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What Is the Tower of London's Ceremony of the Keys?

Picture of Ruaidhrí Carroll
London Travel Writer
Updated: 27 June 2018
Famous as London’s oldest building, the Tower of London on the north bank of the River Thames attracts plenty of attention from locals and tourists alike. But what is its Ceremony of the Keys?

Anyone who has ever lived with friends will be able to relate to the Tower of London’s Ceremony of the Keys. It’s a bit like how someone has to lock up the house when everyone goes out for the night – except it’s steeped in tradition going back roughly 700 years, involves a rather odd exchange of words and, unless you’re a royal, leaves the place far more secure than any house you’ve ever lived in probably ever has been.

Tower of London Featured Image 2
Tower of London at night | © chas B/Flickr

Here’s how things go down. Every night, the Chief Yeoman Warder, one of the tower’s iconic Beefeaters, leaves the Byward Tower at precisely 9.52pm – candle lantern in one hand, the Queen’s keys in the other – and joins members of the Foot Guards regiment at Traitor’s Gate. The Foot Guards hold the Chief Warder’s lantern and escort him as he first locks the outer gates of the complex, followed by the oak gates of the Middle and Byward Tower.

As the group approaches the Bloody Tower archway, one of England’s most peculiar exchanges ensues. A sentry cries out: “Halt! Who comes there?” “The keys,” replies the Chief Warder. “Whose keys?” “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.” “Pass, Queen Elizabeth keys. All’s well.”

The Chief Warder and his group proceed and encounter the main guard. He lifts his Tudor bonnet up in the air and exclaims: “God preserve Queen Elizabeth.” “Amen,” comes the reply, as the clock chimes 10pm, and the duty drummer sounds The Last Post on his bugle.

It is said that the ceremony has remained more or less the same, with only the name of the monarch changing, for approximately 700 years. It’s also never been cancelled and only delayed once, during the Second World War, when a bomb knocked some warders off their feet.

Beefeaters at the Tower of London
Beefeaters at the Tower of London | © Peter Rowley/Flickr

Ironically, if the locking of the tower is spectated by visitors – who have to leave the tower when the gates have been locked – the tower cannot be fully secure by the time The Last Post sounds. But let’s not get bogged down in trivial details; it’s great that this historical tradition is still taking place and it’s even better that the public is invited along to experience it – even if tickets for the ceremony are usually sold out at least 12 months in advance.

Enjoy reading this? Learn about Colonel Blood, the man who stole the crown jewels from the tower, or find out some fascinating facts about the crown jewels.