The Ceremony of Keys
The Traditions of the Tower
The Tower of London is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Site and one of the city’s most enduring landmarks, with its buildings and grounds evolving in purpose through the years. It has served as a royal palace, prison and place of execution, arsenal, animal menagerie, public records office, and of course, at one time, the home of The Royal Mint. And as you might expect of a fortress with almost 1,000 years of history within its walls, the Tower of London has some fascinating traditions, many of which are practised to this day.
The Ceremony of the Keys
The final coin in our Tower of London four-coin series celebrates the centuries-old Ceremony of the Keys. It all started when King Edward III arrived unannounced one night in 1340 and was furious to find the castle unguarded. The Constable of the Tower at the time, Edward de la Beche, was imprisoned for the oversight and the King ordered that from then on the Tower gates would be formally locked at dusk every night. This ritual has continued every night for nearly seven centuries, with only one rare disruption during the Second World War when a bomb fell on the Tower, knocking the Chief off his feet. Once he’d dusted himself off, the ceremony continued as planned, if a little behind schedule! There are several steps to the Ceremony of the Keys, which begins at exactly seven minutes to ten at night. The Chief Yeoman Warder emerges from the Byward Tower holding a lantern in one hand and The Queen’s Keys in the other. He is then escorted from gate to gate by soldiers from the military garrison. As they approach the final archway of the Bloody Tower, a sentry cries:
“Halt! Who comes there?”
“The Keys” replies the Chief Yeoman Warder.
“Queen Elizabeth’s Keys”
“Pass then, all’s well.”
At the end of the ceremony, the Chief Yeoman Warder lifts his Tudor bonnet in the air and proclaims, “God preserve Queen Elizabeth”. The whole guard reply “Amen” and the clock chimes ten o’clock as ‘The Last Post’ is played on the bugle. The Chief Yeoman Warder returns the keys to The Queen’s House, home of the resident Governor, and the Tower is once again secured for the night.
The Ceremony of the Keys 2019 UK £5 Coin puts the spotlight on the symbolic lantern and keys, which is part of a larger image that forms when all four coins in the collection are placed together. You can uncover more of the fascinating stories and history of the Tower of London by collecting all four coins, available to buy here.
Beating the Bounds
This ancient custom is still carried out in many English parishes today and started out as a way of establishing the boundaries of an area, long before ordnance survey maps. Every three years on Ascension Day, the boundary marker stones are beaten with willow wands and prayers for protection and blessings of the lands are made. With its prime location, the area around the Tower has been in dispute with the City of London for centuries, making this ritual a vital part of asserting the Tower of London’s authority.
On special days, such as the Trooping the Colour or the arrival of a new royal baby, you will find ceremonial guns being pushed out onto Tower Wharf to celebrate the occasion. Although the standard salute is 21 rounds, the Tower of London’s status as a royal palace and position in the City of London increases the total to 62 rounds, which are fired during ten very loud minutes! The pomp and ceremony of the royal gun salute at the Tower of London can be traced back to Henry VIII, who first ordered the spectacle for the coronation of Anne Boleyn in 1533.
The Constable’s Dues
Ever since the first Constable of the Tower of London was appointed in 1078, the most senior role at the fortress has remained highly prestigious and not without its perks. And while the Constable may no longer be entitled to fallen oxen from the River Thames or a portion of each passing ship’s cargo, tribute is still paid in the form of a barrel of wine or rum whenever a Royal Navy vessel moors at Tower Wharf. In an elaborate presentation ceremony that sees the Ship’s Company challenged by the Yeoman Gaoler and his infamous axe at the gate of the Tower, the barrel is eventually accepted, opened and enjoyed by the Constable and his invited guests in the New Armouries Banqueting Suite.