Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London: All You Need to Know
If you’re interested in learning about the Ceremony of the Keys in London, you’ve come to the right place.
Those interested in attending a historical ceremony or two will find that London has plenty to offer. With three different Changing of the Guard ceremonies to choose from each year (at Buckingham Palace, Saint James’s Palace, and Wellington Barracks), it’s clear that London is a city rich in history and culture.
Even so, the Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London is truly remarkable, and a must-experience if you are visiting London.
The six-month waiting period for the complimentary tickets seems excessive. However, seeing one of London’s most unique traditions in person is an experience you shouldn’t pass up.
For one, it has been going on for nearly 700 years, and it takes place nightly at the Tower of London. Let that sink in.
Since the 14th century, without fail, every night: through the Blitz, the Black Plague, the Great Fire of London, and even lockdown, the Beefeaters and Tower Guard have kept the Tower of London secure.
What Is the Ceremony of the Keys?
So, what exactly is the Ceremony of the Keys?
A nightly ritual called the Ceremony of the Keys is performed to ensure that the entrances to the Tower of London are secured.
During the ritual, the members of the Tower Guard march beside Chief Yeoman Warder, keeping him safe as he guards what was traditionally the most important palace in London.
Everyone who comes to London should make it a point to witness this extravagant and peculiar custom at least once in their lifetime.
History of the Ceremony of the Keys
Upon the command of a livid Edward III, the practice of formally closing and opening the Tower gates began in the middle of the 1300s.
In the middle of the night on December 13th, 1340, the King showed up at the Tower. Edward de la Beche, the Constable of the Tower, was arrested for shirking his duties. Thus, Edward III ordered the castle to be shut every night at sundown and unlocked every morning at dawn.
The King was also motivated to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of security and make other improvements to the Tower’s sad and neglected condition. Edward III demanded that each Sheriff in London pay £40 toward refurbishing the Tower.
An anxious Mary I (r. 1553–158) was concerned about the safety of the Tower as she was becoming increasingly unpopular.
After a failed Protestant plot resulted in the death of Lady Jane Grey in 1555, the Queen ordered the Constable of the Tower to increase the size of the Beefeater guard force.
At least 21 “discreet, trustworthy, and affable yeomen of middle age, none over 50 or below 30” were required, and the Constable was responsible for ensuring this.
During the day, 9 Yeoman Warders would patrol, and at night, six would do the same, per Mary’s order.
A comprehensive plan for hiding the keys away at night was also outlined. The original language depicts the ritual as it is carried out virtually every night:
“And it is ordered that there shall be a place appointed under Locke and key where in the keys of the gates of the saide Tower shall be laide in the sight of the constable, the porter and two of the Yeoman Warders, or three of them at the least, and by two or three of them to be taken out when the[y] shall be occupied. And the key of that locke or coffer where the keys be, to be kepte by the porter or, in his absence, by the chief yeoman warder.”
From the Late 1800s Onwards
In the year 1826, the Duke of Wellington, who was serving as the Constable of the Tower at the time, gave the order that the time of the ceremony should be set to 10 pm instead of the more nebulous term “sunset.”
This was done so that he could be certain that all of his soldiers stationed at the Tower were safely ensconced within the city walls before the gates were closed.
According to the legend, the ceremony was only ever interrupted once, on December 29, 1940, when a bomb was dropped on the Tower. This is said to be the only time that this occurred. Chief Yeoman Warder was knocked off his feet by the explosion, although he sustained no other injuries.
What Happens During the Ceremony of the Keys
The first thing to remember is that you should get there promptly at 9 pm. There will be a strict cutoff at 9:25, and anyone who arrives beyond that time will not be let in.
The red-clad Chief Yeoman Warder of the Tower emerges from the Byward Tower with a candle lantern and the King’s Keys at exactly 9:52.
His duty regiment Foot Guards, who join him in the entirety of the ceremony, are waiting for him at Traitor’s Gate.
Each soldier in turn carries the lantern and marches to the main entrance.
The King’s Keys are treated with royal respect, therefore all guards and sentries on duty must salute them as they pass.
As the Warder secures the main entrance, the guards make their way back inside to close the oak doors leading to the Middle and Byward Towers.
After that, they double back along Water Lane towards the Wakefield Tower, where a guard watches from the shadows of the Bloody Tower archway.
A sentry’s challenge sounds out as the Chief Warder and his escort get near.
“Who comes there?”
“The Keys!” replies Chief Warder.
“King Charles’s Keys.”
“Pass King Charles’s Keys. All’s well.”
The four individuals proceed toward the archway leading to the Bloody Tower, and then upwards onto the boardwalk stairs where the main Guard is assembled.
At the bottom of the stairs, Chief Yeoman Warder and his escort come to a stop, and the officer in charge issues the order for the Guard and his escort to display their arms.
The Chief Yeoman Warder takes two strides forward before calling out, “God preserve King Charles,” while simultaneously raising his Tudor bonnet high into the air. The watchman utters “Amen” at the precise moment when the bugler playing “The Last Post” sounds off on his instrument and the clock strikes 10 o’clock.
As soon as the Chief Yeoman Warder returns the keys to the Queen’s House, the Guard is relieved of their duties.
At 22:05, all guests are escorted out of the building.
Tickets to the Ceremony of the Keys
The Historic Royal Palaces website is the only place where attendees can purchase tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys.
Tickets for future dates are made available regularly on the HRP website. This will typically take place on the first working day of each month. These dates will mark the beginning of the sale of tickets for the next month.
Tickets can only be purchased online for a modest price of £5.00 per ticket. Nevertheless, it is recommended that you get your tickets in advance due to the high demand for the Ceremony of the Keys.
Dress Code and Other Rules
Business attire is required for this visit; jeans and sneakers are not allowed under any circumstances.
If a person wants to wear any kind of uniform, they have to get permission from Chief Yeoman Warder first.
Any visitor who arrives at the Tower not appropriately attired will not be allowed entry.
The Yeoman Warders Club is a members-only establishment. No one under the age of 18 is allowed inside. Those between the ages of 18 and 25 will need to provide identification.
A cash-only policy is in effect at the Club’s bar, and there are no ATMs within the confines of the Tower.
Between 9:30 and 10:05 every night, the Tower has a strict “no movement” rule. Everyone who isn’t staying until the finish must depart the venue no later than 9:20 pm.
Getting to the Tower of London
Address: The Tower of London London, England EC3N 4AB
The Tube station closest to the Tower of London is Tower Hill – District or Circle lines
Dockland Light Railway
The DLR station closest to the Tower of London is the Tower Gateway Station.
Just a short five-minute walk away is the Tower, which can be reached by following the signs from the main entrance of the station.
The nearest stations to the Tower of London are Fenchurch Street or London Bridge.
You may hop on any of these numbers of buses that stop near the Tower: 15, 42, 78, 100, and RV1.
The nearest river access is via Tower Pier. The riverboats for Tower Pier depart from Charing Cross, Westminster, and Greenwich.
The nearest car park to the Tower of London is Lower Thames Street, and it’s about two minutes walk away. Note that the Tower of London is in the congestion charge zone.