You’d expect the Tower of London to be fairly secure. After all, it does house the Crown Jewels, a stunning collection of Royal armour and countless other priceless artifacts. This expectation gets even stronger when you learn about the World Heritage Site’s fascinating history: not only is it a 900-year-old Royal fortress palace that was built to protect monarchs, munitions and even the Royal Mint, but it also housed some of England’s most high-profile prisoners, including John Balliol and Edward V.
For all its thick stone walls, armed guards and huge towers, the Tower’s security would not be complete without a humble lock and key. Each night, the main gates of the Tower of London are secured by the Chief Yeoman Warder and his armed guard, who then ensure that the monarch’s keys are returned to safe storage for the night. Astonishingly, this ceremony has been repeated every night without fail for more than 700 years, and you can watch this unique piece of history by applying for a free ticket.
At 9.30pm every evening, those with tickets are escorted from the main entrance to Water Lane, where a jovial Yeoman Warder talks them through the proceedings. The warders are very good at setting the scene and building up your anticipation, and it’s easy to feel a shiver up your spine as you wait in the flickering lantern light for the procession to start. Just before 10pm the Chief Yeoman Warder, his distinctive red coat and Tudor bonnet standing out against the ancient stone, emerges from the Byward Tower carrying The Queen’s Keys and a lantern. Visitors will see him walk onto Water Lane and be joined at Traitor’s Gate by his armed guard, who all salute the keys as they then proceed to the outer gates as a group.
The Chief Yeoman Warder proceeds to lock the series of large gates, outermost first. You will then see him emerge from the darkness and walk back along Water Lane towards Traitor’s Gate, where he is stopped by a sentry and asked to prove his identity. After confirming that he carries “The Queen’s Keys”, he walks through the Bloody Tower archway to where the main body of the guard is assembled. Visitors swiftly follow behind him to catch the last of the ceremony, in which the Chief Yeoman Warder asks the guardsmen to present arms, then raises his bonnet and calls “God Save Queen Elizabeth” to which everyone – audience included – replies “amen”. The Last Post is played and then the ceremony ends as the guard is dismissed and the keys stored safely for the night. All that’s left for visitors to do is escape before they are trapped overnight!
As a visitor, it’s impossible not to be struck by the incredible precision and dignity with which the ceremony is carried out, and to feel rather insignificant in the face of a living tradition that is so old. Being part of the ceremony is both a memorable privilege and a fantastic way of experiencing the rich history of London and the Royal Family. Anyone wishing to apply for tickets will need to do so at least two months in advance (three during the summer) and be flexible in your choice of dates. For full details of the formal application process, visit the Tower of London website.