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The Oldest Ceremony in the World

April 19, 2011
by the gentle author

Each night a lone figure in a long red coat walks down Water Lane, the narrow cobbled street enclosed between the mighty inner and outer walls of the Tower of London. Sometimes only his lamp can be seen through the thick river mist that engulfs him when it rises up from the Thames and pours over the wall to fill Water Lane, but he is indifferent to meteorological conditions because he is resolute in his grave task.

He is the Gentleman Porter and it is his responsibility to lock up the Tower, a duty fulfilled every single night since 1280, when the Byward Tower that houses the guardroom was built. And over seven centuries of repetition without remiss – day after day, down through the ages, through the Plague, the Fire and the Blitz –  this time-hallowed ritual has acquired its own cherished protocol and tradition, becoming known as ‘The Ceremony of the Keys.” It is the oldest, longest running ceremony in the world, and it continues today and it will continue when we are gone.

John Keohane, the current Gentleman Porter ( a role also known since 1485 as the Yeoman Porter, and since 1914 by the title of Chief Yeoman Warder) invited me over to the Tower to watch the ceremony, and Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Martin Usborne was granted the rare privilege of taking pictures of a run-through for an event that at the request of the Sovereign has never been photographed.

“Welcome to my little house by the river,” declared John cheerily in greeting, “That’s what the Tower is, it’s my home.” There was a sharp breeze down by the Thames that night, and we were grateful to be led by John into the cosy octagonal vaulted guardroom in the Byward Tower which has been manned night and day since 1280 and has the ancient graffiti (Roger Tireel 1622, among others), the microwave and the video collection to prove it.

Here, John’s old friend Idwall Bellis, a genial Welshman, was preparing to spend a long night on duty. “People try to break in to the Tower of London all the time,” he confided with an absurd smile, explaining, “They climb into the moat and we contact the police to take them away. Occasionally, the Bloody Tower alarm goes off and no-one knows why, and sometimes foxes set off alarms too.” Like John, Idwall joined the Yeoman Warders in 1991 after a long army career and in the last twenty years he has seen it all, except one thing. “My predecessor Cedric Ramshall was here one night and the room filled with frost, he saw two men in doublets with long clay pipes standing at the fireplace and they pointed at him.” he revealed, gesturing to the spot in question, “He never spent another night in here again.”

At 9:53pm, it was time for John to light the huge old brass lantern, take up his bunch of keys and venture out into the glimmering dusk, mindful of the precise timing of the seven minute ceremony that must finish on the exact stroke of ten. The only time this did not happen, he informed me, was 29th December 1940 when a bomb fell within fifty feet and blew the warders off their feet. They picked themselves up, completed the ceremony and wrote a letter of apology to the King for being three minutes late – and he graciously replied to say he fully understood because of the enemy action taking place overhead.

Leaving the guardhouse, John walked alone with his lantern down Water St to the entrance to the Bloody Tower where he picked up an escort of Tower of London Guards uniformed in red with bearskins on their heads, who returned down Water Lane with him to the gates. “At the Middle Tower, I meet Mr Bellis and together we lock, close and secure the gates, while the soldiers offer us protection,” he explained to me with uncomplicated purpose. This prudent addition to the ritual was made in 1381 when an elderly Gentleman Porter was beaten up and left for dead by protesters against Richard II’s poll tax.

My heart leapt in my chest when, as the black doors closed upon the modern City with a thunderous bang, centuries ebbed away and I found myself suddenly isolated in the medieval world, in the sole company of soldiers in scarlet uniforms in a pool of lamplight in the ancient gatehouse – just as I might have done any time in the past seven hundred years. Once the huge doors were shut and barred, while a pair of guards stood on either side and a shorter one held up the lamp as John turned the key in the lock with a satisfying clunk, then the escort reformed and marched swiftly together back down Water Lane into the gathering darkness, with John Keohane at the head, leaving Idwall Bellis to return to his cosy guard room.

Keeping discreetly to the shadows, I followed down Water Lane, creeping along beneath the vast stone walls towering over me. It was at this moment that a sentry stepped from the shadows – in the dramatic coup of the evening – challenging those approaching out of the dusk, crying, “Halt! Who comes there?” With barely concealed affront, John halted his escort, announcing, “The keys!” And in a bizarre moment, centuries of repetition was rendered into the present tense, happening for the first time – as those involved embraced the irresistible drama of the instant and the loaded gun pointed at them.

“Who’s keys?” persisted the sentry – turning either dimwitted or subordinate. “Queen Elizabeth’s keys,” announced John, citing the Sovereign who is his direct employer. “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s keys, for all is well!” responded the sentry, a stooge stepping back into the shadow.

And then John, accompanied by his escort, marched triumphantly up into the precinct of the Tower where he met a contingent of guardsmen, waiting sentinel at the head of the stone steps. They presented arms and the clock started to chime, permitting eleven seconds before the stroke of ten. In a moment of brief exultation, spontaneous even after twenty years, John took two paces forward, raising his Tudor bonnet, and declaiming, “God Preserve Queen Elizabeth!” Finally, a bugler played the last post and the clock struck ten as he made his way up the steps to report to the Constable that the Tower was locked for the night.

The guard marched away to their barracks and I stood alone beneath the vast white tower, luminous with floodlight, and I cast my eyes around Tower Green that was my sole preserve in that moment. Then John returned, descending the staircase, and we walked down to the Bloody Tower where the young princes were murdered by their uncle Richard III and where Walter Raleigh was imprisoned for thirteen years. And before John Keohane and I shook hands and said our “Good Nights,” we lingered there for a moment in silent awe at the horror and the beauty of the place.

Idwall Bellis sits all night in the guard house waiting for people to break into the Tower of London.

The keys to the Tower of London and the lantern.

“Halt, who comes there?”

“The Keys!”

“God preserve Queen Elizabeth!”

Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne

You may also like to read about

John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

The Ceremony of the Lilies & Roses at the Tower of London

Constables Dues at the Tower of London

The Bloody Romance of the Tower

You can apply to attend the Ceremony of the Keys through Historic Royal Palaces. A limited number of guests are permitted each night and it is free. Please apply at least six weeks in advance and be sure to include several alternative dates in your application which must be accompanied by a stamped addressed envelope.

Residents of Spitalfields and any of the Tower Hamlets may gain admission to the Tower for one pound upon production of an Idea Store card.

25 Responses leave one →
  1. melbournegirl permalink
    April 19, 2011

    This place and its rituals has always fascinated me, and you have captured its magic, in word and image, so beautifully.

  2. julie permalink
    April 19, 2011

    I attended the Ceremony of the Keys a couple of years ago as my son was part of the guard at the top of the stairs, and it was unforgettable. Just before the whole thing kicked off the Tower cat, Rosie, wandered in, on the look out for ravens . She was gently ushered away.We finished the evening in the bar at the Tower and felt very priviliged.

  3. Ros permalink
    April 19, 2011

    What a fantastic privilege! Marvellous account and photos, taking us right there with you.

  4. April 19, 2011

    How brilliant…what a terrific tradition…your words and the pictures certainly bring it to life

  5. April 19, 2011

    i’ve also attended the ceremony of the keys (foreigners visiting london are also able to apply to be part of this special event) – we were guided by another brilliant fellow who explained the whole procedure to us and made us feel very comfortable throughout the whole procedure; no photography was allowed, so it’s a privilege to see some through your post

  6. April 20, 2011

    Your post reminds us that the spirits of the past are always with us. What an honor to be among them for a short period. I hope to visit myself someday!

  7. Pam permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Thank you for the lovely post! As an exchange student from the U.S. at the University of Reading many moons ago, I was invited to this ceremony by someone from the Reading paper. We got attend the ceremony and afterwards visit with the Yeoman Warders in their private pub. It is one of my favorite memories and your fabulous photos brought it back to me in great detail!

  8. Julia Bishop permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Knowing John personally I thought the pictures were superb. However, he’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’ll jib at the defamation of Richard III! Try Henry VII or, even more likely, his mother the ever ambitious Margaret Beaufort.

  9. Chris F permalink
    April 20, 2011

    The picture that shows the keys hanging at the side of the Warden as he is faced by the Guardsman holding the lamp, is brilliant. For anyone with a basic knowledge of our history and without any hints as to what or where this business is taking place, you would just know that this was ‘The Ceremony of the Keys’. Makes you proud, doesn’t it….

  10. April 20, 2011

    No matter how many times I have been priviledged to witness the Ceremony of the Keys, I remain awed and anxious to view it again. The bugler’s last post concluding the Ceremony never ceases to strike an emotional cord. Your photos of my friend John Keohane are specacular and, as always, your commetary beyond excellent. The Beefeaters Club of the Unites States holds two banquets annually where a local version of the Ceremony of the Keys takes place. While ours is a pale copy, it nonetheless recalls for us the majestyof the tribute. It is an honour for me as Chief Warder in the US to be part of the Tower’s rich history.

  11. Heloisa from Brazil permalink
    April 21, 2011

    Isn’t it good to know that some things never change!

  12. Ray Williams permalink
    April 22, 2011

    We have had the pleasure of attending the Tower of London on numerous occassions and it still holds its charm but above all leaves an always unanswered question, ‘who stood or walked here before us’? Regarding this article the ceremony is fantastic especially when one realises the length of time it has been enacted and especially without a missed performance’. We have also had the great pleasure of meeting the gentlemen in the article and like all their fellow Yeoman Warders are a enormous source of information, generally historical but they are not without expressing some humour which will leave some visitors with creased forheads and asking ‘is that true’? (ha). Excellent article and the Yeomen are first class ambassadors for not only for the Tower but the Country.

  13. Chelsea permalink
    June 15, 2011

    I was fortunate enough to attend this ceremony a few years ago. It was amazing and I can’t wait for another trip to London. The photographs in the article are fantastic!

  14. IOB permalink
    June 16, 2011

    This makes me wish I could travel back in time, simply to watch the myriad of bygone eras.

    Excellent article.

  15. Steve permalink
    July 4, 2011

    As an interesting aside, these Guardsmen are from the Scots Guards. You can identify which regiment guardsmen belong to by the spacing of their buttons. Evenly spaced buttons are the Grenadier Guards, in pairs is the Coldstream Guards, in threes is the Scots Guards, 4s are the Irish Guards and 5s are the Welsh guards.

  16. soldier boi permalink
    July 26, 2011

    ive done this ceremony i never knew it was the oldest in the world, let me tell you that lantern is bloody heavy and your not allowed to change arms. Brilliant experience

  17. Guy permalink
    July 23, 2012

    Only the English would apologize for getting bombed. :)

  18. Miriam Delorie permalink
    March 3, 2013

    all of your posts are the most amazing thing I received! Living away from my home country it makes your pictures of days gone by, very special. A big Thank you! Miriam

  19. =Tamar permalink
    May 28, 2013

    It’s a lovely article, but there is an unfortunate typographical error. What the sentry says is not “Who’s keys?” but “Whose keys?”

  20. MikeCT permalink
    June 10, 2014

    Another group that has privileged access are students attending Christ’s Hospital. It was founded by Edward VI and anyone showing up in school uniform(Basically unchanged for 400+ years) can get free admission and a personal tour.

  21. Andy permalink
    September 29, 2014

    Surprised they let you photograph the keys. Nefarious people now know the model of key and good idea of the patterns

  22. January 26, 2015

    Great Read!

  23. September 13, 2015

    Solid article, excellent photography and implementation! Enjoyed reading this piece.

  24. Jeanne Kasten permalink
    February 26, 2016

    Fantastic. When I was a kid in the mid-1960′s (and had visited London for several weeks) we came home to the USA with a record album of sounds of London. The Ceremony of the Keys was on that album, and it quite captivated me. I love seeing these pictures and reading your description. Thank you.

  25. June 9, 2016

    PARA BENS, PELO BELISSIMO EXEMPLO DE TRADICAO, DE ARTE, DE FORTALECIMENTO DE VALORES, UMA NACAO RESPEITADA E IDOLATRADA NO MUNDO TODO, EU SOU CORONEL DA POLICIA MILITAR DO ESTADO DO CEARA , NO BRASIL, SOU SIMPLISMENTE APAIXONADO PELA MONARQUIA INGLESA, ARTES , UNIFORMES CLASSICOS, CERIMONIAIS , DA RAINHA ELIZABETHE, EM FIM TODA A FAMILIA REAL, VIVA O EXEMPLO PARA O MUNDO.

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