The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London

Yeoman Warder ("beefeater") in front...

Image via Wikipedia

Ahh! I can’t believe I haven’t written about the Ceremony of the Keys! I guess I had mentally planned out a blog post, and then I forgot that I never really wrote it!

Two (or was it three?) weeks ago, while our friends Andy and Courtney were visiting, we took them for a special evening at the Tower of London. The Ceremony of the Keys is a traditional ceremony that has happened every single night for the last 750 years. The time and content of the ceremony has varied, but in some form the Tower of London has been locked up at night since the thirteenth century. Originally this was to protect the royal family, but now it’s to protect the crown jewels.

We arrived at around 9:30pm at the Western Gate of the Tower of London. It was quite dark at this point, and there were a number of people already waiting. As the crowd grew, I realized that I had been misled about the size of the event. I had read somewhere (the internet said so! promise!) that only about 12 people were present on any given evening, but the size of our crowd was at least 40 people (and that was before the special events joined in). I was pretty upset that so many people would be there. I think the uniqueness of the occasion is it’s strength, and I don’t care for shoving in a crowd that much.

Regardless, at about 9:45 our tickets were carefully examined and we were escorted onto the grounds. The Chief Yeoman Warder was there to give us a little intro. He told us what would happen, and gave us specific instructions about photography (not allowed), reminded us to be quiet (turn off those mobiles!), and reminded us about the pictures (NO PICTURES!)  He must have mentioned about 14 times that no pictures were allowed, because it was a real military event, with soldiers (including him) who were on active duty for the evening. He tried quite intensely to instil in the crowd a sense of respect for the history and military actions involved in the ceremony.
This description of the ceremony is from Wikipedia, because I don’t feel like rewriting it all:

“At exactly 9.53pm, the Chief Yeoman Warder, dressed in Tudor Watchcoat, meets the Military Escort, made up of members of the Tower of London Guard. Together, the CYW and the Yeoman Warder ‘Watchman’ secure the main gates of the Tower. Upon their return down Water Lane, the party is halted by the sentry and challenged to identify themselves:
Sentry: Who comes there?
Chief Warder: The keys.
S: Whose keys?
CW: Queen Elizabeth’s keys. (identifying the keys as being those of the current British monarch)
S: Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well.
Following this, the party makes its way through the Bloody Tower Archway into the fortress, where they halt at the bottom of the Broadwalk Steps. On the top of the Stairs, under the command of their Officer, the Tower guard present arms and the Chief Warder raises his hat, proclaiming:
CW: God preserve Queen Elizabeth.
S: Amen!
He then takes the keys to the Queen’s House for safekeeping, while the Last Post is sounded.”


Now that all sounds quite impressive, doesn’t it?  And I think it would have been, if the original crowd had been the only audience. Unfortunately, just before the start, a large group of guests from a special function were brought over. These were men in tuxedos and women in fancy dress, and quite a few of them had too much to drink. They were laughing and talking, and generally being disrespectful. It made it quite hard to focus on the ceremony, and entirely impossible to maintain the respectful mood that the Chief Yeoman Warder was trying to engender.

The worst part came at the end. We were all wondering how we would get out of the tower, because the Ceremony of the Keys is famous as being the official lock-up of the Tower. If the door is locked, how do we get out?  Well, just as the Chief Yeoman Warder was explaining, a group of women came out of nowhere, pushed passed the group, and opened the secret door. They totally ruined the little act that the CYW had planned. Even worse, when he turned around to chastise the women, a drunk man came up behind him and tried to pose for a photograph. He threw his arms around the Yeoman’s shoulders and shouted something like “Quick, honey!”  I can’t even begin to explain how disrespectful this was. The Chief had explained, several times, very slowly, and using small words, that he was officially on-duty that night. He couldn’t post for photographs, because it was a military event and he was officially responsible. For a drunken sot to make a fool of him was horrible.

I was pretty upset by the whole experience. I had looked forward to the evening so much, and then to discover that I had to share it with a larger crowd, and some of those drunks from a fundraiser, really ruined it. I wanted to go up to the Chief Yeoman Warder and apologize to him, even though I, nor really anyone in our original group, had done anything wrong. It was the drunk fundraisers who were at fault. Unfortunately these are the people who give the cash, and therefore they think that the rules don’t apply to them. This has become somewhat of a theme in our lives lately, getting annoyed at people who think the rules don’t apply to them. We all want to break the rules because it’s more convenient, or fun, or simply taboo, but we can’t do that.

But don’t think that this soured evening has affected my love for the Tower of London. It’s still my favourite site  (and sight!) in London, and I intend to go back for another Ceremony of the Keys when our next guests come. Maybe I’ll have more realistic expectations this time. I’ll also try to schedule it on a night when there are no special events!



Posted on 12/10/2010, in Castles & Cathedrals, Exploring the UK, Speaker's Corner, travel, Within London and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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