The Tower of London houses the Crown Jewels, so one assumes it is a secure facility, with the gates locked at night.
How about an opportunity to assist closing and locking the Tower gates in the evening!! Well you don’t actually assist, but you do get to watch this long standing daily ritual, known as “The Ceremony of the Keys.” Having taken place daily, rain or shine for over 700 years, I believe long standing is an apt description.
Attending the ceremony is free, but you must pre-book tickets on the website. Tickets must be booked well in advance, as the website currently shows the next available tickets are January 2019. Select here to visit the ticket calendar.
On an extremely wet and windy evening, we arrived at the Main Gate well before 21:30, as the instruction are very clear – do not be late. The guide was one of the Yeoman Warders, who checked our tickets and at precisely 21:30, we entered the Tower. Our small group of about 20, was escorted to Traitors’ Gate by the Yeoman Warder, who described what we were about to observe, and guidelines. The guidelines included, no photography, no cell phone use and to remain in the areas he designates, as anyone on the road is liable to be run over by the guards. The Ceremony has taken place for over 700 years, with only 1 delay during WWII, when a bomb knocked the Chief Yeoman Warder and guards off their feet. They returned to their feet, dusted off their uniforms and continued the ceremony. With this level of dedication, I don’t fancy the survival chances of a wayward tourist, so we all stayed in the designated areas.
Chief Yeoman Warder with lantern & keys – Wikipedia
At precisely 21:52, the Chief Yeoman Warder exits the Byward Tower, armed with a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s Keys in the other. He walks to Traitors’ Gate, where he meets the duty regiment of the Foot Guards, who escort him throughout the ceremony.
One of the soldiers takes the lantern as they walk back to the Outer Gate, with all guards and sentries saluting the Queen’s Keys, as they pass. The Chief Yeoman Warder closes and locks the outer gate, then returns to the Tower, closing and locking the Middle and Byward Tower Gates.
As the Chief Yeoman Warder and escorts approach the Traitors’ Gate, a sentry stationed in the shadows of the Bloody Tower arch, issues a challenge:
- Sentry – “Halt, who comes there”
- Warder – “The Keys”
- Sentry – “Who’s Keys”
- Warder – “Queen Elizabeth’s Keys”
- Sentry – “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well”
The Chief Yeoman Warder and escort proceed through the Bloody Tower Arch, stopping at the bottom of the stairs outside the Royal Armoury, where they meet the Officer of the Guard and the other Guard members, who are formed up. The Officer commands “Present Arms”, at which time the escorts and guard present arms and the Chief Yeoman Warder takes 2 paces forward, raises his bonnet and calls out, “God Preserve Queen Elizabeth.” The guard responds, “Amen,” exactly as the clock chimes 22:00. The “Duty Drummer” then plays “Last Post” on the bugle.
Warder & escort – Visit London for Free
On completion of the ceremony, the Chief Yeoman Warder returns the Keys to the Queen’s House and the guard is dismissed. We were then escorted out of the Tower. Each of the large gates has a small door, which you must both step over a sill and crouch down to safely pass through. These doors prevent having to reopen the main gates, to permit access for the soldiers and their families that reside in the Tower. We also heard a rumour that they may get pizza and/or curries delivered late at night.
Although completely soaked to the skin, we thoroughly enjoyed the ceremony, which really highlights some good old British traditions, with a little pomp and ceremony. In the current connected and digital world we live in, it is great to watch and really enjoy some of these older, long standing traditions. Long may it continue for future generations.
Departing the Tower, we had a short walk back to the hotel, where I checked the AIS for the position of the ship we were boarding the following day. It was off Felixstowe, with an 03:00 ETA at London Cruise Terminal, Tilbury.
The next posts will feature our cruise, including Berlin, Tallinn and St Petersburg.