The Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment see behind the scenes of one of the most infamous Royal Palaces.
The social committee of the Band of the RAF Regiment organised a trip to the Tower of London for 14 February 2020. It was an opportunity for Band members and their loved ones to have a bespoke tour of the Tower and attend the Ceremony of the Keys. It was all made possible by one of our very own: Flight Sergeant Barry Stringer MBE, who, after a 33-year career with Royal Air Force Music Services, became a Yeoman Warder at the Tower. More commonly known as Beefeaters, Yeoman Warders are renowned for their quick wit and robust management of tourists, as well as their easily identifiable uniforms. We were very lucky to have Yeoman Warder Stringer as our chaperone and he was more than happy to volunteer to look after us for the evening.
It may not be a traditional Valentine’s Day activity but Yeoman Warder Stringer’s enthusiasm for the history of the Tower made for a fantastic and enjoyable evening. Whilst explaining the history of the various buildings within the Tower’s grounds, and what they were used for, he kept us on our toes with several quips. As the tour proceeded under the first portcullis, we were advised to walk quickly as the rope holding up the one and a half tonnes of steel was the original rope from the 1800s!
Some interesting facts about the Tower included a story about its first prisoner, Ranulf Flambard the Bishop of Durham. He was found guilty of extortion and imprisoned in the White Tower in the year 1100. Whilst there, he often requested wine which was delivered to him in large kegs bound with rope. He would share the wine with his guarding Yeomen and after being more hospitable and gaining their trust, he utilised the ropes to escape from the Tower. Of the 3500 prisoners in the Tower's history, one in ten were executed and 81 escaped. Statistically, that makes this one of the worst functioning prisons!
We were reminded throughout the tour that the Tower was not just a prison, but a Royal Palace built by William the Conqueror. Several extensions were added over the years including a moat, several gates, portcullises and other various means of defence. Now it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in London and listed as a World Heritage Site, cared for by the Historic Royal Palaces Charity.
A highlight of the tour was the Royal Chapel. Still a place of worship today, it is a beautiful building with lots of history. Amongst those buried there are two of King Henry VIII’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, as well as his principal advisor Thomas Cromwell.
After the tour, we were privileged to be welcomed into The Keys, the Yeoman Warders Club. One of the most exclusive places in London, it admits fewer than 40 people a night! After a quick beverage, at approximately 21:45, we headed outside to watch the Ceremony of the Keys.
The Ceremony of the Keys happens every evening and dates back more than 700 years. It involves the Chief Warder, together with a foot-guard escort, locking up the Tower gates at night. The Escort Party marches down Water Lane...
Upon reaching the Bloody Tower archway, a sentry calls out the challenge: “Halt, who goes there?” The Chief Warder replies simply, “The keys.” The Sentry responds, “Whose keys?” The Chief Warder returns with, “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.” On hearing this, the Sentry demands, “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well,” and lets them through. The Escort Party then marches to the foot of Broadwalk Steps where the Tower Guard meets them. As they halt, the Guard and Escort both present arms and the Chief Warder cries, “God preserve Queen Elizabeth,” to which the Guard answers “Amen!” at precisely 22:00.
The Last Post is sounded, the Guard dismissed, and the keys are taken back to the Queen’s House. It was an interesting spectacle and the urge to shout, “Whose keys?” was almost unbearable!
The evening was an incredible experience and being able to share it with loved ones made it even more memorable. If you get the chance to visit the Tower do look out for Yeoman Warder Stringer!
If you would like any further information, please visit the Tower of London page.
Written by Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bujok
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