The Ceremony of the Keys

“Halt! Who comes there?”

“The keys.”

“Whose keys?”

“Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”

“Pass then, and all is well.”

That is the exchange my dad and I heard last night at the Tower of London, which has been spoken nearly every night there for over 700 years (though obviously the monarch’s name has changed).

Tower of London The tickets to attend the Tower of London’s nightly locking-up ceremony are free, but they are booked up 12 months out, so I have had these tickets for a whole year now.

We waited outside the main entrance to the Tower at 9:30 p.m., and a Yeoman Warder (AKA Beefeater) came and unlocked the gate to let us in. The group was probably about 20 people in total.

Our guide for the evening also happened to be the Ravenmaster, who takes care of the Tower’s famous avian inhabitants. He verbally walked us through what we were about to witness, so we’d understand what was happening.

We were asked to be silent for the duration of the ceremony, and not take any photos. The ceremony itself started at about 5 minutes to 10.

First, several soldiers marched out in front of us. Then the Chief Yeoman Warder came from our left, carrying a lantern and the keys. A sentry appeared from the right and hollered “Halt! Who comes there?” and the above exchange took place.

After he was allowed to pass, the Chief Yeoman Warder then carried on with his duties of locking up the gates for the night, accompanied by his “escort” of soldiers, there to protect him and the keys.

We followed them up a short ways, and came upon another set of soldiers standing at attention. The Tower’s clock chimed at 10 o’clock, and then a voice said, “Tower guard and escort, present your arms.”

The soldiers moved their guns around, and then he said, “God preserve Queen Elizabeth,” at which point everyone responded, “Amen.” (If you didn’t, you’re probably guilty of treason.)

Then a single bugler played his bugle.

After that, everyone marched off, and the ceremony was over.

Our guide spent some time afterwards taking questions from our group; the first question was, “So, how do we get out now?”

We got some more information on the ceremony, the Yeoman Warders, the ravens, and the Tower’s long, storied history. I’ve taken the tour at the Tower of London a couple times before, which is very interesting, and the Yeoman Warders all seem to have excellent senses of humour; last night was nice because the group was smaller than the typical daytime tour group, and it was quiet without the crowds of tourists around, so it was much easier to hear him.

There are 37 Yeoman Warders living in the Tower of London, and their families, so about 150 people in total live there. He told us they have a doctor living there as well, “and a chapel in case the doctor can’t fix it.” They also have their own pub.

Unfortunately, he didn’t invite us to join him at their exclusive pub within the castle walls, so after we were let out a small side door (since the main gate had obviously just been locked up, ceremoniously), my dad and I went for a pint at the nearby pub: The Hung, Drawn, and Quartered. An apt name for a pub there at the infamous Tower Hill.

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