“If your mobile goes off, you will die.”
I looked doubtful. Surely, my guide was joking? It was the Tower of London, near freezing, and the night sky so clear that even I could recognise many of its constellations.
Then the guide winked. He may only have been teasing, but it was his way of saying I should keep silent during the Ceremony of the Keys. He was one of 37 Yeoman Warders who live in the Tower of London.
“I have the perfect job,” he said earlier, as we walked the cobbled alleyways of this central London landmark. He was regaling me with stories of Bloody Mary, Traitor’s Gate and tiny princes being smothered in their sleep.
“I have two wonderful daughters,” he added. “What father wouldn’t want to lock up two princesses in the Tower each night?”
The formal locking and unlocking of the Tower at sunset and sunrise began in the fourteenth century, but in 1826 became more structured. Since then, the Ceremony of the Keys has been held nightly, at precisely 9.53pm and nothing stops it, not even warfare. It has been delayed on only one occasion when a Luftwaffe bomb landed on the Tower in mid-ceremony and the proceedings were seven minutes late.
The ceremony is said to be the oldest military ritual in the world and simulates the nightly locking of the Tower. The Chief Warder, clad in scarlet and holding a lantern lit by a single candle in one hand and the Sovereign’s Keys in the other, is accompanied by four soldiers who are armed with an SA80 rifle held smartly against the shoulder.
“Don’t disappear during our tour,” my guide had warned earlier. “The Tower is guarded by trained and armed killers who happen to be bored. Each rifle also has a bayonet.”
“I promise I won’t escape,” I pledged, as we continued our walking tour of this remarkable piece of British history.
The Tower has seen much death over many centuries. There is Tower Green within its walls, and Tower Hill outside them. These were areas where, until the mid-18thcentury, nobles, and even monarchs, were beheaded. It was better to die within the Tower’s walls than outside on Tower Hill, as inside was private.
For executions on Tower Hill, huge crowds would attend and wait for the executioner to hold up the severed head. The crowd would then shout, “God save the King,” a cry that would be heard many miles away.
Next, the head was taken to nearby Old London Bridge and there it would be skewered on a spike. Decapitated bodies were buried in an unmarked grave, either within the Tower’s walls or outside. Whether head was ever reunited with body, for that matter the correct torso, is unknown.
Fascinated by my guide’s many tales of human misery, each delivered with panache, I pulled up my coat collar to cover my neck. It was cold, made more so by the stories, and I was not about to be beheaded.
“Stand there and keep silent,” my guide next instructed, as I was shown to a small area of pavement to one side of the Tower’s cobbled Water Lane. Nearby was Bloody Tower, where King Henry VI was killed in 1471, where boy princes Edward and Richard were murdered in 1483, and where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for 13 years before his execution in 1618.
At the lane’s far end marched the Chief Warder and four soldiers, making perfect pace towards me and the archway under Bloody Tower.
“Halt! Who comes there?” shouted a sentry in the shadows beside me, and enough to make me jump.
“The keys,” replied the Warder.
After a brief, further exchange, the group marched on.
The ceremony was completed by a single soldier standing atop the flight of Broadwalk Steps, alongside the White Tower, and playing the Last Post on a bugle. He did not keep to tune.
Yet somehow it did not matter. I stood still, remembering past friends, while beside me stood 50 tourists and nearby slept the Tower’s seven ravens. The Ceremony of the Keys is popular, free to attend, and carries a waiting list of 18 months or longer. Each of us at that moment realised how fortunate we were to be present.
And the tuneless Last Post? It was normal.
“The soldier who played the Last Post is no professional musician,” said my guide after the ceremony had completed.
For a moment I had hesitated.
“But he is a trained killer,” the guide continued, again the wink, and together we had laughed.
As one might expect, the Ceremony of the Keys continues despite the pandemic. However, visitors have not been admitted since March 2020 because of worries in respect of social distancing. Historic Royal Palaces will announce on its website when visitors are to be welcomed once again.
The Ceremony of the Keys takes place daily, from 9.30-10.05pm. The tickets become fully booked very quickly, must be obtained in advance online, and are free.
For further information, visit: www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/whats-on/ceremony-of-the-keys
Address: Tower of London, London, EC3N 4AB
Access is possible by overground and underground rail, bus, riverboat and car. The nearest car park is Tower Hill Coach and Car Park, two minutes’ walk away. It offers blue badge parking.
Consult the Transport for London website for details.
There are several eateries in the Tower of London itself and there are plenty outside.
Do not miss
All Hallows by the Tower – the oldest church in the City of London. It has a crypt museum, Roman pavement and Saxon and Roman artefacts.
HMS Belfast – this World War Two cruiser, with nine decks, is moored at Morgan’s Lane off Tooley Street. It was launched on St Patrick’s Day (17th March) 1938 and was designed for the protection of trade, for offensive action, and to support military operations by aiding landings from the sea. She was retired from active duty in 1952 and given to the public in 1971.
Tower Bridge – Tower Bridge offers one of the best vantage points in the city from its spectacular glass walkways, elevated 140ft above the Thames.
Tower Hill Memorial – this two-part memorial is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and commemorates civilian merchant sailors and fishermen killed during the two World Wars. Nearby is the former public scaffold site. The names of many who died are recorded there.