The Tower of London Ceremony of the Keys

It finally happened! After nearly two very long years of not seeing my parents, they made it to England!

We spent a wonderful ten days exploring London, Cambridge and generally just enjoying being together again. And of course, we made a huge Thanksgiving feast and gave thanks that we were together again, at last.

One of the things that was most amazing about our time together was seeing the famed Ceremony of the Keys at the Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London (which for the sake of ease we will just refer to as the Tower of London, or the Tower from here on out), When we first arrived in England, some the other expats told us that the Ceremony of Keys was a once in a lifetime event that you HAD to see before you moved back to the states. At that time it was something crazy like a year waiting list to get access. The ceremony is, just that, a ceremony, and thus only takes place once a day. At that time, three to five years stretched before us like an eternity, so we never got around to booking tickets. And then, three and a half years flew by and I didn’t give it another thought.

When I started to plan things to see in London, I knew I wanted to take my parents to the Tower of London as it’s something I think every tourist needs to see. There’s so much history and grandeur wrapped up in one massive complex. In October, as I booked tickets for us to see the Tower in the day, I was reminded of the opportunity to see the Ceremony of the Keys. I thought, why not look and see how long the wait is now. And surprisingly, I was able to book tickets for just a few weeks later, when my parents were here! I don’t know if it’s an extreme lack of tourism, the season, or what that caused this massive shift, but I wasn’t going to ask questions.

History of the Tower

Now, a little background on the Ceremony of the Keys and the Tower of London. The Tower of London is a royal palace and fortress and was at one point a royal residence. To this day, the Yeoman Warders of the Tower, more famously known as the Beefeaters, live on site with their families. The center of the Tower of London complex is the White Tower which was built in 1078 AD. Over the next few hundred years, the Kings of England expanded the complex to include more buildings, two defensive walls and a moat.

Probably most known for housing famous victims of execution like Queens Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the Tower has been home to more than just prisoners and torturers. Over the centuries it has also been used as a royal residence, the home of the Royal Mint, a stronghold for Her Majesty’s Crown Jewels and at one point, housed the Royal Menagerie where wild animals gifted to the royal family.

Though today it is a tourist attraction and not a royal home for royalty or wild animals, the Tower still houses something quite important, the Crown Jewels. And though many believe they are replicas, the armed military guards that patrol the complex at night and the Beefeaters that live on the complex 24/7 can assure you that they are the real thing.

Since it’s inception, the Tower has needed to be locked securely at night. London was a wild city (some might still say it is) and it was necessary to keep the ruffians out. Several large wooden gates were closed and locked each night by the armed royal guards. It is this locking up of the tower that you see during the Ceremony of the Keys. This same ceremony that has been carried out in the same fashion, every night, without fail, for the last 700 years. The only thing that changes is the name of the monarch.

The Ceremony

We stood with about thirty others shivering in the cold November air outside the gates of the Tower. The tourist entrance was locked up tight but through the modern bars you could see that the massive centuries-old wooden gates still stood ajar, waiting to be locked up for the evening. At 9:30 pm sharp, after our tickets were checked, we were all ushered into the gates by a boisterous Beefeater. As we walked into the tower, our guide, Yeoman Warder Dave Phillips, more colloquially called, Beefeater Dave, gave us a short history of the Tower. We walked along until we reached Traitor’s Gate, the gate in which traitors and prisoners were escorted when this was a prison, and the spot from which we would watch the ceremony. Here Beefeater Dave gave loud, clear instructions about what we would witness and what we were to do. Really, there wasn’t much for us to do other than stand quietly and respectfully during this important ceremony and then to follow him up the hill to watch the military bugler play the Last Post for the evening. Oh, and shout “Amen!” when “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” was proclaimed.

It was a much more involved ceremony than I anticipated and it was absolutely beautiful. Photos and videos are absolutely not permitted during the ceremony. And I kind of like that. You can’t google the ceremony and come up with a video of it instead of visiting. This is one reason I agree, this is truly a once in a lifetime event.

But! I do have a little peek for you at what you’d see if you came to the ceremony. Below are some low resolution photos that were shared with me from our amazing guide for the evening. These photos were taken by a fellow Yeoman Warder and were part of a publicity shoot. I hope they entice you to visit and see it for yourself. (click each one to make it a little larger)

Above, left to right: A guard holds a lantern to better illuminate the gates the Yeoman Warders will soon lock. | “Halt! Who comes there?” An armed guard on duty enquires about the approaching keys and their escorts. | The keys’ escort stands at the bottom of the steps shouting”God Preserve Queen Elizabeth!” after which everyone (including those watching the ceremony) shout”Amen!” After which a military bugler at the top of the steps plays the Last Post, the British equivalent to Taps. (All photos taken by Yeoman Warder Terry Humphries and were supplied to me by the gracious Yeoman Warder Dave Phillips)

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