Amidst the City of London’s medieval alleys and monuments resides one of the capital’s oldest sites: The Tower of London. Originally constructed by William the Conqueror, it has stood sentinel over London for nearly a millennium. Today, its oldest, inner keep, the famed White Tower glitters above the Thames, lit against the dark London sky.
A symbol of the capital and a beacon of its royal favour through the centuries, the Tower of London is home to some of the oldest continuous traditions in the world, the most fabled of which is the Ceremony of the Keys. While usually booked weeks in advance, Red Carnation Hotels’ London properties have partnered with Historic Royal Palaces to secure VIP tickets a select number of this year’s ceremonies. Here, we explore the storied tradition.
A rich history
Locking and unlocking the Tower came into being some 700 years ago under the orders of Edward III, who one night entered his fortified castle without challenge—much to his shock and chagrin. After imprisoning the Constable of the Tower for egregious neglect of duty, he instituted formal locking and unlocking orders at sunset and sunrise. Over two centuries later, the ritual was formalised by Queen Mary I, who grew wary of her growing unpopularity in the capital. In addition to increasing the number of Yeomen guards—the famous London Beefeaters—she established in writing the order of service for the lock up, ensuring a small retinue of guards accompanied the keys on their twice-daily journey.
The ceremony has remained until today—with only one small change. With the ascendancy of modern timekeeping, sunrise and sunset soon became anachronistic and imprecise inconveniences. In 1826, the Constable of the Tower fixed the time of lock-up to 10pm. Since then, legend has it that the Ceremony of the Keys has gone uninterrupted save for one occasion during the Blitz when the blast from a nearby bomb knocked over the Chief Warder. Once he and his guards dusted off, the ceremony continued, of course—only a tad tardy, for which they sent a personal apology to King George VI.
The Ceremony of the Keys
At precisely 9.53pm, the Ceremony of the Keys commences, conducted in the dim atmospheric light of the Tower’s inner portals. The Chief Yeoman Warder, a dignified veteran with decades’ experience in the British Armed Forces, emerges from the Byward Tower in a traditional rose-red Watch Coat and Tudor Bonnet. In one hand, he holds an antique lantern, lit poetically by a single candle; while in the other, he holds the hulking iron keys to the citadel: the Queen’s Keys.
In the still darkness of the surrounding night, the red costume stands out in the single flame of the lantern. Proceeding from the Byward Tower, this red is picked up by the iconic scarlet coats of his military escort—comprising two sentries, a sergeant and a bugle player who await him at the Bloody Tower.
The escort marches through the ancient cobbles to the Tower periphery, where the Chief locks the outer gates, followed by the inner portals, with solemn reverence. At the moment the lock-up has been completed, the clock strikes 10. To conclude the medieval ceremony, the Chief raises his Tudor bonnet high into the air and proclaims: “God preserve Queen Elizabeth.” The military escort chimes “Amen” in acknowledgement, before the inner keep returns to the still, ancient quietude of the deep night.
Stay at Red Carnation Hotels’ London properties to enjoy members’ access to London’s Historic Royal Palaces. Just ask our Concierge to arrange your visit.