London Lantern

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The Tower of London - The Ceremony of the Keys

17/03/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 13552 votes

From out of the distance darkness walks, with measured steps, a man carrying, in one hand a candle-lit lantern and in the other a set of keys. Standing beneath a stone gate are four soldiers in black bearskin hats and heavy grey greatcoats - for it is Christmas Eve and London is cold this time of year. The man with the lantern walks at a precise pace. When he comes to the soldiers he falls in with them and the group marches back in the direction from whence the man has just come. Soon there is the sound of the closing of a large gate, followed by the footsteps of the small party, and then the sound of another gate closing.

The soldiers and the man with the lantern march back in the direction of the stone gate. From out of the darkness appears another soldier, also clad in a heavy grey greatcoat and wearing a tall bearskin hat. As the party comes nearer the sentry brings his rifle to the on-guard position- that is, he points his rifle at the party and then calls out "Halt."

The little party comes to a stop. "Who comes there?"

"The Keys," shouts back the man the lantern. "Whose Keys," challenges the sentry.

"Queen Elizabethís Keys," comes the reply. "Pass Queen Elizabethís Keys," the sentry calls out, "All is well."

The man carrying the lantern, along with his escort, then marches beneath the Bloody Tower arch to the White Tower steps, where waiting for them are more soldiers - all of them Guardsmen, all of them armed with assault rifles. The party comes to a halt, the soldiers present arms to the Keys which are carried by the Chief Yeoman Warder, the man with the lantern - it has been explained earlier that these are not just any keys but the Queen's Keys.

The Chief Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater, for that is the name by which the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London are best known, then advances two paces in front of his escort, lifts his Tudor bonnet from his head and calls out "God preserve Queen Elizabeth."

Exactly seven minutes have elapsed. A distant clock strikes ten.

The soldiers answer in unison, "Amen." It is the only time that soldiers in the British Army are allowed to speak from the position of present arms. Then a lone drummer plays the Last Post. The Chief Yeoman Warder disappears into the darkness and the soldiers march off in the opposite direction.

Those guests privileged enough to have witnessed the ceremony are then led discretely to a small door from which they then exit the Tower of London.

For over 700 years it has been thus with the Ceremony of the Keys, the securing and locking down for another night in the Tower of London.

At one time selection of the Yeoman Warders was performed through a form of patronage system however when Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, the Iron Duke, become the Chief Constable of the tower, he selected long-serving soldiers who had been with him in the campaigns to defeat Napoleon, including Waterloo and since then Beefeaters have all been veterans; these days from the British Army, The Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines who have at least 22 years of services. Many of them are veterans of the numerous, small post-colonial wars in which Britain has found itself involved over the years.

The Guardsmen are soldiers from one of the Regiments of Foot of the Household Division - this evening they are from the First Battalion of the Scots Guards, and may have the month before been training for combat or serving somewhere in the world as part of a peacekeeping force. For each of the men taking part in the nightly ritual the ceremony is a serious one; one taking on an almost religious significance. They are part of something that has taken place since long before they were born.

The Ceremony of the Keys speaks to many things: history, tradition, honour and a monarchy that has evolved into a democratic institution, along with the importance of ritual in preserving a connection with the past as a way of understanding the present.

Each night the Guardsman and Beefeaters perform the ceremony and observe the ritual secure in the knowledge that all is well within the Tower of London and throughout the Realm.

To see the Ceremony of the Keys you'll need to request tickets by post and it's best to do it at least a couple of months in advance, three if possible. There is no charge but there is a limit on the numbers of persons allowed to attend with larger groups during the winter months. Also be sure to be at the West Gate by 9:30pm (don't be late because if you are they won't let you in). Just write the Tower of London, tell them the date you would like to attend (might be a good idea to include a couple of backup dates) and how many will be in your party and their names.

If youíre writing from the United States youíll have to enclose a self-addressed envelope as well as the correct number of International Reply Coupons or IRCs for return postage. Another item; they donít take requests over the phone or by fax or e-mail. Also you have to ask for the tickets yourself since requests from tour guides or third parties arenít accepted. The address is:
The Ceremony of the Keys
HM Tower of London

David McIntosh

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Re: The Tower of London - The Ceremony of the Keys

By Jan Maxwell 12/04/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12619 votes)

Lovely article. I visited the Tower in 1981 and had a delightful time. It will be one of my stopping points again in 2003 or 2004, whenever I can cross the Atlantic again. Alas, this American misses London like I would my left arm if it were cut off.

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Re: The Tower of London - The Ceremony of the Keys

By Richard Wyland 17/04/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12604 votes)

The Tower really is marvellous... I enjoyed chatting with the Yeoman Warders (Beefeaters) as much as the building and grounds... It would be great to live within the Tower as they do... Missing London like the loss of all extremities and a spleen thrown in for good measure...

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Re: The Tower of London - The Ceremony of the Keys

By Jennifer Thomas 18/04/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 12406 votes)

My 65 year old mother and I visited London September 2002 We, of course couldn't see everything but did tour the Palace, Westminster, The Tower and St Paul’s.

We were unimpressed by the Palace, enjoyed Westminster and Big Ben and LOVED the Tower. It couldn't have been a better day than spending it in the Tower. The freedom to document our memories of the tour was fabulous .... and so was our tour guide, Mick (I didn't get/don't remember his last name)

It is definitely a "must see" when we return.

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