The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London

The Tower of London is Europe's oldest fortress, castle and prison

Each night at 9.30 the Tower of London is home to a unique ritual which has been held in the same format for over 700 years: The Ceremony of the Keys.  It is the shortest military parade in the world.

The Tower of London is Europe's oldest fortress, castle and prison

The Tower of London is Europe’s oldest fortress, castle and prison

Locking up the Tower – the traditional way

There are many old traditions in Great Britain and the “Ceremony of the Keys” is one of the most special ones for sure.

For over 700 years the Tower of Londons has been locked up according to old traditions and rules. The keys are then kept stored away until the next morning.

The shortest military parade in the world (lasting only 35 minutes) is executed by the Yeoman Warders, the Beefeaters. Furthermore, the ceremony has been running for over 700 years without any cancellations and it only started late once (during WWII).

If you now wonder why this effort is still done today as the Queen is not living at the Tower – the Crown Jewels are still here. Also everyone is proud of this very old tradition and to admit, I think it’s wonderfully British!

You have to book your ticket online and will be charged a pound for it. On the day of your booking you need to wait in front of the closed gate of the Tower. In a group of approximately 30 people you will be escorted into the Tower by a Beefeater. Once inside he will tell you what you will experience in the next minutes. As a brief summary: you will see that the Tower gets locked up for the night and that the keys are then stored away. Each step will be described in much more detail which is absolutely needed because otherwise it might get tricky once the parade is running.

Byward Tower is part of the Tower of London. This is where the Ceremony of the Keys starts each night.

Byward Tower is part of the Tower of London. This is where the Ceremony of the Keys starts each night.

So this is how the whole event takes place:

The visitors are requested to stand on a line and not to move around. Photos and videos are not allowed once inside the Tower. Photo-loving me was upset about this as the Tower would have been a great location at night. Tradition-loving me had full understanding. You are about to see a very old tradition which wants to be experienced as original as possible.

After everyone is standing on the line, you have to wait for the show to begin. In my group you could here soft whispers. Nobody dared to speak with normale volume. Everyone was too excited.

Procedure of the ceremony

At exactly 9.52 the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower – the man who picked you up earlier – leaves Byward Tower. He carries a lantern and keys. You will recognise him by his red uniform. He will be accompanied by another soldier throughout the whole ceremony. Both follow the way you just walked to enter the Tower and lock the outer gate. Then they lock the gates from “Middle Tower” and “Byward Tower”.

They return and another soldier points his gun at them. This happens pretty much at the point where your group is standing so you can follow the following dialogue (I was grateful to have received the explaination what was going to happen. Otherwise it would have been much harder to understand).

Sentry: “Halt! “Who comes there?“
Chief Warder: “The Keys“
Sentry: “Whose Keys?“
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s Keys.”
With a “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well.” the Beafeater and his escort are allowed to pass through the “Bloody Tower Archway” into the inner part of the Tower. After them the visitor group is allowed to follow. You will be told exactly when to follow so no worries that you might leave too early. Our Yeoman Warder also advised us not to hang behind if we don’t want to spend the night inside the dark Tower…

On top of the stairs there is the regiment on duty and the Beefeater bids them farewell with a “God preserve Queen Eliabeth”. At exactly 10 pm he receives an “Amen” as answer and “The last post” is played. The Yeoman Warder brings the keys inside where they will stay until the next morning.

It’s now time to call it a day and your visitor group gets escorted to the exit at 10.05.

The ceremony is unique and if you can plan much ahead I strongly recommend to get a ticket. However, most ceremonies are fully booked for months but you can book for a year in advance.

Useful to know:

Book your ticket via the homepage of History Royal Palaces.

The name on the ticket might get checked with name on your passport. So don’t forget to bring your passport!

You have to be on time. In over 700 years the ceremony was late only once and this was during WWII. They won’t wait for you.

Cameras and mobiles are not allowed once inside the Tower so you will experience the ceremony without any technical distractions.

Inside the Tower of London once you have passed the gate of Byward Tower

Inside the Tower of London once you have passed the gate of Byward Tower

 

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