The Ceremony of the Keys

Last night we locked up the Tower of London.

The Ceremony of the Keys has been enacted every night without fail for 700 years, making it the oldest surviving ceremony of its kind.  The importance of locking up the fortress for the night remains relevant because though monarchs no longer live there, the Crown Jewels are in permanent residence.

On our way to the Tower, we passed a pub with a cheeky name that harks back to the Tower’s dark history.  Appetizing, isn’t it?!

The Chief Yeoman Warder is responsible for the nightly ceremony.  He is accompanied by an armed escort of soldiers who are the bodyguards of the Queen. There are 73 Yeomen of the Guard, all of whom are former officers and sergeants of the British Services.  All participants are fully regaled in their fabulous uniforms.

I have to admit, that as I watched the guards with their huge bearskin hats, I suddenly had a vision of the guards in the Wizard of Oz with their similar furry hats.  Even the way the British soldiers march with their arms straight and fully extended reminded me of scenes from the movie.  In a way, I was in my own Oz.











These men of the tower are commonly known as Beefeaters, a strange appellation that once had literal meaning as the Yeomen Warders were once paid part of their salary with chunks of beef.  As bodyguards of the monarch, they were privileged with a ration of beef from the King’s table right up until the 1800s.  Now there are about 120 Yeoman families living on the premises, acting less as fierce protectors and more as amiable tour guides, providing humorous tales and interesting facts to curious tourists as they roam the grounds by day.

The Ceremony of the Keys lasts only 7 minutes.  At precisely 9:53 p.m. the Chief Yeoman Warder, carrying the keys of the Tower in one hand and a brass lantern in the other, collects his escort from the main body of guards on duty within the Tower and proceeds to the entrance to secure the heavy wooden doors.  On the way back from doing so, the following conversation takes place every night between an armed guard and the Yeoman Warder:

Halt! Who comes there? (armed guard takes aim with loaded gun)

The Keys to the Tower.

Whose Keys?

The Queen’s Keys.

Proceed.  All is well.

We then proceeded through the inner gates into the Bloody Tower, once the site of the beheadings and torture that were popular forms of entertainment in medieval times.  Here the guards lined up in salute as a lone bugler played a song like our Taps to commemorate fallen patriots (and perhaps headless victims?).  As always, this moment was quite moving.

From there, we were escorted out of a “doggie door”, or smaller exit within the great locked doors of the Tower.  It was a fun night and an interesting way to glimpse another piece of history.

Best of all, it was short and sweet. 

Apparently, 7 minutes is just about the right amount of time to hold my teenagers’ waning attention spans and to keep my family smiling.

Share on FacebookShare on Facebook

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: