interesting historical facts and humorous asides, before putting us into place in time for the grand occasion.
Now, despite the fact that the ceremony has been going for over 700 years, there are very few pictures or videos of it happening. This is not an accident: The Tower of London is very strict about the fact that you are not allowed to take photos of the Ceremony of the Keys while it is taking place (hence the reason why I don’t have any pictures of the ceremony itself), but I’ll give you a brief run through of what to expect when you arrive.
What Happens During the Ceremony?
At 9.46pm, the Chief Yeoman Warder emerges, bringing a lantern in one hand and the Queen’s Keys in the other. Members of the Tower Guard await his arrival in the archway of the Bloody Tower, and, when he arrives, he gives the lantern to an unarmed guard.
Together they march in procession to the two two gates that need to be locked for the night.
After locking the gates, the Chief Yeoman Warder and the Tower Guard return towards the Bloody Tower – however, before they arrive, they are challenged by a sentry.
“Halt, who comes there?” the Sentry shouts.
“Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
“Pass then, all’s well.”
So the exchange goes.
The sentry allows the group to pass, and they proceed forward to a set of stairs where the Chief Yeoman Warder proclaims “God preserve Queen Elizabeth” and the Guard and audience chorus “Amen”.
The clock strikes 10, and the soldier representing the drummer (confusing as he’s actually a bugler) plays the solitary sound of The Last Post on his bugle and, with that, the ceremony concludes.
How to Book Tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys
That, my friends, is the Ceremony of the Keys in a nutshell. But no words can really do it justice – the only way to get a true sense of this event, is to go and see it yourself.
Luckily enough that’s actually pretty easy to do, particularly if you’re based in London or know your travel dates well in advance.
Simply hop on to the Tower of London‘s website, and book your tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys online in the next available slot.
As I said they do sell out really far in advance so the likelihood is that the earliest day it’s going to be at least a couple of months away.
History of the Ceremony of the Keys
King Edward III was the first to command that the Ceremony of the Keys take place in the mid-1300s after strolling into the Tower of London unchallenged one evening. He decreed that the Tower’s gates be locked each evening to protect the palace, a tradition that subsequent kings and queens (especially the rather unpopular Queen Mary I) were rather keen to continue.
Over the years, the number of Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) were increased to provide additional security for the tower, a trend that continued until the Tower ceased to be a Royal Residence (although it is still a Historic Royal Palace).
The Ceremony of the Keys has taken place every day since the mid-1300s.
At first, it was held at sunset, but the time was changed to 10pm in 1826 – and it has happened at this time with one exception… during World War II when the Tower of London received a direct hit just before the ceremony was due to start. Luckily no one was harmed and the ceremony was still held later that evening.
Overall, the Ceremony of the Keys is one of the most interesting London traditions to survive today. And for that reason alone, I would recommend you go and see it.
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