The Tower of London is one of the important tourist attractions of London although it has a history that is full of horrid events and is far from being bloodless. People have been beheaded and tortured in the most brutal ways that would make you shudder even while reading about them. It has been home to every monarch from William the Conqueror to Henry VIII. It has also been the site of the Royal Mint, the Royal Menagerie and the Royal Observatory and has served as a prison where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned from 1603 to 1616. The few executions carried out at the Tower were on Tower Green.
One of the great attractions of the Tower is the Crown Jewels which are housed in the Duke of Wellington’s Barracks. Among them are The Royal Sceptre, containing the largest cut diamond in the world; the Imperial State Crown, made in 1838 for the coronation of Queen Victoria and containing 3,000 precious stones including the second largest cut diamond in the world and the Kohinoor diamond which is set in the crown made for the coronation of George VI’s queen, Elizabeth, in 1937. If you wish to see these jewels, you can visit the Tower whenever you are visiting The Monument or The Barbican Centre.
As the Tower holds so many priceless jewels, it is essential to lock its gates every night so that no person from outside can come in to steal them. A Ceremony of the Keys has been held at the Tower every night at 10 o’clock for more than 700 years except for one night in the Blitz of the Second World War when the service was disrupted. This ceremony involves locking all the doors to the Tower of London. If you are a visitor or even a resident who is out on a sightseeing tour and if you are planning to see the Tower Bridge, you should also plan to see this ceremony but you need to apply in advance to be allowed to escort the warden when he closes the doors.
What Does The Ceremony of the Keys Involve?
Only 40 to 50 visitors are admitted to watch the ceremony each night. If you have applied for seeing this ceremony and have been allowed to do so, you will be admitted to the Tower under escort at 9:30pm precisely. If you come late, you will not be allowed to enter. At exactly 9:52pm, the Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower will come out of the Byward Tower. He will be dressed in red and he will have a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s keys in the other hand. He will then walk to Traitor’s Gate where he will be met by two/four members of the duty regiment Foot Guards who will escort him while he locks all the doors and during the entire ceremony. One of the soldiers will take the lantern and all of them will walk in step to the outer gate. As they pass along, all guards and sentries on duty salute the Queen’s Keys. After locking the outer gate, they will walk back to lock the oak gates of the Middle and Byward Towers. They will then return towards Traitor’s Gate where they will be ‘challenged’ by a sentry who is waiting for them. The Chief Yeoman Warder will be asked some questions by the sentry whom he must answer before the task is completed. The same wordings of the questions and answers are used every night.
Sentry: “Halt, who comes there?”
Chief Yeoman Warder: “The Keys!”
Sentry: “Whose Keys?”
Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s Keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys and all’s well.”
After the question and answer session, all the four men move to the Bloody Tower archway and up towards the Broadway steps where the main Guard is drawn up. At the foot of the steps, the Chief Yeoman Warder and escort will halt and a command will be given to the Guard and escort to present arms, by the officer in charge. After moving two paces forward, the Chief Yeoman Warder raises his Tudor bonnet high in the air and calls “God preserve Queen Elizabeth.” The guard answers “Amen” exactly as the clock chimes 10pm and ‘The Duty Drummer’ sounds The Last Post on his bugle.
The Chief Yeoman Warder takes the keys back to the Queen’s House and the Guard is dismissed.
Visitors are escorted to the exit at 10.05pm. Since the ceremony is very short and does not consume much time, the Yeoman Warder usually gives a talk about the Tower of London and its history as well as some information regarding what to expect during the ceremony. He also warns the visitors that no photography is allowed and that all mobile phones must be off.
Applying For Admission to The Ceremony of the Keys
There is no entry fee for attending this ceremony but you need to apply in writing, by post. In your application you need to include the following information. Names of attendees; two dates you can attend, at least two months in advance but three months in the summer; and self-addressed envelope with UK postage or two ‘Coupon-response International’ but non-British stamps are not accepted.
Between 1 April and 31 October, up to 6 persons are allowed in a group but between 1 November and 31 March, 15 persons are allowed. Applications from third parties (tour organizers, tour guides, hotels, etc.) are not processed. The original ticket issued by the Tower of London should be carried along and there are no toilet or refreshment faculties at the Tower.
The application should be sent to:
Ceremony of the Keys Office
Tower of London
Information line: 020 3166 6278