By William Mills
“Halt! Who goes ahead? Stand and be recognised.” Screamed the Yeoman of the Guard, rifle levelled, bayonet gleaming.
“The Queen’s Keys!” Came the reply.
“Proceed friend.” Said the Guard slamming his rifle back to his shoulder.
The Ceremony of the Keys
The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London has taken place every night at 10 pm for the last 700 hundred years, except on two occasions. Once during the WWII Blitz and the other more recently. London’s biggest attraction with two and a half million tourists each year has a very different night time role as Royal Fortress.
The White Tower
The White Tower first built on Roman remains in 1066 by William the Conqueror is the centre piece of this huge complex. Once host to more than a thousand people now some 190 Yeoman Warders and their families call it their home. Each Yeoman served 22 years in the Armed Forces, reached the rank of Sergeant Major and received the Good Conduct Medal before being able to apply for the job which comes with one of the medieval houses that circle the original Tower. A third line of defences complete Britain’s most famous of jails.
The Tower was used as royal residence, garrison and armoury. It still houses the Crown Jewels. It is also the State’s most formidable prison. Only 31 prisoners out of the 3,000 or more held, ever escaped.
A plague marks the spot where Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and mother of Queen Elizabeth I lost her head in 1536. During WWII 1939-45, captured German spies were shot against the Tower’s courtyard wall.
Traitors’ Gate is where prisoners charged with treason were landed by boat from the River Thames. Among them, it is recorded, were six women, and only Elizabeth Tudor left the Tower alive. Later as Elizabeth I it is said she never returned to visit her gruesome prison.
Castle Baynard Ward Club
The winter chill was suddenly replaced with the warmth and hospitality of the Yeomans’ Club bar. An excellent hot meal was provided for the visiting members of Castle Baynard Ward Club . There used to be seventeen pubs within the Tower grounds and more than 500 street traders hawked from their stalls in the outer driveways. Originally they worked from sunrise to sunset but because lack of winter daylight restricted their hours the Tower was locked at the same time all year around, the Keys’ Ceremony heralding night time. Indeed, once again outside for the Ceremony we suddenly noticed that the Yeoman of the Guard in his traditional garments was being escorted by real soldiers dressed in army khaki carrying modern rifles tipped with glistening steel. The Tower is locked and as the Officer passes the keys to the Constable of the Tower, a bugler sounds the Last Post.
The Last Post
Now the Tower reverts to its traditional role as keeper of the Crown Jewels and Royal Fortress with armed guards patrolling its walls as in days of old.
My party was let out past three walkways. When finally we had passed the moat, I exclaimed; “Free at last! We escaped!”
“No.” Replied the warder at the very last set of iron railings. “We are letting you out. That’s different.”