Turn off your mobile for the Ceremony of the Keys
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“If your mobile goes off, you will
I looked doubtful. Surely, my guide was
joking? It was the Tower of London, near freezing, and the night sky so clear
that even I could recognise many of its constellations.
Then the guide winked. He may only
have been teasing, but it was his way of saying I should keep silent during the
Ceremony of the Keys. He was one of 37 Yeoman Warders who live in the Tower of
“I have the perfect job,” he said
earlier, as we walked the cobbled alleyways of this central London landmark. He
was regaling me with stories of Bloody Mary, Traitor’s Gate and tiny princes
being smothered in their sleep.
“I have two wonderful daughters,” he
added. “What father wouldn’t want to lock up two princesses in the Tower each
The formal locking and unlocking of
the Tower at sunset and sunrise began in the fourteenth century, but in 1826 became
more structured. Since then, the Ceremony of the Keys has been held nightly, at
precisely 9.53pm and nothing stops it, not even warfare. It has been delayed on
only one occasion when a Luftwaffe bomb landed on the Tower in mid-ceremony and
the proceedings were seven minutes late.
The ceremony is said to be the oldest military
ritual in the world and simulates the nightly locking of the Tower. The Chief
Warder, clad in scarlet and holding a lantern lit by a single candle in one
hand and the Sovereign’s Keys in the other, is accompanied by four soldiers who
are armed with an SA80 rifle held smartly against the shoulder.
“Don’t disappear during our tour,” my
guide had warned earlier. “The Tower is guarded by trained and armed killers
who happen to be bored. Each rifle also has a bayonet.”
“I promise I won’t escape,” I pledged,
as we continued our walking tour of this remarkable piece of British history.
The Tower has seen much death over
many centuries. There is Tower Green
within its walls, and Tower Hill outside them. These were areas where, until
the mid-18thcentury, nobles, and even monarchs, were beheaded. It
was better to die within the Tower’s walls than outside on Tower Hill, as inside
For executions on Tower Hill, huge
crowds would attend and wait for the executioner to hold up the severed head. The
crowd would then shout, “God save the King,” a cry that would be heard many
Next, the head was taken to nearby Old
London Bridge and there it would be skewered on a spike. Decapitated bodies
were buried in an unmarked grave, either within the Tower’s walls or outside.
Whether head was ever reunited with body, for that matter the correct torso, is
Fascinated by my guide’s many tales of
human misery, each delivered with panache, I pulled up my coat collar to cover
my neck. It was cold, made more so by the stories, and I was not about to be beheaded.
“Stand there and keep silent,” my
guide next instructed, as I was shown to a small area of pavement to one side
of the Tower’s cobbled Water Lane. Nearby was Bloody Tower, where King Henry VI
was killed in 1471, where boy princes Edward and Richard were murdered in 1483,
and where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years before his execution
At the lane’s far end marched the Chief
Warder and four soldiers, making perfect pace towards me and the archway under Bloody
“Halt! Who comes there?” shouted a
sentry in the shadows beside me, and enough to make me jump.
“The keys,” replied the Warder.
After a brief, further exchange, the
group marched on.
The ceremony was completed by a single
soldier standing atop the flight of Broadwalk Steps, alongside the White Tower,
and playing the Last Post on a bugle. He did not keep to tune.
Yet somehow it did not matter. I stood
still, remembering past friends, while beside me stood 50 tourists and nearby
slept the Tower’s seven ravens. The Ceremony of the Keys is popular, free to
attend, and carries a waiting list of 18 months or longer. Each of us at that
moment realised how fortunate we were to be present.
And the tuneless Last Post? It was
“The soldier who played the Last Post
is no professional musician,” said my guide after the ceremony had completed.
For a moment I had hesitated.
“But he is a trained killer,” the
guide continued, again the wink, and together we had laughed.
As one might expect, the Ceremony of the Keys continues despite the pandemic. However, visitors have not been admitted since March 2020 because of worries in respect of social distancing. Historic Royal Palaces will announce on its website when visitors are to be welcomed once again.
Ceremony of the Keys takes place daily, from 9.30-10.05pm. The
tickets become fully booked very quickly, must be obtained in advance online, and
further information, visit: www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/ceremony-of-the-keys
Getting thereAddress: Tower of London, London, EC3N 4AB
is possible by overground and underground rail, bus, riverboat and car. The
nearest car park is Tower Hill Coach and Car Park, two minutes’ walk away. It
offers blue badge parking.
the Transport for London website for details.
Staying thereThe Tower Hotel
Eating thereThere are several eateries in the Tower of London itself and there are plenty outside.
Do not missAll Hallows by the Tower - the oldest church in the City of London. It has a crypt museum, Roman pavement and Saxon and Roman artefacts.
HMS Belfast - this World War Two cruiser, with nine decks, is moored at Morgan's Lane off Tooley Street. It was launched on St Patrick's Day (17th March) 1938 and was designed for the protection of trade, for offensive action, and to support military operations by aiding landings from the sea. She was retired from active duty in 1952 and given to the public in 1971.
Tower Bridge - Tower Bridge offers one of the best vantage points
in the city from its spectacular glass walkways, elevated 140ft above the
Hill Memorial - this two-part memorial
is maintained by the Commonwealth
War Graves Commission and
commemorates civilian merchant sailors and fishermen killed during the two
World Wars. Nearby is the former public scaffold site. The names of many who
died are recorded there.
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