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Events | Lore & Legend | Rather Interesting | Cultural Britain

Beating the Tower Boundaries, London

Beating the boundaries is a tradition that has survived in many places up and down the country. It is said that the custom dates back to religious processions in France in the 8th century, giving thanks for deliverance from various dangers, church members parading around their locale while bearing crosses and other religious symbols. As maps were generally non-existent, or very sketchy, these perambulations also performed a useful service: they set the boundaries of the parish in people's minds and thus avoided, or eased the resolution of, boundary disputes. And for the clergy, whose living came from tithes on those inside the boundaries, this was doubly important.
There was a rather cruel side to the events: at specific points marking the boundary line children would be beaten, thumped, dropped in ditches and ponds, and otherwise treated in a manner that would have the authorities today sending in a social services hit-squad. The point of this abuse was that it would fix marker points in young minds for decades to come, preparing witnesses for any future court cases related to boundaries. At the end of the procession the children would be recompensed with gifts of cakes and other edibles.
At the Tower of London the Ascension Day event was for rather different reasons: the boundaries of the Tower were beyond it, the empty Tower Hill land facilitating the defence of the fortress should the need arise - empty space offers no cover to attackers. Three or more centuries ago the Tower authorities did have a serious dispute with the clergy in the neighbouring church All-Hallows-by-the-Tower, and the dispute indeed turned nasty.
These days it is only necessary to beat the bounds of the Tower every three years - 2011, 2014, and 2017 and so on are the next occasions.
This being the Tower the pomp and ceremony is significant. A service at six in the evening at the Royal Chapel in the Tower, St Peter ad Vincula, precedes the procession. Choirboys are given willow wands; the Chief Yeoman Warder carries the Mace at the head of the line, the Yeoman Gaoler has his axe at the ready (you never know if those dangerous types at the church next door might get uppity); and they and the Beefeaters and others wear full state dress uniform.
Thirty-one markers are visited, the majority of them beaten by all the choirboys armed with their willow sticks; but today one marker in a busy road is marked by being indicated and acclaimed; and those with narrow access are beaten by two boys only.
Having exited the Tower by the West Gate, the procession re-enters by the East, and after a verse of the National Anthem, duty done for another three years the procession ends.

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