Anglo-Saxon Perambulations, What are They?

What was an Anglo-Saxon Perambulation and how were they used? The observance of boundaries has had a vital social and spiritual importance since ancient times.

These ancient traditions influenced the development of Anglo-Saxon perambulation which was one way in which the boundaries of a parish – and the uses of the land within a parish – were remembered and passed down through the generations.

The influence of Roman Boundary rituals

The sacred importance of observing boundaries goes back to the Romans and the Celts. In Roman culture, meanwhile, the god Terminus was considered a powerful deity.

He was believed to guard boundaries and was honoured by boundary stones which were erected in his honour. A farmer who ploughed over a “terminus” marker was considered to have committed sacrilege and would, the Harvard historian of landscape John Stilgoe tells us, be “immolated along with his team”.

boundary maker

The observance of property boundaries was apparently a very serious business in ancient Rome. Another Roman custom which informed Anglo-Saxon perambulation was the robigalia.

Read More: The Forgotten Roman Roads

Once a year, citizens of Rome would march to a grove five miles outside their city where they would beseech the god Robigus to spare their crops from disease. These two aspects of Roman ritual, the memorialisation of boundary lines and prayer for healthy crops, can both be seen in the Anglo-Saxon perambulation which is described below.


Perambulations were walks in which the boundaries of a parish were walked by members of the community. They were an important part of Anglo-Saxon society because remembering where the boundaries were meant that they continued to be observed and protected against encroachment and trespass.

ancient tree
Trees were used as boundary markers Credit: Jeremy Bolwell

These customary walks also unified the community, were an occasion for charity, and often included prayer and religious observance.

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Perambulation was how the lay of the land was understood and recorded before maps were widely available or accurate enough to record boundaries of parishes or uses of land. Some were traditional and passed by word of mouth, but perambulation also had a role in legal documents.

Anglo-Saxon Charters: Documenting Land and Boundaries

Before maps were widely used and available, legal records included written accounts of boundary walks or perambulations. Perambulations played a crucial role in Anglo-Saxon charters, the legal documents used to record land transactions, grants, and boundaries.

WW2 jeeps down a track

These charters often included detailed descriptions of the boundaries of the land being transferred or granted. Perambulations were commonly employed to establish and confirm these boundaries. Perambulations were used to physically define the boundaries of the land described in the charter.

Read More: What Are The Anglo-Saxon Charters?

The charter would describe the starting point of the perambulation, using a landmark or a natural feature to pinpoint the location. They would then describe the route that was followed by the walkers to mark the boundaries of the piece of land in question.

This ensured that all parties involved had a clear understanding of the extent and limits of the land being transferred. During the perambulation, specific boundary markers or physical features would be identified and described in writing within the charter.

boundary marker
In 1716 the Lord of the Manor of Gisborough, Edward Chaloner, ‘perambulated’ around the boundaries of his manor. This annual custom was carried out throughout the country often on Ascension Day and is often known as Beating the bounds. Before the days of modern surveying, it was an important way of reinforcing the parish boundaries. The Guisborough one is recorded as the ‘Boundary Perambulation 1716‘. Credit: Mick Garratt


These markers could be natural, such as rivers, hills, or trees, or man-made, such as ditches or fences. The charter would provide detailed descriptions of these markers and their locations. These detailed descriptions meant that the same route could be followed in the future, by following the detailed descriptions and identifying the landmarks used.

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Perambulations in charters were witnessed by multiple individuals, who walked the boundaries together and attested to their accuracy. These witnesses were often local officials, landowners, or respected members of the community.

Participants might take oaths during the perambulation, affirming their agreement and commitment to the boundaries and the terms of the charter.

stream in the highlands
Credit: Trevor Harris

The perambulation described in the charter was a legal record and provided evidence that the boundaries had been agreed upon by the parties involved. This could be referenced in the event of future disputes or legal proceedings. Charters created a reference point for maintaining and understanding the boundaries of the land.

Read More: Horses in Early Anglo-Saxon England

This helped to prevent encroachments, disputes, or confusion over the land’s limits. These detailed descriptions provided a reliable framework for land tenure and ownership.

Rogationtide processions and perambulation: Blessing the Land

Like the Roman traditions of marking boundaries, perambulation also had a religious or spiritual dimension. Perambulations played a significant role in Rogationtide celebrations, a Christian festival of the boundary, during the Anglo-Saxon era.

“Rogare” is Latin and means “to beseech”. Rogationtide, also known as Rogation Week, was a Christian observance that took place in late spring, on the three days preceding Ascension Day. It was a time of prayer, processions, and perambulations to bless the fields, crops, and boundaries.

Beating the bounds
Beating the bounds

Perambulations during Rogationtide were intended to bless the land and crops, seeking divine protection and abundance. This is reminiscent of the Roman practice of robigalia, in which the god Robigus was asked to bless the crops. The community, led by members of the clergy, would walk in procession around the boundaries of the parish.

Read More: Beating The Bounds a 2000-Year-Old Custom

They would pause at specific points and landmarks to offer prayers, blessings, and hymns. These perambulations were seen as a way to invoke God’s favour and ensure a fruitful harvest.


The perambulations were believed to have a protective and purifying effect on the land. As the community walked the boundaries, they would recite prayers and psalms, invoking God’s blessings and cleansing power. The procession was seen as a way to ward off evil spirits, pests, and other harmful influences, ensuring the fertility and well-being of the fields.

Landmarks used in these Rogationtide perambulations often included trees which were called Holy Trees or Gospel Trees because that was where the procession paused to hear readings from the bible. This practice gave us the place name Gospel Oak.

Woodbanks are a firm and ancient feature in our landscape. Credit: Stefan Czapski

Like the perambulations in the charters, rogationtide perambulations also served to mark and reaffirm the boundaries of the parish. Participants would walk along the edges of the land, often carrying crosses, banners, or religious symbols, to physically demarcate the limits.

Read More: Hides and Hundreds: Decoding the Domesday Book 

This practice aimed to reinforce the connection between the community and the land while ensuring a sense of order and unity within the boundaries. In addition to the religious and agricultural significance, Rogationtide perambulations had legal and social implications.

The perambulations helped to establish and reinforce the boundaries of the parish or community, serving as a reference point for future land disputes or property rights.


They also provided an opportunity for people to interact, resolve conflicts, and strengthen social bonds within the community. Rogationtide perambulations were highly participatory, involving the entire community. It was considered very important that the oldest members of the community participated alongside the young.

Credit: Humphrey Bolton

This meant that the knowledge of the boundaries was passed down through the generations. People from different social classes and backgrounds would come together to walk the boundaries. These processions were often an occasion of charity, in which those who were able would provide hospitality to their neighbours or make charitable gifts.

This practice created a sense of unity, shared responsibility, and communal identity. It was an occasion for people to gather, pray, and celebrate their connection to the land and each other.

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Rogationtide perambulations in Anglo-Saxon society combined religious devotion, agricultural rituals, and community cohesion. The practice emphasized the sacredness of the land, sought divine blessings, and fostered a sense of communal identity and responsibility.

While the specific details of Rogationtide perambulations may have varied across from region to region, the underlying purpose of seeking spiritual and physical well-being through the act of walking the boundaries remained consistent.

Tracing Routes and Locations Today: Uncovering the Past

anglo-saxon charters
anglo-saxon charters

Tracing specific Anglo-Saxon perambulations today can present challenges because only sparse documentary evidence has survived. However, there are instances where routes or areas where perambulations took place can still be identified or inferred by looking to historical and archaeological evidence.

1. Boundary Markers: In some cases, boundary markers or stones associated with Anglo-Saxon perambulations have survived. These markers, often inscribed with symbols, names, or dates, provide valuable clues about the extent of the boundaries and the routes taken during perambulations.

2. Landscape Features: The Anglo-Saxons were known to incorporate natural features, such as rivers, hills, or ancient trees, as markers during perambulations.

By studying the landscape, researchers can sometimes identify features that may have played a role in defining boundaries and reconstruct possible perambulation routes.

Often, as the historian Oliver Rackham has noted, these are less changed than we might expect both because notable natural features such as waterways are likely to persist, and because the edges of a parish (where perambulations took place) are less subject to change as more populated areas.

stream in the highlands
Credit: Trevor Harris

3. Historical Documents: While written records specific to Anglo-Saxon perambulations are scarce, general references to boundaries and land disputes can be found in charters, land grants, and legal documents.

By piecing together these scattered references, historians can gain insights into the areas where perambulations may have taken place.

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4. Local Folklore and Traditions: In some regions, local folklore and traditions may still retain traces of ancient perambulations. Folk songs, legends, or oral histories passed down through generations might reference the boundaries and routes of past perambulations.

Traditions such as “beating the bounds” (a later version of the Rogationtide procession after puritan reformers had toned down some of its more ritualistic features) endured for centuries.

These continued the old routes and passed knowledge down through the generations.

These were, however, likely to have changed through the centuries so, while they are likely to contain some details which remained unchanged from Anglo-Saxon times, they also inevitably include subsequent adjustments too.

5. Early Parish Maps: When the first surveyors arrived to draw up maps, they used the landmarks of the perambulations as the basis for their work.

They often relied on the testimony of local people, and the knowledge they had of the landscape.

As such, early maps may have contained knowledge passed down through the generations from Anglo-Saxon perambulations all the way into Tudor England when the first land surveyors began to use mathematical methods to record land boundaries.