On Ascension Day each year Brasenose (along with other colleges and several shops) welcomes two groups of visitors carrying out the ancient tradition of beating the bounds.
The custom of beating the bounds goes back to the Anglo Saxon period at least. In the days before maps and written title deeds a knowledge of the physical boundaries of property was very important. So the custom grew up of walking the boundaries, stopping at intervals to strike boundary stones to ‘mark' the bounds. The practice was often linked to Rogation Days, days set aside by the Church for prayers for the crops; walking the boundaries of the parish was an obvious opportunity to do so.
Between 1598 and 1834 the care of the poor was the responsibility of the parish under successive Poor Laws, the necessary means being raised by local poor rates. The parish had to relieve needy, apprentice children and care for the destitute. The responsibility was for all those settled in the parish; this included illegitimate children, which sometimes led to parish officials trying desperately to remove pregnant unmarried women to another parish so that they would not be responsible for the baby! The Poor Laws provided another reason for ensuring that everyone knew the boundaries of the parish. The inhabitants needed to know which authorities to apply to for help, and the authorities to know which inhabitants were entitled to that help
The boundaries of the parishes of St. Michael at the Northgate and St. Mary the Virgin pass through the grounds of Brasenose College. On Ascension Day groups from both parishes visit to mark the boundary stones by marking them with the year in chalk and striking them with willow wands.