Hidden Gem: The Ceremony of the Keys

Hidden Gem: The Ceremony of the Keys

Every night, as has been the tradition for over 700 years, a ceremony is held at the Tower of London.

And every night a small group of visitors can witness this ceremony.  Free of charge!

If you’re lucky enough to get tickets (see booking information below), here’s what you can expect.  First, arrive prior to 9:30.  Seven hundred years of tradition is not going to be put on hold because you misplaced your ticket or ran into traffic and couldn’t get there on time.

You will be escorted into the Tower grounds and shown a few notable places — the Traitor’s gate, the princes’ tower, etc.  At exactly 9:53 pm, the Yeoman Warders will lock the main gates to the Tower.  As they are returning from that task, they will be challenged by the sentry on guard:

Sentry: “Halt! Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys.”
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All is well.”

Ceremony of the Keys

The group will pass through and once at the top of the stairs, the guard will present arms, followed by the Warder raising his hat.  The Warder will proclaim, “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” and the sentry will answer “Amen!”

We witnessed the ceremony on a trip to London in May of 2000 and it was spectacular.  To stand in such a large and historic place with only a dozen or so other people around, at night, and in complete silence save for the traditional spoken parts.. it was the closest thing I have ever experienced to going back in time.  If you are fortunate enough to be able to get tickets for this ceremony, do so!

An interesting bit of trivia:  The only time on record that the ceremony was interrupted was during World War II, when there was an air raid on London.  A number of bombs fell on the old Victorian guardroom just as the Warder and his escort were coming through with the keys. The shock and the noise of the bombs falling blew over the escort and the Chief Yeoman Warder, but they stood up, dusted themselves off, and carried on. The Tower holds a letter from the Officer of the Guard apologizing to King George VI that the ceremony was late, along with a reply from the King which says that the officer was not to be punished as the delay was due to enemy action.

Booking:  In order to snag tickets to this rare experience, you have to plan your trip well in advance.  Bookings tend to run 6 months or more ahead of schedule, and due to the limited number of guests who are allowed in each night, they fill up quickly. You can check availability and make your booking at the Historic Royal Palaces web site.

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