One of the oldest ceremonies in the world, the military nighttime ceremony is shrouded in tradition and mystery, with tickets to watch it often selling out in minutes of becoming available. It is worth trying though, for the chance to watch this ancient ritual playing out within the impenetrable walls and cobbled streets of the famous Tower of London.
A Brief History of the Ceremony of the Keys
The locking of the Tower of London began in 1340 when King Edward III arrived at the Tower and was able to just walk in completely unchallenged. He imprisoned the Constable of the Tower for dereliction of duty and insisted that the Tower should be locked every sunset and unlocked every sunrise. By the time the unpopular Mary I was on the throne in 1555 she was worrying about her security and she insisted there should be no less than 21 yeoman, nine to patrol during the day and six at night. She also supplied detailed instructions as to how the keys should be locked away at 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.’
The only time the ceremony changed again was in 1826 when the Duke of Wellington fixed the evening ceremony to the exact time of 10pm, as sunset was just too vague and the guards were often being locked out overnight.
Watching the Ceremony of the Keys
Having tried unsuccessfully for several years to get tickets, I was triumphant to finally get some for an evening in late August when I could also get to the capital. It was with some excitement that we arrived at the main gate to the Tower of London at 9pm, waiting patiently in a line of about 20 people for admittance. On the dot of 9.25pm, a Yeoman Warder came out to speak to us and we all shuffled through the gates, waiting by the Middle Tower until everyone was gathered together.
Our Yeoman Warder introduced herself as Emma Rousell, who is only the third female warder in the whole history of the Yeoman Guards. Dressed in the Tudor bonnet and famous red coat, she talked us through the rules of the event, ensuring we all turned off phones and put away cameras, before leading us to Traitors' Gate where she talked us through the ceremony, what it meant and what would happen.
She struck the perfect balance between humour and the solemnity of the occasion, adding in a few lighthearted quips amongst all of the information, impressing on us the importance of what was going to happen but still keeping everyone amused and interacting with the few young kids who were there, looking slightly bemused at being part of a crowd of people standing on the cobbles at night in the dim light coming from the lanterns above us.
As she talked to us, four guards, The Escort of the Keys, marched up behind her and waited in the archway of the Bloody Tower before us. The guards on duty in the Tower rotate between the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish and the Welsh Guards. The Irish Guards were on duty for our visit, looking immaculate in red tunics and tall bearskin hats, three of them carrying machine guns. The fourth guard was empty handed.
From the Byward Tower marched the Chief Yeoman Warder carrying a candle lantern in one hand and a bunch of keys, the Queen's Keys *, in the other.
Wearing his bright red watchcoat and black bonnet decorated with red, white and blue ribbons to represent the flowers that warders used to wear on their heads to ward off medieval smells, it could have been an image from centuries ago, as he walked up the cobbled street through the pools of soft yellow light from the lanterns glowing on those stone walls, bats flitting overhead. Joining the escort of four guards and handing his lantern over to the empty handed guard, they marched back to lock up the gates of Middle Tower and Byward Tower.
On their return to the archway of the Bloody Tower, a sentry who had been guarding an area to the right of us, approached them with his gun aimed at them and shouted:
Sentry: "Halt! Who comes there?"
Chief Yeoman Warder: "The keys".
Sentry: "Whose keys?"
Chief Yeoman Warder: "Queen Elizabeth's keys". *
Sentry: "Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys. All's well".
The Chief Yeoman Warder and escort then marched through the archway where they joined the Tower Guard, those who are on duty defending the tower, on the steps before us. Emma motioned our group to follow quietly behind her, where we stood silently in the shadow of the White Tower, which was illuminated from below and looking dramatic against the dark night sky.
The clock struck 10 and a bugler played the Last Post. The soldiers were then all dismissed, marching off over the top of the steps. Emma then told us we could ask questions and get our cameras out for photos.
There were a lot of questions as you would expect and she answered them all with knowledge and humour. It felt like a real privilege to have a female warder as our guide and we asked more about her, learning of her 32 years of service in the RAF and how she felt about living within the walls of the Tower.
Overall it was a marvellous experience and one we all enjoyed. To be witness to something so ancient which has been carried out every night for 600 years felt really special and emerging afterwards into London by night really added to the significance of the occasion.
* They are now the King's Keys. We watched the ceremony just two weeks before the Queen died.
What happens at the Ceremony of the Keys - the Practicalities:
Ticket holders are asked to wait at the main entrance to the Tower for 9:25 pm. At the allotted time, a Yeoman will open the gates, provide a brief introduction and check your names off a list. After a quick bag search, you walk through to the Middle Tower. Here, the Yeoman Warder will go through some basics such as the ban on photography, turning all your phones off and staying completely silent throughout the ceremony. You then go through to Traitors' Gate, standing with your backs to it. The Yeoman Warder explains the ceremony with a brief history and what will happen.
The ceremony then unfolds in front of you. After the first bit, the Yeoman ushers you through the gate to the Bloody Tower where you watch the second part of the ceremony and listen to the Last Post. The soldiers are then dismissed - once they are gone you are allowed to take photos. The Yeoman Warder then answers any questions you may have and escorts you back out of the Tower, the way you came in. The end time is about 10.15pm.
There is no access to anywhere else within the Tower.
There are no loos, seating, cafés or water taps. You cannot leave halfway through or arrive late. This is a military event, not a tourist attraction.
Getting tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys
Tickets are released on the website. There is no waiting list and there are strict rules about how many you can buy and the names of the people on the tickets. The HRP ticket booking page has full details >>
How much is a ticket for the Ceremony of the Keys?
The cost is currently just £5 per person.
Is there a dress code for the Ceremony of the Keys?
There is no official dress code, but ensure that it is respectful and also that you are comfortable, as you cannot sit down anywhere and you will be doing some walking on the cobbled streets inside the Tower. Make sure your clothing is weather appropriate.
What time is the Ceremony of the Keys?
Be at the gate for 9.25pm.