The Tower of London is a medieval palace in the centre of London, since the middle ages many customs and traditions have developed, based largely around keeping the fortress secure. Luckily for us, despite its setting in a modern city, many of the ancient ceremonies have been preserved.
The Ceremony of the Keys is undoubtedly the most famous, but let’s look at all the ceremonies, some of which we can actually watch for ourselves!
Daily Ceremonies at the Tower of London
There are three main ceremonies that happen every day, one you may just stumble across by accident, the other two happen outside of normal visiting hours. Before we dive into the ceremonies, let’s look at who works in the fortress, it will help us understand how the castle operates today.
This huge complex of 21 Towers still houses the Crown Jewels and is protected by 21 members of the Queen’s guard, who work as the “tower guard” ensuring that area is kept safe and secure at all times. The other group of staff you might be more familiar with are the Yeoman Warders, sometimes called Beefeaters. They are retired military personnel who live on-site and are responsible for the everyday running of the castle.
The Queens Guard and the Beefeaters work closely together and both take part in the various ceremonies.
The Ceremonial Opening
Each day the whole complex must be opened and physically unlocked so visitors can enter.
At either 9 AM (Tuesday-Saturday) or 10 AM (Sunday-Monday) the Duty Yeoman Warder and a military escort of the main guard, march to open both the middle Tower and the Byward Tower. Then the public is allowed to enter the Tower of London.
So as you might have spotted, the Tower is closed to the public while the short opening ceremony takes place, but you can still watch it!
How to see the Ceremonial opening
Before opening time if you make your way around to Tower wharf, next to the River Thames, look towards the Middle and Byward Towers. Just before the clock strikes 9 or 10 you will see the Yeoman Warder arrive, accompanied by guards, to unlock the castle before returning inside. How about that, a little bonus on your visit and all you have to do is arrive a bit early!
Check out our handy picture below to see where you should stand.
The Ceremony of the Word
The Tower of London is like a small village, with plenty of people living on-site, those people obviously have to come and go as you do from your own home. So what happens if you want to get in or out of the tower between 10 PM in the evening when it’s locked and 9/10 AM when it’s unlocked again. Well then you need to know the special password, that’s where the Ceremony of the Word comes in.
This special password is changed every day at 3 PM. If you’re inside the walls at this time you can watch the Ceremony of the word take place. The Officer of the guard and a small group of soldiers march from the jewel house to the Queen’s house. When they arrive they are met by the Chief Yeoman Warder, who hands over a small leather pouch containing the password for the next 24 hours. This password is then shared around all soldiers and residents of the Tower so they can come and go as they please.
This short ceremony is also an excellent opportunity to take some pictures or videos of the Guards as they march to and from the ceremony.
How to see The Ceremony of the Word
Shortly before 3 PM make your way towards the Bloody Tower and stand where the red arrow is in the picture below. The Guards will march towards you from the Jewel house and then turn towards Tower Green where the Ceremony of the word takes place.
Ceremony of the Keys
This is the most famous ceremony which takes place at the Tower of London. The Ceremony of the keys is an ancient custom surrounding the locking of the main gates. It happens at 10 PM each evening and has done so without fail for nearly 700 years.
History of The Ceremony of the keys
Queen Elizabeth’s keys
At 9:53 PM sharp, the ceremony of the keys begins.
The Chief Yeoman Warder takes the Queen’s keys and leaves Byward tower dressed in a bright red coat and a Tudor bonnet (hat) and carries a candle lantern. The Chief Yeoman Warder moves towards Traitor’s Gate and the Bloody Tower where he is met by 4 duty regiment foot guards who form the “escort to the keys”
The Beefeater hands the lantern to the non armed guard. He and the four men walk along Water lane, towards the outer gate to begin the formal locking of the complex. The Beefeater is then assisted by the soldiers to complete the ceremonial locking, of both the outer and inner, oak gates.
The Yeoman Warder and the escort then return along Water lane towards the bloody tower archway where one soldier representing the guard challenges them:
Halt, Who comes there?
Queen Elizabeth’s keys.
Pass then Queen Elizabeth’s keys and all’s well
The Chief Yeoman Warder and escort halt at the foot of the Broadway Steps and the escort present arms. The Chief Warder takes two paces forward, lifts his Tudor bonnet high above his head, into the night, and calls:
The Yeoman Warder
God preserve Queen Elizabeth.
The guard answers in unison
Exactly seven minutes later at 10pm, the last post is played on the bugle by the duty drummer, the Queen’s keys are returned to the Queen’s house and the gate closing ritual is complete. As it has done for nearly 700 years, the ceremony concludes.
The wording has remained unchanged, save for naming the reigning Monarch. Even during the difficult days of WWII, the ceremony took place daily. It was only delayed once, when a bomb landed directly on the Royal mint, unfortunately killing one Yeoman Warder.
How to see the Ceremony of the keys
You can watch the Chief Yeoman Warder and his escort carry out the Ceremony of the keys yourself, but the event is very popular so it’s important to book early. There is no waiting list, but you can check the Historic Royal Palaces website for availability and keys tickets. Tickets cost £5 each and the named ticket holder must be in attendance for your group to enter.
Visitors are met at the entrance of the tower at 9:30 PM, timing is strict and late comers won’t be allowed entry. The Yeoman Warders deliver a short but impressive guided tour highlighting the most important information about the Tower.
Once the Warder locks the outer gate, the last post plays, the ceremony of the keys is complete. You will have witnessed the oldest extant military ceremony in the world. At 10:05 PM visitors are escorted out via a small exit.
The Constable’s Dues
London was an important port city for many hundreds of years, the river Thames was full of ships importing goods from all over the world. The strategic location on the river meant that all ships arriving towards London Bridge were stopped and “Dues” (a percentage of cargo) were collected for the Tower Constable.
Today this collection of Dues has become a ceremony, which takes place when a Royal Navy vessel moors at the wharf. The Chief Yeoman Warder and his Beefeaters escort a barrel of wine, representing the dues, to Tower Green where it is presented to the Constable.
Whilst it is ceremonial, the wine doesn’t go to waste and is opened and enjoyed after the presentation! As the ceremony takes place when a ship arrives, the date is announced on the Historic Royal Palaces website.
Beating the Bounds at The Tower of London.
The Tower of London is a large medieval complex, neighbouring the City of London, it stretches from Tower Hill down to the Thames. The area outside the Tower, which it controls, is known as the “Tower Liberties”. This area is thought to be defined by the distance an arrow could be fired from the walls of the fortress!
Until 1894, if you were within the Tower-liberties you were under the jurisdiction of the Tower, so it was important to know where the boundary lay. Fortunately, the boundary is marked with stones. To ensure everyone was aware of the area, children would take part in the ceremony of “beating the bounds” where they would walk the boundary and whip the marker stones with willow wands. As well as imprinting the boundary in the children’s minds, this ceremony was meant to protect the land from evil spirits and it was a major event in the local area.
Whilst today the Tower Liberties aren’t independent of the City of London, Beating the Bounds still takes place as a tradition. Every three years on the evening of Ascension day, local children are led around the local streets by Beefeaters, where they beat the boundary stones with willow branches.
The next ceremony is due to take place on 26th of May 2022, why not come and see it for yourself!
The Tower of London is one of few places where a gun salute takes place to mark special occasions. Occasions like the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II and accession day are marked by a 62 gun salute from the Tower wharf.
You can see the guns set out along the wharf and the salute takes place at 1 PM. Whether you are standing on the wharf or at Buckingham Palace you won’t miss the noise of the ceremony. It takes around 10 minutes in total for 62 rounds to be fired.
Visit the Tower of London
The Tower of London is a firm favourite with all of our visitors, but as you can see there’s a lot going on. We’d love to show you around this medieval fortress on our Private Tour of the Tower of London. Our expert guides will make sure you make the most of your trip and catch any ceremonies that happen during the day.