“Or in twelvemonth and a day, Not wisht yourselves unmarried again”
Every four years, since the Second World War, in July all eyes fall upon the market town of Great Dunmow in Essex for the world famous Dunmow Flitch. A unique custom, a sort of dole with conditions (doles with provisos are not uncommon although most appear to be reciting the Lord’s Prayer), proving fidelity and matrimonial bliss being the necessary requirements (although in the last two flitches the occurrence of two surnames for the claimants suggests that marriage is not itself not a requirement such as it moved with the times!)
The legend of their origins
The true origins of this bizarre custom are unclear and some authorities suggest a Saxon or Norman origin. However, the earliest recorded origin appears to date from 1104 when the Lord of The Manor of Dunmow, a Reginald Fiztwalter and his wife, dressed as beggars, visited the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow and asked for a year and a day after marriage. The prior responded by giving a flitch of bacon. At this point the lord revealed himself and gave his lands to the Priory on condition that a flitch would be given to any other couples who could prove similar. From these rather unlikely origins the custom grew that by the 1300s the Dunmow Flitch trial had already made its way into literature, when Geoffrey Chaucer refers to ‘Flitch of Bacon of Dunmow renowned’ in his Wife of Bath and William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman also gives mention to it in 1362:
“that if any pair could, after a twelvemonth of matrimony, come forward, and make oath at Dunmow ..that, during the whole time, they had never had a quarrel, never regretted their marriage, and, if again open to an engagement, would make exactly that they had made, they should be rewarded with a flitch of Bacon,”
Steven Samuel is however in 1445 is the earliest recorded successful claimant. The next recorded is Richard Wright and he travelled from Norwich to prove it suggesting again a far reaching fame. There are only three known pre-Reformation claimants, but considering that the claimants from 1980 are unknown this does not infer it was not regularly challenged. Interestingly, whilst other such customs associated with the Priory disappeared at the Reformation, it survived passing to the Lord of the Manor and continued, after a probable brief respite, the tradition was revived by Sir Thomas May in 1701 when he became the owner of the Priory.
Despite a claim being made in 1772 by a John and Susan Gilder, the then lord of the Manor decided it should not happen and apparently nailed the doors of the Priory shut. A further unsuccessful attempt was made by a retired cheesemaker called Joshua Vine and his wife who travelled from Reading, who upon meeting the Steward of Little Dunmow, a George Wade, he refused to hold a trial stating that it was:
“an idle custom bringing people of indifferent character into the neighbourhood”
In 1837, the Saffron Walden and Dunmow Agricultural Society restored the custom, although the flitch was apparently distributed during their dinner supposedly to the most faithful of their member. Despite this claimants still appeared and in 1851 a couple from Felsted claimed the bacon and were refused but finally a flitch was obtained from Great Dunmow.
This view point appears to have lead to its decline and finally it disappeared. However, the relics of the ancient custom: the oak chair and stone upon which the couples knelt were kept and remain within Little Dunmow church which was part of the Priory
Curiously it was a book in 1855, the novel ‘The custom of Dunmow’ by Harrison Ainsworth, which spurned the revival of the event run this time by the town council, and thus had nothing to do with the church and manor. Ainsworth himself was involved in its revival and it continued to be held regularly since then becoming every four years since the Second World War.
The present format-2012 trials
The Trials now resemble that of a modern court case with defending and opposing counsels who represent the Flitch donors, a Judge, jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors, an User and Clerk of the court. I have seen two flitches one in 1996 and the other 2012, despite the obvious changes in those 16 years for example no-one was asked to turn off mobile phones in 2012, the trials were the same a great mix of pomp and pantomime. In 1996 the main counsel was Jerry Hayes MP and agony aunt Claire Rayner, who claimed the flitch successfully in 2008 and it was fitting to see a tribute to her in the programme.
Those claiming the bacon must bemarried for at least a year and a day and as all claimants can win the Bacon as they do not compete which each other. This year the claimants came from as near as Dunmow to as far as Spain and Australia although she was resident in the UK.
Most of the fun comes from the opposing counsel (for the bacon), who use any mechanism to prove that the couple should not claim the bacon and despite the jovial nature of the custom, the claimants do not always win. In 2008 there were some classic one-liners. In the first trial the much fun came from the couple’s revelation that the wife was double dating and had their honeymoon in Harlow (less than 10 miles from home!) The best one-liners particularly came from BBC Radio Essex’s Dave Monk upon asking the third couple, the wife of which worked at Marks and Spencers, paraphrased the advert tag line when she told him she was looking for a man, but not just any man…..
The most comical asides came when interrogating a couple who were sci-fi fans. It was revealed that the first date had to be moved because it clashed with the first new episode of Doctor Who! The wife neatly defined the difference between nerd, geeks and dorks. It was also revealed that the couple’s first kiss was on the playground, the quick retort being was the relationship on the slide ever since and that marriage was not all swings and roundabouts. ….Dave Monk later stated that he and his colleague were Men in Black and used his pen to make the jury forget the claimant’s plea! Despite the great ‘banter’ between the couple and the counsel which appeared to favour the couple…they lost and had to walk to the market place to collect the gammon, the consolation prize. They were the unlucky ones for four out of five won.
The winning couples, except the heavily pregnant one, were then lifted on a wooden chair, this year a new one replaced a more ancient one now retired to the local museum. With the flitch carried aloft in front they are carried triumphantly by bearers in the flitch chair to the market place and on those ‘pointed stones’ they take the oath. Here they take the oath (said to be similar to pre-Reformation marriage vows and certainly used since 1751) it goes as follows:
“You shall swear by custom of confession,
That you ne’er made nuptial transgression;
Nor, since you were married man and wife,
By household brawls, or contentious strife,
Or otherwise at bed or board,
Offended each other in deed or in word,
Or since the parish clerk said, Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again,
Or in twelvemonth and a day,
Repented in thought any way,
But continue true in thought and desire,
As when you joined hands in holy quire.”
The judge reads out the following sentence:
“If to these conditions without all fear,
Of your own accord you will freely swear,
A whole gammon of bacon you shall receive,
And bear it hence with love and good leave:
For this is our custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own”
With the last few words chanted by all!
Although a medieval date is given for the origins, the presence of similar customs in Europe, in Vienna and Rennes, Brittany suggests the origin given may be false. Indeed it may have an earlier possibly pagan origin. It is not beyond reason that the meat was a boar which could have been given as a sacrifice to a pagan god. This is suggested by Historian Helene Guerber her Myths of the Norsemen in 1908 who connects it to the German Yule feast, where a boar is eaten at Yule in Goddess’s Freyr’s honour which can only be carved by a man of unstained reputation. As Freyr was the patron of gladness and harmony it is not within reason to see the goddess association with harmonious marriages.
Whatever the origins, the Dunmow Flitch remains one of the most enjoyable and joyous celebrations of both English eccentricity and marriage (if those two are not necessarily mutually exclusive).
copyright Pixyled publications