Beating the Bounds

This page last updated: 21 August, 2013 08:44:05

"What is 'Beating the Bounds'?"

blessing the walkers before setting off in Stony StratfordThe word 'Bounds' in this context means Parish Boundaries and Beating the Bounds refers to an ancient custom, still observed in a few parishes in England and Wales, where the young and old of the Parish walk the boundaries. Historically led by the parish priest and church officials, the purpose was so that the older parishioners can show the younger parishioners the knowledge of the extent of the Parish and where the boundaries lay. It also served as a vehicle for parishioners to pray for the protection of the fields and land and to bless the land to ensure fertility.

"A Little Bit of Old England" Video - courtesy of British Pathé

"When does 'Beating the Bounds' take place?"

The perambulation of the parish boundaries usually takes place on Ascension Day or during Rogation week.

In Eastry, 2010, it took place on 10th October.

"Beating the Bounds" video, Oxford, 2008.

The History

Beating the Bounds in Llantrisant - 1960

The practice is very old indeed and is certainly mentioned in the ancient laws of king Alfred the Great and Athelstan. It has been suggested that the practice comes from the Roman festival in honour of the god of landmarks; Terminus; whose festival on 22nd February was celebrated with wine and cake and dancing at the boundaries.

In Henry VIII's reign the occasions became almost out of hand in the extent of their revelry to the point where one preacher declared "...these solemne and accustomable processions and supplications have nowe growen into a right foule and detestable abuse..."

Knowledge of the limits of the parish were handed down to the young parishioners so that matters of parishioners to contribute to the repair of the church and burial rights were not disputed in the ecclesiastical courts.

The Parish Priest, Churchwardens and other church officials headed a crowd of young boys who carried green boughs of Birch or Willow and then beat the parish boundary stones or markers with them. The other, somewhat more violent practice, was to beat the boys themselves at the site of each marker or even bumped on the marker stones. The aim of this was to apparently ensure the boys remembered where the stones were!

The reason for taking boys (often choir-boys) was to ensure longevity of the knowledge. Often en-route Psalms were recited; usually Psalms 103 and 104 and to add a little more 'fire and brimstone' into the mix the Priest would proclaim "...cursed is he who transgresseth the bounds or doles of his neighbour..."

Copies of the Beating of the Bounds, Eastry; kindly supplied by Michael Kinns and Jack Bones:



The Beating of the Bounds Today

Although it is true that satellite imagery and modern surveying techniques for map-making make the practice of the past somewhat obsolete; at least for its non-religious aspects; it still has a place in strengthening the bonds within the community and give members of the Parish a sense of place.

In Bodmin a Cornish hurling match is held immediately after the event; albeit that this only occurs every 5 years; at which the mayor throws a silver ball into a body of water known as the Salting Pool.

We have also "exported" the ceremony to New Hampshire in the USA.

We hope you too will join us when we "Beat the Bounds"!

Bounds of Eastry in History

Some of you may be familiar with Shaw's "Memorials of Eastry", 1870, in which it described the Bounds of Eastry in 1356 and a dispute about Tithe payments.

In the Parish Council's pamphlet "Beating the Bounds" dated 6th October 2002 to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee the first page stated: "...the first record of 'Going The Bounds of Eastry' dates from 1356, when a long dispute with St Mary's of Sandwich about the tithes of 'Putticks Down' was just beginning..."

In Canterbury cathedral's archives a document dated 1357 had the following description:

“From: Simon Islip, archbishop of Canterbury Exemplification of a definitive sentence issued by Mgr John Severleye, auditor of causes in the archbishop's court and commissary, in Mayfield on 16 Jan 1357, in a tithe case between Robert Hathbrande, prior of Canterbury Cathedral Priory, and the chapter of Canterbury Cathedral Priory and William de Cusyngton', rector of Eastry, plaintiffs ('pars actrix'), and Richard of Mongeham, vicar of St Mary's Sandwich, defendant ('pars rea').

The priory and William claim a moiety of tithes of corn in Eastry parish, especially from the land of John Terry in a field called 'Pottakesdone' and the priory has appropriated them to the use of its almonry. The plaintiffs claim that Richard unjustly took these tithes in 1355. He denies the charge and alleges that the tithes belong to St Mary's, Sandwich, and have been granted to him as part of his portion.” 

The document recites the full processus from the beginning of the case on 23 May 1356. This includes evidence of several witnesses (names and ages given) on behalf of the plaintiffs. Richard Cook of Eastry, aged 35, gives a detailed description of the boundaries of Eastry parish (many field names and other minor place names given).

The judge finds in favour of the plaintiffs and orders Richard to restore the tithes as specified which he took from John Terry's lands in 1355 and pay the plaintiffs' costs.

There is also a notarial attestation and signature of Richard Wodeland of Pynham ('Calceto'), clerk, of Chichester diocese, notary public, who wrote the document. The document is sealed with the seal of Simon Islip, archbishop of Canterbury. 

As the manor of Eastry belonged to Canterbury Cathedral Priory, there may be other relevant material at the Cathedral Archives. Other entries in the Cathedral Archives online catalogue also show that that there is an almoner's cartulary at the Bodleian Library (Bodleian Library MS. Tanner 18: Cartulary of William Molash as almoner of Christ Church Cathedral Priory, Canterbury, in 1419).

© 2013 Eastry Parish Council. Reproduction of any narrative or illustrations either in part or as a whole is strictly forbidden without permission.