Ceremony of the Keys (London)
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. It is said to be the oldest military ceremony in the world, and is the best-known ceremonial tradition of the Tower.
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. 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.
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:
- 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".
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:
The Guard is dismissed, and the Chief Warder takes the keys to the Queen's House for safekeeping overnight.
The origins of the ceremony are unknown. It may have begun during the Middle Ages, and it is often stated that a ceremony in some form has been held since the 14th century. 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. 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.
The ceremony has never been cancelled, and has been delayed only on a single occasion due to enemy action during the Second World War. During an air raid on London, a number of incendiary bombs fell on the old Victorian guardroom just as the Chief Warder and the escort were coming through the Bloody Tower archway. The Chief Warder and the escort were blown off their feet, but they recovered and carried on. The Tower holds a letter from the Officer of the Guard apologising to King George VI that the ceremony was late, along with a reply from the King which says that the officer is not to be punished as the delay was due to enemy action.
Access to the ceremony
Between 40 and 50 visitors are allowed access to the ceremony each night, under escort. Tickets are free but must be obtained in advance from Historic Royal Palaces, the organisation that looks after the Tower. The event is usually sold out at least 12 months in advance.
- Weinreb, Ben; Hibbert, Christopher; Keay, Julia; Keay, John (2008). The London Encylopaedia (3rd ed.). London: MacMillan. p. 145. ISBN 978-1-4050-4924-5. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
- Hogg, Garry (1971). Customs and Traditions of England. Arco Publishing Company. p. 58. ISBN 9780668024907. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
- Willey, Russ (2009). Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap. ISBN 978 0550 104 458.
- "Guard at the Tower". The Household Division. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
- "Tower of London / Ceremony of the Keys". Changing-Guard.com. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
- The precise wording of the challenge/response differs very slightly between sources
- "Ceremony of the Keys". Historic Royal Palaces. Retrieved 17 November 2017. ("700 year old ancient ceremony")
- "Tower of London / Ceremony of the Keys". Changing-Guard.com. Retrieved 17 November 2017. ("for about 700 years")
- "Ceremony of the Keys". Historic Royal Palaces. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
- Hustyna. "Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London". YouTube. Retrieved 17 November 2017.
- A 1936 BBC recording of the Tower of London ceremony: "Ceremony of the Keys 1936". London Sound Survey. Retrieved 13 November 2017.
- Order of the Ceremony of The Keys (London), a personal website describing the ceremony (with photographs)