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Thursday, 5 May 2016

Ascension Day and the custom of 'Beating of the Bounds'

School children beat the parish bounds
The custom of "Beating the Bounds" is to recognise the importance of the parish boundary. A tradition that has its roots in Terminalia, a May time Roman festival , which includes punishments of beatings and sacrifices to honour their boundary god Terminus.

The ritual of "Beating the Bounds" was adopted by Christianity and is traditionally held during Rogationtide, - the fifth week after Easter, which consists of Rogation Sunday and the three days following up to Ascension Day or Holy Thursday (The traditional day on which Jesus ascended to Heaven)

Boundary Rods

The Casket contains 17 rods, each numbered and with
the name of a parish, and a scroll, showing the boundaries.
The rods were used on the occassion of the beating of the
bounds on 18th July 1933 by school children, by whom
they were handed to the Prince of Wales on 13th July 1933.
The Prince signed a record of the ceremony which is also
contained in the casket now displayed at the
Weymouth  Museum.

In essence the custom involves the local inhabitants of a Manor or village perambulating their parish boundary to bless the crops, pray and at certain points, which denote the extent of the boundary (usually a gatepost, wall, tree or boundary stone) to ritually beat the certain landmark with sticks, switches and birches. However, more often or not it was the girls and boys of the parish who would have their backsides ritually tanned by birch over or up against the boundary marker.

Although these beatings were often harsh, they were considered necessary to ensure the imprinting of the exact location of the parish boundary on successive generations and thus serve to ensure any neighbouring parish did not encroach upon the boundaries.

Before the Reformation these annual processions were highly important and ceremonial affairs with Lords of the Manor, their bailiffs, reeves and stewards being present, as well as the clergy and the parish officials.

Knowing ones parish boundaries has little significance these days and therefore the importance of the custom has not surprisingly diminished over the years. Even so the Beating of the Bounds custom still continues in some places though in a much diluted form.

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of 'Beating the Bounds' on Holy Thurday (Ascension Day) in Dorset in his book 'Dorsetshire Folklore' published in 1922:-
"Beating the Bounds.—It was the general custom in olden days, and is still observed in many parishes in Dorsetshire, for certain persons to go round, or perambulate the boundaries or limits of their own particular parish in Rogation Week, or,—to be more precise,—on one of the three days before Holy Thursday or Ascension Day, though more often, I think, on Holy Thursday itself. Upon these occasions, as Brand (i, 168) tells us, " the minister, accompanied by his churchwardens and parishioners, were wont to deprecate the vengeance of God, beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish."
In Dorsetshire the last of these objects would seem to be the one principally or solely considered at the present day. This perambulation is known as "Beating the Bounds".

Before I proceed to the " perambulations" of particular parishes, I would like to produce in full the most amusing account of this interesting and useful custom contributed by William Barnes to Hone's Year Book (p. 589) as existing in Dorsetshire in his younger days. He says :—

"A Perambulation, or, as it might be more correctly called, a circumambulation, is the custom of going round the boundaries of a manor or parish, with witnesses, to determine and preserve recollection of its extent, and to see that no encroachments have been made upon it, and that the landmarks have not been taken away. It is a proceeding commonly regulated by the steward, who takes with him a few men and several boys who are required to particularly observe the boundaries traced out, and thereby qualify themselves for witnesses in the event of any dispute about the landmarks or extent of the manor at a future day. In order that they may not forget the lines and marks of separation they ' take pains y at almost every turning. For instance, if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; if a broad ditch, the boys are offered money to jump over it, in which they, of course, fail, and pitch into the mud, where they stick as firmly as if they had been rooted there for the season ; if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting that part of their bodies upon which they rest in the posture between standing and lying; if a wall, they are to have a race on the top of it, when, in trying to pass each other, they fall over on each side, some descending, perhaps, into the still stygian waters of a ditch, and others thrusting the 'human face divine ' into a bed of nettles ; if the boundary be a sunny bank, they sit down upon it and get a treat of beer and bread and cheese, and, perhaps, a glass of spirits.

When these boys grow up to be men, if it happens that one of them should be asked if a particular stream were the boundary of the manor he had perambulated, he would be sure to say, in the manner of Sancho Panza ' Ees, that 'tis, I'm sure o't, by the same token that I were tossed into't, and paddled about there lik' a water-rot till I wor hafe dead.' If he should be asked whether the aforesaid pleasant bank were ,a boundary : ' O, ees it be, ' he would say, 'that's where we squat down and tucked in a skinvull of vittles and drink.
With regard to any boundary perambulation after that he would most likely declare, ' I won't be sartin; I got zo muddled up top o' the banks, that don' know where we ambulated arter that.'"

Melcombe Regis.—The late Mr. H. J. Moule, sometime curator of the Dorset County Museum at Dorchester, and a learned writer upon the county's antiquities, in his account of the " Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Borough Records ", which he edited in 1883, gives (p. 9) several extracts from a small folio volume, chiefly of law minutes, comprising depositions taken about the middle of the seventeenth century, recording a " perambulation " of the parish of Melcombe Regis about that time, in which one of the deponents, an old woman of 82 years of age, speaks of having joined in a " Procession" round the bounds of Melcombe Regis nearly three-quarters of a century previously, and deposes to an " old elderne stubb " (stump) at Washford as having been one of the boundaries.

Radipole.—The same deponent also testified that the minister of the adjoining parish of Radipole, with his parishioners, used to go round their bounds on the same day; and at a pound on the bounds ("in the place of which pound a dairy house was sithence builded ") he read a chapter and " alsoe a psalm there to be sung ". After this the perambulation was continued, the villagers on the west side of some rails then standing and the townsmen on the east side.

West Lulworth.—There is also in the same volume (C. p. 232) a reference to still earlier depositions (Elizabethan), in which an old man gives evidence as to his having often " after he was of remembrance " gone on procession, as the custom then was, with the minister and parishioners to take " view" of the boundaries of the parish of West Lulworth. The witness describes the route, ending at Furzeymill Pitt, " where they had usuall Beere and Cake-bread."

Chideock.—A very complete account of the " perambulation " of the bounds of a parish and manor as entered in old records is that of Chideock, in West Dorset, which took place before the steward of the manor and many inhabitants of the parish. It is given by the Rev. T. Worthington in his History of Chideock, and copied by the late H. N. Cox in his account of that parish, contributed in a series of papers to the Southern Times in 1886. Mr. Cox also, like Mr. Barnes, alludes to the various steps that were sometimes taken to impress upon the memory of the boys who accompanied the perambulation the exact situation of the boundaries.

Bridport.— Although the main incidents of these several " perambulations " may have been very much the same, yet occasionally they have been varied by others of a more interesting or amusing character. A modern instance of the latter, fortunately attended by no serious result, occurred on the occasion of "beating the bounds " of the borough of Bridport in 1891, which was reported in several West Country papers. The following account, taken from the Bath Daily Chronicle of 24th October, 1891, appears in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for December, 1891 (vol. ii, p. 305) :—
"The historic function of walking the boundaries of the Borough of Bridport by the Mayor and Corporation and the principal inhabitants was the occasion of an amusing contretemps. In the course of the perambulation the city fathers came to a large millpond, which marked the boundary of the town. It was necessary to the performance of the ceremony that the pond should be crossed, and the Mayor, the Borough Surveyor, and another embarked on a large raft, on which they were to be towed across. They had not been long afloat when the raft was submerged by their weight, and the trio were standing up to their knees in water. When half-way over, to make matters worse, the rope became entangled, and, amid the laughter of the townspeople, the Mayor toppled over into the pond, and his two fellow-citizens were also precipitated into the water. They quickly regained the raft, but were as quickly thrown again into the muddy pool. The Mayor promptly described the boundary by swimming ashore, and his example was followed by one of his companions, but the Borough Surveyor remained alone on the raft, and was eventually towed to land completely drenched."
Marnhull.—The Rev. Canon Mayo publishes in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (vol. xv, pp. 19-21 and 29-31), 1917, a long account of a perambulation held for the Manor of Marnhull on 7th and 8th June, 1808, and made by the then Lord of the Manor, John Hussey, Esq., his steward, and the principal inhabitants of the parish. A copy had been furnished to the Dorset editor of that periodical of the perambulation contained in a MS. book of Rentals and Quit Rents relating to the Manor.

As Canon Mayo says : "It has a value as being a record of local boundaries, and illustrates a custom which at one time was universal in our county."

"Bound Stone" which marks the
northern boundary of the Royal Manor
of Portland. Every seven years, on
Ascension Day the Islanders re-establish
their boundaries by ceremoniously beating
two senior pupils from the Royal Manor School with
the Reeve Staff; which was once used in the
collection of the islanders rent. The last occasion on
which this ceremony was Ascension Day May 21st 2009.
Wyke Regis.— The Bound Stone.—The following account of the annual visit paid by Portlanders to "The Bound Stone" on the Chesil Beach at the Fleet appeared in the Bridport News in May, 1893, under the heading of " Wyke Regis : The Bound Stone " :—
"The Portlanders seem determined to keep up their rights, which they annually maintain by an official visit to the well-known ' bound stone ' on the Chesil Beach. Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, is, as by custom, the day on which the ceremony takes place. This year the number attending seems to have been augmented for some reason or other ; perhaps the fact of a new stone being used added importance to the affair. Be that as it may, there were many visitors, both by sea and land.

"It is said the rights of the Portlanders extend to the new bound stone opposite Fleet, but the public would like to be enlightened as to the nature of those rights. There is one right at all events which does not extend beyond the Portland side of the stone, that is, we are informed that the lord of the manor of Abbotsbury, or rather the Earl of Ilchester, does not interfere with or claim the foreshore. Not that such a right would be of any use whatever, seeing the difficulty of telling where it is. The shingle shifts with the weather, and with it the foreshore, if ever such existed except in fertile imagination."

Extract taken from the Chambers Book of Days May 2nd 1864, details the traditions of Beating the Bounds.

The ancient custom of perambulating parishes in Rogation week had a two-fold object. It was designed to supplicate the Divine blessing on the fruits of the earth; and to preserve in all classes of the community a correct knowledge of, and due respect for, the bounds of parochial and individual property. It appears to have been derived from a still older custom among the ancient Romans, called Terminalia, and Ambarvalia, which were festivals in honour of the god Terminus and the goddess Ceres. On becoming a Christian custom the heathen rites and ceremonies were of course discarded, and those of Christianity substituted. It was appointed to be observed on one of the Rogation days which were the three days next before Ascension Day. These days were so called from having been appropriated in the fifth century by Mamercus, Bishop of Vienna, to special prayer and fasting on account of the frequent earthquakes which had destroyed, or greatly injured vegetation.
Beating the Bounds in London
Before the Reformation parochial perambulations were conducted with great ceremony. The lord of the manor, with a large banner, priests in surplices and with crosses, and other persons with hand-bells, banners and staves, followed by most of the parishioners, walked in procession round the parish, stopping at crosses, forming crosses on the ground, 'saying or singing gospels to the corn,' and allowing 'drinkings and good cheer; 'which was remarkable, as the Rogation days were appointed fasts. From the different practices observed on the occasion the custom received the various names of processioning, rogationing, perambulating, and ganging the boundaries; and the week in which it was observed was called Rogation week; Cross week, because crosses were borne in the processions; and Grass week, because the Rogation days being fasts, vegetables formed the chief portion of diet.

At the Reformation, the ceremonies and practices deemed objectionable were abolished, and only 'the useful and harmless part of the custom retained. 'Yet its observance was considered so desirable, that a homily was prepared for the occasion; and injunctions were issued requiring that for 'the perambulation of the circuits of parishes, the people should once in the year, at the time accustomed, with the rector, vicar, or curate, and the substantial men of the parish, walk about the parishes, as they were accustomed, and at their return to the church make their common prayer. And the curate, in their said common perambulations, was at certain convenient places to admonish the people to give thanks to God (while beholding of his benefits), and for the increase and abundance of his fruits upon the face of the earth, with the saying of the 103rd Psalm. At which time also the said minister was required to inculcate these, or such like sentences, Cursed be he which translateth the bounds and doles of his neighbour; or such other order of prayers as should be lawfully appointed.'

In strict accordance with these directions, we find that 'the judicious Richard Hooker,' who is allowed by all parties to be a faithful exemplar of a true English Churchman, duly observed the custom of perambulation. 'He would by no means,' says his biographer, 'omit the customary time of procession, persuading all, both rich and poor, if they desired the preservation of love, and their parish rights and liberties, to accompany him in his perambulation, and most did so; in which perambulation he would usually express more pleasant discourse than at other times, and would then always drop some loving and facetious observations to be remembered against the next year, especially by the boys and young people; still inclining them and all his present parishioners to meekness, and mutual kindnesses, and love; because love thinks not evil, but covers a multitude of infirmities.'

Those engaged in the processions usually had refreshments provided for them at certain parts of the parish, which, from the extent of the circuit of some parishes, was necessary; yet the cost of such refreshment was not to be defrayed by the parish, nor could such refreshment be claimed as a custom from any particular house or family. But small annuities were often bequeathed to provide such refreshments. In the parish of Edgcott, Buckinghamshire, there was about an acre of land, let at £3 a year, called 'Gang Monday Land,' which was left to the parish officers to provide cakes and beer for those who took part in the annual perambulation of the parish. At Clifton Reynes, in the same county, a bequest of land for a similar purpose directs that 'one small loaf, a piece of cheese, and a pint of ale, should be given to every married person, and half a pint of ale to every unmarried person, resident in Clifton, when they walked the parish boundaries in Rogation week.' A certain estate in Husborne Crawley, Bedfordshire, has to pay £4 on Rogation Day, once in seven years, to defray the expense of perambulating, and keeping up the boundaries of the parish.

Although perambulations were not to be at the cost of parishes, yet they were justified in maintaining the ancient circuit, though opposed by the owners of property over which they proceeded. Burns cites an instance in which this case was tried against the parishioners of Rudham, who, in their perambulation, had broken down two gates and a fence; and the court decided in favour of the parishioners, stating: 'parishioners may well justify the going over any man's land in the perambulation, according to their usage, and abate all nuisances in their way.'

This necessity or determination to perambulate along the old track often occasioned curious incidents. If a canal had been cut through the boundary of a parish, it was deemed necessary that some of the parishioners should pass through the water. Where a river formed part of the boundary line, the procession either passed along it in boats, or some of the party stripped and swam along it, or boys were thrown into it at customary places. If a house had been erected on the boundary line, the procession claimed the right to pass through it. A house in Buckinghamshire, still existing, has an oven only passing over the boundary line. It was customary in the perambulations to put a boy into this recess to preserve the integrity of the boundary line.

It was considered a good joke by the village lads, who, therefore, became ambitious of the honour, and, as they approached the house, generally settled by lot who should be the hero for the year. On one occasion, as the procession entered the house, they found the mistress just about to bake, and the oven full of blazing fagots. The boys, on seeing the flame issuing from the oven-mouth, exclaimed Tom Smith is the boy to go into the oven!' Poor Tom, expecting to be baked alive, uttered a fearful scream, and ran off home as fast as his legs could carry him. Another boy was made to scramble over the roof of the oven, and the boundary right was thus deemed sufficiently maintained.

A more ludicrous scene occurred in London about the beginning of the present century. As the procession of churchwardens, parish officers, etc., followed by a concourse of cads, were perambulating the parish of St. George's, Hanover-square, they came to the part of a street where a nobleman' s coach was standing just across the boundary line. The carriage was empty, waiting for the owner, who was in the opposite house. The principal churchwarden, therefore, himself a nobleman, desired the coachman to drive out of their way. 'I won't!' said the sturdy coachman; 'my lord told me to wait here, and here I'll wait, till his lordship tells me to move!' The churchwarden coolly opened the carriage door, entered it, passed out through the opposite door, and was followed by the whole procession, cads, sweeps, and scavengers.

The last perambulation I witnessed was in 1818, at a small village in Derbyshire. It was of rather a degenerate character. There was no clergyman present, nor anything of a religious nature in the proceedings. The very name processioning had been transmuted (and not inaptly) into possessioning. The constable, with a few labourers, and a crowd of boys, constituted the procession, if such an irregular company could be so called. An axe, a mattock, and an iron crow, were carried by the labourers, for the purpose of demolishing any building or fence which had been raised without permission on the 'waste ground,' or for which the 'acknowledgment' to the lord of the manor had not been paid. At a small hamlet, rejoicing in the name of 'Wicked Nook,' some unfortunate rustic had unduly built a pig-sty. Poor grunty was turned adrift, and his luckless shed levelled to the ground. A new cottage, or mud hut, not much better than the pig's shed, was allowed to remain, on the cottager' s wife proffering the 'acknowledgment.' At various parts of the parish boundaries, two or three of the village boys were 'bumped' —that is, a certain part of the person was swung against a stone wall, a tree, a post, or any other hard object which happened to be near the parish boundary. This, it will scarcely be doubted, was an effectual method of recording the boundaries in the memory of these battering-rams, and of those who witnessed this curious mode of registration.

The custom of perambulating parishes continued in some parts of the kingdom to a late period, but the religious portion of it was generally, if not universally, omitted. The custom has, however, of late years been revived in its integrity in many parishes, and certainly such a perambulation among the bounties of creation affords a Christian minister a most favourable opportunity for awakening in his parishioners a due sense of gratitude towards Him who maketh the 'sun to shine, and the rains to descend upon the earth, so that it may bring forth its fruit in due season.' 

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