Under the gleam of the full moon, Bill, Ann and I were locked inside the Tower of London.
Locked up in the formidable stone-walled complex on the bank of the Thames River that has served as a fortress, palace and prison since the days of William the Conqueror.
Happily, though, we weren’t awaiting the same fate as Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who in 1536 was condemned for treason and beheaded here with one swift stroke of a sword. Nor were we about to mysteriously disappear as the young Princes Edward and Richard did in 1483, even though they were living there ostensibly for their protection.
We were there by choice – to observe the Ceremony of the Keys, the tradition to lock up the Tower of London at night. Although England’s monarchs no longer reside within its walls, securing the Tower of London still is of utmost importance, for it houses the crown jewels and other priceless and irreplaceable royal artifacts from days gone by.
Tickets were required, but limited, so we ordered them months in advance. Once granted, we had to agree to abide by several restrictions – be at the Tower’s entrance gate by 9:30 p.m. sharp, as late attendees are denied admittance despite having tickets, and photography and video recordings were prohibited.
At precisely 9:30 p.m., a yeoman warder appeared at the gate to let in our relatively small group, a few dozen of us. As he lead us through Middle Tower (so named because it was in the middle of what used to be the moat) and Byward Tower down Water Lane and into position at Traitor’s Gate, he related the history behind the ceremony.
Every night without fail for over 850 years, through wars and peacetime, the ceremony has taken place. No one knows the true origin, as it’s been lost in time; however Edward II, who ruled in the early 1300s, formalized the ceremony when he ordered the constable to lock down the Tower at night. The fortress was not to be opened for anyone or any reason until sunup the next day.
Imagine, then, the king’s surprise and dismay when one night he sailed down the Thames River and was able to gain access to the Tower through the unguarded water gate. The king fired the constable, and installed John the London as the first yeoman warder, giving him a red coat as a sign of honor – the same color the chief yeoman warder and his guards wear today. One night John was attacked, so the king ordered a military escort to protect and aid him in his duty. The Ceremony of the Keys reenacts that first patrol.
At precisely 9:53 p.m., the chief yeoman warder left Byward Tower, where the yeoman warders live. In one hand he carried a lantern bearing a single lit candle, and the ring of keys in his other hand. (Before the advent of modern lighting, the lantern was essential to illuminate the dark and misty corridors.) He marched down Water Lane, and rendezvoused with an armed escort under the archway at Bloody Tower. He handed the lantern to the unarmed drummer, and they retraced the yeoman warder’s steps back up to Middle Tower and Byward Tower, locking the heavy gates and closing the hasps.
The men marched back down to the archway, where they encountered an armed sentry:
“Halt! Who comes there?” the sentry shouted in a menacing voice, aiming his gun.
“The Keys,” answered the chief yeoman warder.
“Whose keys?” (sentry)
“Queen Elizabeth’s keys.” (chief yeoman warder)
“Pass Queen’s Elizabeth keys, for all is well.” (sentry)
We followed the troop up the stairs, and at precisely 10:00 p.m.:
“God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” (chief yeoman warder, his Tudor bonnet raised high)
The bugler played and the guards were dismissed, escorting the chief yeoman warder and the all-important keys back to their place of safekeeping.
And we were still locked in.
Our yeoman warder made a comment about discussing room rates, but then relented, and walked us back to the locked gates. We exited through narrow open panels, in sight of the famous Tower Bridge.
Aah, what a relief to be free again!