The ancient custom of the Ceremony of The Keys, which involves the formal locking of the gates of the Tower of London, has been carried out continuously every night, without fail, for more than 600 years since 1340.
Every night, at exactly seven minutes to 10 o'clock, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower wearing his long red coat and Tudor bonnet. He carries in one hand a candle lantern and in the other hand the Queens Keys.
With solemn tread he moves along Water Lane, to Traitor's Gate where his escort, provided by one of the duty regiments of Foot Guards, awaits him. He hands the lantern to an escorting soldier and the party moves to the outer gate. On the way, all guards and sentries salute the Queen's Keys.
After locking the outer gate the Chief Yeoman Warder and escort retrace their steps. The great oak gates of the Middle and Byward Towers are locked in turn.
They now return along Water lane towards Traitor's Gate where, in the shadows of the Bloody Tower archway, a sentry awaits.
"Halt, who comes there?" the sentry barks.
"The Keys!" answers the Chief Yeoman Warder.
"Queen Elizabeth's Keys"
"Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys" replies the sentry, "and all's well"
The party then proceeds through the Bloody Tower archway and up towards the broadwalk steps where the main guard is drawn up. The Chief Yeoman Warder and escort halt at the foot of the steps and the officer in charge gives the command to the Guard and Escort to present arms.
The Chief Yeoman Warder moves two paces forward, raises his Tudor bonnet high in the air and calls "God preserve Queen Elizabeth." The guard answers "Amen" exactly as the clock chimes ten and 'The Duty Drummer' sounds The Last Post on his bugle.
The Chief Yeoman Warder takes the keys to the Queen's House and the guard is dismissed.
The one time when the ceremony was interrupted was during the Second World War, when there was an air raid on London, and a number of incendiary bombs fell on the old victorian guardroom just as the Chief Yeoman Warder and the escort were coming through the Bloody Tower archway. The shock and the noise of the bombs falling, blew over the escort and the Chief Yeoman Warder but they stood up, dusted themselves down, and carried on. The Tower holds a letter from the Officer of the Guard apologising to King George VI that the ceremony was late and a reply from the King which says that the Officer is not to be punished as it was due to enemy action that the Ceremony of The Keys was late.
Click on the picture above for a video clip of the Ceremony of The Keys at The Tower of London
Click on the picture above for a video clip of The Tower's Past Constables
A DVD about the history and ceremony of The Tower of
London is available from Amazon
The Tower of London is open March through October, Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through February, hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday and Monday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Tower is closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day (Day after Christmas) and New Year's Day (although the ceremony still takes places behind closed doors!).
It is possible to get free tickets to the Ceremony of The keys by writing to the Tower of London in person. You should give several alternative dates as numbers are restricted and the ceremony is very popular. You should also mark the envelope of your letter "Tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys". You must include the name and address of every member of your party for security reasons. Between 40-50 visitors are admitted to watch the Ceremony of the Keys each night. See this link to the official website for information about obtaining tickets (sorry, we cannot help you with this!)
Note that online booking is available from January 2015.
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The HQ London District official webpage is at: www.householddivision.org.uk
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