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The Oldest Ceremony in the World

September 3, 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!”

Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne

You may also like to read about

John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London

Beating the Bounds 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.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. September 3, 2011

    I lo’ve it that these old traditions are maintained. Just because they’re picuresque doesn’t mean that their symbolism isn’t also meaningful. In Ripon, the Watchman blows his horn in the Market Square at 9.00 p.m. every evening, as has been done nightly for over 1000 years, to assure the citizens they’re protected and safe during the hours of darkness. He knocks off duty after that in favour of the police these days, but still…..

  2. September 3, 2011

    Thank you for the glimpse into these wonderful medieval traditions. It’s quite fascinating. The unbroken chain of hundreds of years of practice is truly remarkable.

  3. September 7, 2011

    Wonderful pictures, back in the 1980’s I catered a New Years Eve party for the Yeoman Warders in their social club with my Potato Cart. To be in the Tower on the stroke of midnight as the year turned was a magical moment. We then had a baked potato fight!

  4. Robin permalink
    February 8, 2012

    You are so fortunate to live in a country drenched in tangible history,and tradition.I honesty think that I would never sleep;I would be on a constant brain whirl of where to explore next!
    America is nice enough,but England definitely has better toys.

  5. April 25, 2012

    What a wondrous spell woven for, and of, Spitalfields.

    Life abounds, we capture some of its flickering in verse and image.

    See, you have moved me to some lyricism after I stumbled on an article about your blog in the Guardian Weekly. This is first Spitalfieds blog entry I have read. Photos are lovely too.

    Well done, thanks.


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