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Beating the Bounds at the Tower of London

June 6, 2011
by the gentle author

The Liberty of the Tower of London was once defined by the distance of an arrow’s flight from the outer walls of the Tower –  an area independent of the City of London, and free of buildings so that those inside the Tower might see approaching forces. Yet although the modern city has crept up around the ancient Tower, the markers that define this territory still exist and every three years upon Ascension Day, the Yeoman Warders emerge from the Tower in procession to beat the bounds, reminding the neighbours of their former jurisdiction.

This year, John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder led the procession, for the fourth and final time in his tenure, with majestic aplomb. Behind him came the Chaplain of the Tower, followed by a bold troupe of boy scouts brandishing willow wands, followed by the choir and master of the music, followed by the Governor of the Tower, followed by the Officers of the Tower and all the families, including the children and even grandchildren of the Yeoman Warders, also waving their willow wands. And this year, I was invited to join as the penultimate member of the procession, before Alan Kingshott, the Yeoman Gaoler who followed up behind me with a great big axe. Meanwhile Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie ran ahead to capture the event with her lens.

When I arrived on Tower Green, I was delighted to be welcomed by the residents assembling and for the first time I encountered the entire community of people for whom the Tower is their home. All the tourists had gone and the informal atmosphere was that of a village square where the all inhabitants were gathering in the golden rays of the setting sun for a shindig, and we set off in high spirits as if it was the town carnival or we were off to the choir picnic.

It was a startling moment of worlds meeting when we emerged from the West Gate of the Tower where crowds of tourists lingering by the gift shop, who could hardly believe their eyes at this sudden eruption of the medieval world into the modern city. Cameras popped right, left and centre, and we acquired an accumulating entourage of excited photographers that grew and grew, in spite of our police escort, as we traced our route around the boundary.

At each marker, John Keohane raised his silver mace with the finial in the shape of the Tower and called his instruction to “Mark Well!” in his gruff voice, and the boy scouts and children of the Tower and some members of the choir and even a few adults, including the chaplain, took it as their cue to give it a great enthusiastic thwacking with their sticks – an inexplicable source of great hilarity and satisfaction to those involved. No doubt the atmosphere would have been different if the children had been beaten upon each of the boundary stones, as was the original practice to instill the boundaries forcefully into their minds.

Yet it was not long before a reminder of the once aggressive nature of the endeavour appeared, when we confronted the party from the parish of All Hallows by the Tower who were also beating their bounds, recalling “the riotous assembly” of 1698  who “protested in most vile manners at the disputed boundary betwixt the Tower and All Hallows Parish Church.” It was a face-off – like gangs of rival football fans – with our opponents consisting of City of London worthies, a gang of schoolchildren with sticks and the Vicar of All Hallows by the Tower. It might have turned ugly and required the police escort to keep the opposing parties apart, if the conflict had not been limited to huffing and puffing. It might have ASBOs all round, because the Tower kids and the boy scouts were up for a fight, and the Yeoman Warders were brandishing some serious weaponry, but fortunately the encounter was quelled by the exchange of civilized words.

The Governor of the Tower  said, “We greet our neighbours of All Hallows and assure them that, unlike our predecessors of three hundred years ago, we come in peace.” And then a relieved Vicar replied, “We greet you in peace.” But then, just to make it clear who was the boss, the Governor of the Tower instructed them to take off their hats – oh so politely. “Before we part, may I ask the gentleman of both parties to doff their hats?” he said. There was a momentary hiatus before the party from All Hallows assented, and it made not a sliver of difference to the politics of the exchange that not even one of them wore a hat.

Then, in the manner of the fabled waters of the Red Sea, the crowd from All Hallows parted and we walked across the road to Trinity Square where one of the markers was inside the entrance of the magnificent Trinity House, indicated by brass strips set into the floor. Now we were in the City proper and commuters stopped in their tracks to wonder at our unlikely pageant that had materialized in the midst of the rush hour. “They must think that we’re mad!” whispered one of the Officers of the Tower – a distinguished gentleman in a dark suit who walked alongside me – when he saw the astonished faces of his counterparts from the City, as they hurried off towards Tower Hill tube.

If we were mad, our madness was sanctioned by the police who turned all the lights to red for our unlikely crew – of Beefeaters in red Tudor uniforms with gold braid, overexcited youths and choir singers with sticks, Officers of the Tower in suits and various family groups straggling along – permitting us all to weave our way through each of the pedestrian crossings that span the major roads converging at Tower Hill. The sun was declining in the West and the Thames was sparkling gold, as we returned to the waterfront and made a sharp right, crossing the middle drawbridge and re-entering the Tower a half hour after we left.

After one verse of the national anthem and photographs upon Tower Green, the Chaplain collected the willow wands off everyone just to make sure there was no funny business later. Then the assembly dispersed and we joined John Keohane and the boys of the Royal Eltham Scout Group for a refreshing glass of orange juice in the crypt beneath the chapel, where they store the bones of those unfortunates who were executed at Tower Hill. There, John introduced me to his wife, his daughter and his grandson, all of whom had participated in beating the bounds. It was a real family occasion.

Colonel Dick Harrald, Governor the Tower of London

Alan Kingshott, Yeoman Gaoler and John Keohane, Chief Yeoman Warder

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

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2 Responses leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011

    A lovely post, as usual.

  2. jeannette permalink
    June 8, 2011

    i love the idea that it is a small village, with its medieval boundaries held firmly in mind. the idea of a city as a pentimento, with layers of architecture, visible, and invisible. it tickles me too that the boy scouts are now entirely cosmopolitan — with girls and asians — while maintaining the smallness.
    orange juice in the crypt. indeed.

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