Tag Archives: medieval

Custom survived: Rothwell Trinity Fair Proclamation Day

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Rowell Proclamation (14)Fair enough

“I ******* love Rothwell…where else do they get you up a 6 am so you can get bladdered early”

Not perhaps the most erudite introduction to Rothwell (pronounced Rowell), a small market town but perhaps correct. For this is a town which retains a curious and unique custom, which I must admit I had never heard of until recently.

On the Monday after Trinity Sunday, which falls either in late May or June (usually more often in June), this quiet and often bypassed town. However, on that day, often a normal working day, the pubs and restaurants of the town open and serve a very early 6 am pint! Everyone has a drink, even the horse! So important is this aspect, indeed it was probably one of the reasons the custom has survived, that its advertising flyers were beer mats!

This is perhaps a rather antisocial customs for a number of reasons, least of all the fact it starts so early, requiring an overnight stay. So I booked myself a small hotel in the town so that I wouldn’t have to get up that early…6 am is early enough! Booking in the concierge remarked “I have to tell you there is a proclamation outside the main entrance at 6!” if that would put me off. I replied “It’s why I am here…good to see they are bring the custom to my door.”

I woke early, around 5.30 and made the short journey to the west porch of the church where the festivities begun. For a short time, I was the only one and then a large group of teenagers appeared, then another and an even larger group…I immediately thought  “if you’d asked some teenagers to get up at this hour..the response wouldn’t be positive, but get a promise of fighting and you get loads!”

A local couple obviously realising I was not local asked:

“Have you been here before? If not you’ll enjoy it, it’s weird”

Soon enough I could see and hear a procession climbing from the main street towards the church followed by a large number of people. The procession consisted of a brass band, the bowler hatted Bailiff on a horse with his bowler hatted officials accompanied by his bodyguard of halberdiers holding a type of medieval lance. I noticed that the older members held full sized ones whereas the younger members carried shorter ones..the significance of which would become self evident later. As the clock chimed the allotted time, the Bailiff cleared his throat and with a scroll in hand he read out the proclamation:

“Whereas heretofore, his late Majesty King James the first and his progenitors, Lords of the Manor of Rowell had, and used to have, One fair in the year, to be holden within the said Manor, which said fair is now by good and lawfull means come to Zandra Maunsell Powell.

She, the said Zandra Maunsell Powell, doth by these presents notify and declare, that the said fair shall begin this Monday after the feast of the Holy Trinity, and so to continue for the space of five days next, after the holding and keeping of it, and no longer, during which time it shall be lawful for all Her Majesties Subjects to come , to go, to buy and to sell all manner of cattle, merchandise and other stuff being saleable ware and allowed to be bought and sold by the laws of this Kingdom. No toll for cattle, stakes for horses, sheep-pens, shows and stalls are charged for as heretofore. And she further chargeth and commandeth all manner of persons within the liberties of the said fair to keep the Queen’s peace in all things upon such penalties as the laws and statutes of this Kingdom are provided. God save the Queen and the Lord of the Manor.”

The crowd gave out a cheer and the band played the National Anthem. As soon as they had finished, the vicar appeared with the traditional glass of rum and milk, called Rowell Fair rum and milk which was intended to keep the bailiff warm. Once drunk, off they went.

Next they stopped outside the newsagent below the church and did it all over again…except this time the gleeful shopkeeper provided beers for the halberdiers and the band.

So far despite an obvious picturesque and old world nature there was nothing particularly exciting about it. Yet, there was an air of excitement especially amongst the youth element that sometime was about to happen.

At the third stop, the proclamation was read, band played the National Anthem, drinks went down and then there was a pause and all hell broke out. It was as if the surrounding crowd collapsed onto the road as any local lad worth his salt tussled and struggled in the street. Their object, to lay claim to one of the halberdier’s spears….the short ones not the full length, a fight for those of course would have resulted in a loss of some of bystanders no doubt. After much to-ing and fro-ing. One of the bowler hatter men blew a whistle and on we went to the next hostelry.

Rowell ProclamationRowell Proclamation (24)Rowell Proclamation (21)

And so and it went on, but at each pub or in some cases sites of old pubs, the fight became more powerful and yet more comical. At one point the conflict appeared to become very aggressive and intense, with one body halberdier struggling under the weight of a number of burly youths. But then the whistle was blown and immediately without quarrel they all stood up brushed each other down with smiles and handshakes and went on! I quickly noticed that the free alcohol liberally distributed to the halberdiers played into the hands of their disarmers. Who remained sober and more able to wrestle the spears off the increasing more ‘drunk’ bodyguards. However, it all appeared well humoured and despite a combination of alcohol and street fighting not usually being a desirable activity, those police present appeared to find no need for intervention.

The crowd moved on and finally stopped at the Rowell Charter Inn, their final stop. After the final proclamation the crowd disperses and with all the pubs and restaurants open, continue to have a breakfast both liquid and solid!

Fair Tarts

Rowell Fair Day is still a time for homecoming with tasty treats such as home cured ham and Rowell Fair tarts, although I was unlucky not to try one, I did notice they were advertised in a shop window. Below is a recipe!

Despite the details in the proclamation I saw no cattle, pens for sheep nor stakes for horses, these have long gone, but at its height it attracted cattle dealers from far as way as Wales, local people advertising the availability of accommodation with birch branches over their doorways. It also became an important horse fair from the seventeenth century, but what with the advent of the train and better roads, all commercial trading ceased replaced by the now all too familiar frenetic sounds of the pleasure fair.

The proclamation appears to have survived the periods which killed most customs, the war years, but by 1968, it appeared to be at risk as a result the Rowell Fair Society was formed and its work has been very successful in preserving this unique custom if the crowds are anything to go by.

Yet the Proclamation Day is one of those great customs, surviving 800 years, and with its curious mix of pageantry and punch-up should survive many years to come.

Clearly not everyone was out in Rothwell that morning. I later over heard a conservation between two women explaining the day. One saying in reply

“ I wondered my I was woken up by the sound of the national anthem.”

– images copyright Pixyled Publications

Rowell Proclamation (47)Rowell Proclamation (43)

Custom survived: The Dunmow Flitch

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“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.

The demise

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

Revival

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!

Origins

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