Thursday, 22 March 2012

Locked up

After it has closed for the day, the Tower of London looks extremely forbidding - and with good reason. It was built as a fortress to protect the monarch from hostile Londoners. Today, it doesn't have the same defensive role but the tradition of locking the gates each night continues as it has for the last 700 years. 

The ceremony of the keys begins when the Chief Yeoman Warder joins his escort of four guards - three armed, the fourth carrying his lantern. They are challenged by a sentry in the almost-unchanging words (only the name of the monarch varies):
Halt! Who comes there? (The sentry's rifle is raised menacingly.)
The keys.
Whose keys?
Queen Elizabeth's keys.
(The rifle is lowered.) Pass, Queen Elizabeth's keys. All's well. 
Guards, warder and audience proceed to the steps alongside the White Tower, where the Chief Warder cries 'God preserve Queen Elizabeth'. The guards respond 'Amen' and the Last Post is sounded. The tower is now secure for the night (or at least until a gate is opened to allow the audience back out). 

While the admission of visitors to the ceremony is a relatively recent innovation, the Tower has been welcoming daytime tourists for centuries. As the modern visitor gasps at the admission fees and queues, they might reflect that their experience is much improved from that of 'A Country Visitor', who wrote to the Times in 1851 to complain:
Few strangers leave town without paying a visit to the Tower, and every one must be struck with the incivility and want of accommodation therein. Upon entering the gates this afternoon I found some hundreds of persons, male and female, huddled together, striving to obtain tickets from a window under a portico where no two persons can pass abreast, and the scene there reminded me of what might be expected at the gallery entrance of a theatre on boxing night. After waiting just one hour we obtained our tickets and were ordered into what is called the ante or refreshment room. This room is about 12ft. by 18ft., with a counter containing ginger pop, buns, &c., immediately behind which are two waterclosets (I understand recently erected). I will not attempt to describe the stench one had to contend with, the place being completely crammed with persons waiting their turns or numbers to be called, but merely add that this room seems to be the resort of pickpockets, two ladies having been eased of their purses, containing some pounds, during the half hour I was present therein. 
This correspondent was equally unimpressed by the Yeoman Warders, who 'appear under no control, and quarrel among themselves, in language not the most refined.' I'm happy to report that their 21st-century counterparts were rather more civilised as they guided us through the ceremony!

To attend the ceremony, you need to apply in writing for tickets several months in advance. 


egoboy said...

Foundations are Roman. Big build up under Willie the C. Mention the Ravens!

HughB said...

That is fascinating! For some reason, I imagined that mass tourism, queuing, poor facilities and execrable service were a modern curse.

CarolineLD said...

Me too, Hugh, so I loved that letter! At least the toilets are no longer impinging on the refreshment room.

Indeed, egoboy, the Tower could provide a whole series of posts. Funnily enough, the ravens seem to be another Victorian innovation - maybe they deserve their own post.