Ceremony of the Keys (London)

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Ceremony of the Keys
Entrance to 'Tower of London'.jpg
Yeoman Warder with escort, Tower of London in May 2010

The Ceremony of the Keys is an ancient ritual, held every evening at the Tower of London, when the main gates are locked for the night.[1] It is said to be the oldest extant military ceremony in the world,[2] and is the best-known ceremonial tradition of the Tower.[3]


At exactly 9.53 pm, the Chief Yeoman Warder, dressed in Tudor watchcoat and bonnet, and carrying a candle lantern, leaves the Byward Tower and falls in with the Escort to the Keys, a military escort made up of armed members of the Tower of London Guard.[4] The Warder passes his lantern to a soldier, and marches with his escort to the outer gate. The sentries on duty salute the Queen’s Keys as they pass.[5]

The Warder first locks the outer gate and then the gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. The Warder and escort march down Water Lane, until they reach the Bloody Tower archway where a sentry challenges the party to identify themselves:[5]

Sentry: "Halt! Who comes there?"
Chief Warder: "The keys".
Sentry: "Whose keys?"
Chief Warder: "Queen Elizabeth's keys".
Sentry: "Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys. All's well".[5][6]

The Warder and escort march down to the foot of Broadwalk Steps where the main Tower Guard is drawn up to meet them. The party halts, and the officer in charge gives the command to present arms. The Chief Warder steps forward, doffs his bonnet, and proclaims:

Chief Warder: "God preserve Queen Elizabeth".
Guard: "Amen!"[5][1]

On the answering “Amen” the clock of the Waterloo Barracks strikes 10pm and the Last Post is sounded, marking the end of the ceremony.[5][1]

The Guard is dismissed, and the Chief Warder takes the keys to the Queen's House for safekeeping overnight.[5]


The ceremony in the Victorian era

The origins of the ceremony are unknown. It may have begun during the Middle Ages,[1] and it is often stated that a ceremony in some form has been held since the 14th century.[7][8] Written instructions that the keys should be placed in a safe place by a Tower officer, after securing the gates, date back to the 16th century.[1] In its current form the ceremony is likely to date to the 19th century when the institution of the Yeomen Warders was reformed by the then Constable of the Tower, the Duke of Wellington.[1]

The ceremony has never been cancelled, and has been delayed only on a single occasion due to enemy action during the Second World War.[5][4]

During much of the First World War, the Honourable Artillery Company (HAC) provided the Tower garrison but in 1919 after handing back the Tower Guard to the Foot Guards, the HAC’s 3rd Battalion presented a lantern to the Yeomen Warders on the 12 May 1919 as a mark of friendship during their time on duty.[9] The lamp was used for the ceremony of the keys that night and every night ever since.[10]


Between 40 and 50 visitors are allowed access to the ceremony each night, under escort.[4] Tickets are £5 and must be obtained in advance from Historic Royal Palaces, the organisation that looks after the Tower.[11] The event is usually sold out at least 12 months in advance.[11]

Following the suspension of public visits during the Covid-19 pandemic, the ceremony was opened to the public again from 1 June 2021.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Weinreb, Ben; Hibbert, Christopher; Keay, Julia; Keay, John (2008). The London Encyclopaedia (3rd ed.). London: MacMillan. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-4050-4924-5. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  2. ^ Hogg, Garry (1971). Customs and Traditions of England. Arco Publishing Company. p. 58. ISBN 9780668024907. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  3. ^ Willey, Russ (2009). Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap. ISBN 978-0550-104-458.
  4. ^ a b c "Guard at the Tower". The Household Division. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g "Tower of London / Ceremony of the Keys". Changing-Guard.com. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  6. ^ The precise wording of the challenge/response differs very slightly between sources
  7. ^ "Ceremony of the Keys". Historic Royal Palaces. Retrieved 17 November 2017. ("700 year old ancient ceremony")
  8. ^ "Tower of London / Ceremony of the Keys". Changing-Guard.com. Archived from the original on 13 September 2017. Retrieved 17 November 2017. ("for about 700 years")
  9. ^ "The Army in London - HQ London District". www.facebook.com. Archived from the original on 26 February 2022.
  10. ^ Army, British (14 May 2019). "For 100 years Chief Yeoman Warder has carried a brass lantern to light his way at Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. The lamp was given by the Honorable Artillery Company in May 1919 to mark the friendship between the regiment and the staff of Tower of #Londonpic.twitter.com/Afz7EeO2wD".
  11. ^ a b "Ceremony of the Keys". Historic Royal Palaces. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
  12. ^ "Tickets Alert: Attend the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London". ianVisits. Retrieved 28 May 2021.

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