Have you ever heard of the Ceremony of the Keys? No? But surely, you’ve heard of the Tower of London? Hard to miss that one when visiting London. For most people a visit to the Tower will be part of their itinerary when visiting London for the first time. But a visit to the Tower usually comes with a hefty price tag. So, what if I would tell you, you could get into the Tower of London for free? Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? OK, enough of the teasing. Let’s dig right into it and I’ll tell you how to experience the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London.
Let’s cover the basics first:
What is the Tower of London?
The Tower of London is an ancient Royal Palace, founded in 1066 (so almost 1000 years old). It sits on the North Bank of the River Thames, to the east of the City of London. The Tower of London is a World Heritage Site and over the course of its life, the Tower was used as a Royal residence and fortress, as well as a prison. It houses some of the biggest treasures of the Crown, including the world-famous Crown Jewels.
There is loads more to say about the Tower of London, but that would easily demand its own blog post. So back to the actual topic today:
What is the Ceremony of the Keys?
Before I tell you how to experience the Ceremony of the Keys, it would probably be vital to know what the Ceremony of the Keys actually is?
Bluntly speaking, the Ceremony of the Keys is the process of locking the Tower of London for the night. But it is not as simple as just turning the key and closing the gate. The locking of the Tower is done in all pomp and ceremony and to a very rigid time scale.
The Ceremony of the Keys is said to be the oldest military ritual in the world, and it took place every single evening for the last 700 years. Ever since the 18thcentury, it takes place at exactly the same time without fail (even during the World Wars the ceremony was never cancelled. It was only delayed once in WWII when a bomb hit the Tower just as the Ceremony of the Keys was taking place, resulting in a three-minute delay of the ceremony).
How do I get tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London?
And how much do tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys cost?
Unlike a visit to the Tower of London, which will cost you quite a chunk of money, tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys are free (well, you will be charged 1GBP administration fee per booking, but the tickets themselves are free).
Every evening around 50 people are able to experience the Ceremony of the Keysand tickets are released six to twelve months in advance on the Historic Royal Palaces website. Tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys sell out fast, so it is worth checking early if you want to experience the Ceremony.
I booked our tickets last November (picking a random date on the off-chance that I could actually make it). When I checked the HRP website this morning, tickets were sold out up until April 2020 and tickets for May 2020 and beyond will be released on 1stNovember 2019 (so put the date in the diary, if you are planning a visit to London next summer). It might be tricky to get tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys if you visit London for just a few days (unless you know well in advance that you will be visiting). But if you live in London or the surrounding counties, it might be easier. As you can book your tickets on the off-chance and arrange your trip to the Tower of London accordingly.
The Ceremony takes place every single evening and visitors are invited to experience the Ceremony of the Keyson all days but Christmas Day.
Is there a dress code for the Ceremony of the Keys?
If you are one of the Yeoman Warders or Guards participating in the ceremony, then the answer is yes. If you are merely a spectator, here toexperience the Ceremony of the Keys, the answer is no. You can wear whatever you want. My advice would be to go for something comfy and suitable for the weather (after all, the ceremony takes place late in the evening, outside and beside the Thames, so be prepared for cold, wet and windy). I would recommend comfy and low-heeled shoes. The streets in and around the Tower of London are mostly cobbled stone, making it a little awkward to walk on high-heels. But that being said, you don’t have to walk huge distances before and during the Ceremony of the Keys, so you should be fine.
Also, if you have limited mobility, you can still experience the Ceremony of the Keys. We had one lady in a wheelchair in our group yesterday and it was not a problem getting her to the viewing spot and out again.
How long does the Ceremony of the Keys take?
The Ceremony of the Keys might be the oldest Military Ceremony in the world, but it sure must be one of the shortest as well. As from start to finish it only lasts seven minutes. It starts at 21.53 and finishes at 22.00.
Although the Ceremony only lasts seven minutes, your experience of the Ceremony of the Keyswill last a little longer, as the Yeoman Warder will explain to you beforehand what you are about to witness and will answer any questions after. Meaning you will have around 45 minutes from start to finish.
What happens at the Ceremony of the Keys?
Woohoo, you’ve made it through the rather lengthy introduction. I bet by now you are really curious to find out what actually happens at the Ceremony of the Keys. So, let me tell you.
Your experience of the Ceremony of the Keyswill start outside the Tower, in front of the West Gate. To ensure everyone is in place and well briefed before the Ceremony starts, you are asked to arrive latest by 21.20. A Yeoman Warder (also known as Beefeater) dressed in his red watch coat will open the gate for you at 21.30. You will get a very brief introduction: NO Photography (sorry, as much as I would have loved to show you photos of what is happening at the Ceremony of the Keys, I am not willing to risk charges of treason for it). No eating or drinking. No wandering off from the group. No disturbance of the Ceremony.
After a brief bag search, we entered the Tower of London through the Middle Gate, walked through the Byward Gate and down Water Lane, until we reached Traitor’s Gate to our right and the Bloody Tower to our left. This would be our viewing spot when experiencing the Ceremony of the Keys. Our Yeoman Warder for the evening, Shady, explained us how the Ceremony of the Keys came about and what would happen in the coming minutes.
As the Tower of London was (and to this day is) a royal palace and fortress, there was always the need to secure it for the night. Originally the Ceremony of the Keys took place at dusk. Which, throughout the course of a year, would mean very different times. Eventually, to ensure the people working in the Tower knew by when they needed to be out (and the ones living in the Tower by when they needed to be in), in 1827 the Duke of Wellington (at that time in charge of the Tower of London) set the Ceremony of the Keys for 10pm. Meaning there would no longer be any confusion when the Tower was being locked.
As we stood in front of the Bloody Tower and Yeoman Shady explained the ceremony to us, four guards approached from beyond the wall and positioned themselves in the Bloody Tower Gate archway. They would be the escort for the Chief Yeoman Warder and the keys during the locking of the Tower of London.
At precisely 21.53 the Chief Yeoman Warder approached from the Byward Tower and marched down Water Lane to pick up his escort. As he marched down the lane, you could hear the bunch of keys rattling.
With his four escorts (three of them armed, one holding the lantern to light the way) he walked down Water Lane to the Middle Gates. These would be the first to be locked. Coming back, he would then lock the Byward Gates. With both gates secured, the Chief Yeoman Warder and his escorts would march back down Water Lane towards the Bloody Tower. As guards were patrolling the outer wall of the Tower, the Chief Yeoman Warder was eventually met by such a guard and was be asked to HALT. ‘Who is it?’, to which he replied, ‘The Keys’. ‘Whose keys?’ ‘Queen Elizabeth’s keys’. This satisfied the guard and he gave the command to ‘Pass Queen Elizabeth’s keys, all’s well’.
The Warder and his escort marched through the Bloody Tower Gate and proceeded to the bottom of the Broadwalk Steps, on which the Tower Guard had meanwhile taken position.
For a better view, we were allowed to follow them through the Bloody Tower archway but had to stand back as not to disturb the Ceremony of the Keys.
The Guards presented their arms to show their respect to Queen Elizabeth’s keys and the Chief Warder said a short prayer ‘God preserve Queen Elizabeth’ to which all guards (and quite a few of us) replied ‘Amen’.
By now it was 10 o’clock, the clock stroke and the Last Post sounded.
The guards were dismissed and sent off to perform their other duties. The Chief Yeoman Warder walked off.
We stayed at the bottom of the steps for a little longer and Shady answered our questions, before leading us back through the archway and down Water Lane.
With the gates now locked, we emerged through little side doors within the gates and were sent on our way into the night.
Would I recommend you go and experience the Ceremony of the Keys?
Yes, absolutely. Although rather brief, it was really good fun to experience the Ceremony of the Keys. The Yeoman Warders have a very entertaining way of telling you all about the history of the Tower of London. Something you can also experience when you go and visit the Tower throughout the day (despite the hefty price tag, if you haven’t been to the Tower of London, I would urge you to do that at least once in your lifetime).
So, put the 1stNovember in your diary and book yourself tickets to go and experience the Ceremony of the Keys next year.