The Dunmow Flitch of Bacon

By Robert Chambers

This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some annotations and links, and have modernized some spelling.

Far back in the grey dimnesses of the middle ages, while as yet men were making crusades, and the English commons had not a voice in the state, we see a joke arise among the flats of Essex. What makes it the more remarkable is, it arose in connection with a religious house—the priory of Dunmow—showing that the men who then devoted themselves to prayers could occasionally make play out of the comicalities of human nature. The subject of the jest here was the notable liability of the married state to trivial janglements and difficulties, not by any means detracting from its general approvableness as a mode of life for a pair of mutually suitable persons, but yet something sufficiently tangible and real to vary what might otherwise be a too-smooth surface of affairs, and, anyhow, a favourite subject of comment, mirthful and sad, for bystanders, according to the feeling with which they might be inclined to view the misfortunes of their neighbours. 

How it should have occurred to a set of celibate monks to establish a perennial jest regarding matrimony we need not inquire, for we should get no answer. It only appears that they did so. Taking it upon themselves to assume that perfect harmony between married persons for any considerable length of time was a thing of the greatest rarity—so much so as to be scarce possible—they ordered, and made their order known, that if any pair could, after a twelve-month 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 [1] of bacon. It is dubiously said that the order originated with Robert Fitzwalter, a favourite of King John, who revivified the Dunmow priory about the beginning of the thirteenth century; but we do not in truth see him in any way concerned in the matter beyond his being a patron of the priory, and as we find the priors alone acting in it afterwards, it seems a more reasonable belief that the joke from the first was theirs.

The former lady chapel of Little Dunmow Priory. It now serves as the only remaining part of the former priory, broken apart in 1535. The grounds of the priory, according to local legend, hold the remains of the Maid Marian. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

And that the joke was not altogether an ill-based one certainly appears on a prima facie view of the history of the custom, as far as it has been preserved, for between the time of King John and the Reformation—in which upwards of three centuries slid away—there are shown but three instances of an application for the flitch by properly qualified parties. The first was made in 1445 by one Richard Wright, of Badbury, in the county of Norfolk, a labouring man; his claim was allowed, and the flitch rendered to him. The second was made in 1467 by one Stephen Samuel, of Ayston-parva, in Essex, a husbandman. Having made the proper oaths before Roger Bulcott, prior, in presence of the convent and a number of neighbours, he, too, obtained the bacon. The third application on record came from Thomas he Fuller, of Cogshall, in Essex, before John Tils, prior, in the presence of the convent and neighbours. This person also made good his claim, and carried oft’ a gammon of bacon. We cannot, however, suppose that there was no application before 1445. It is more reasonable to surmise that the records of earlier applications have been lost. Of this, indeed, we may be said to have some evidence in the declaration of Chaucer‘s Wife of Bath regarding one of her many husbands:

‘The bacon was not fet for [t]hem, I trow, 
That some men have in Essex, at Dunmow.’

It seems very probable that the offer held out by the prior of Dunmow was not at all times equally prominent in the attention of the public. Sometimes it would be forgotten, or nearly so, for a generation or two, and then, through some accidental circumstances, it would be revived, and a qualified claimant would come forward. Such a lapse from memory may be presumed to have taken place just before 1445, when a poet, bewailing the corruption of the times, declared that he could: 

‘______ Find no man now that will enquire 
    The perfect ways unto Dunmow,
For they repent them within a year,
    And many within a week, I trow.’

But see the natural consequence of this public notice of the custom. Immediately comes honest Richard Wright, all the way from Norfolk, to show that matrimonial harmony and happiness were not so wholly extinct in the land. He claimed the flitch, ‘and had his claim allowed.’

The priory of Dunmow was of course amongst the religious establishments suppressed by the Defender of the Faith [2]. The old religion of the place was gone; but the bacon was saved. [3] To the honour of the secular proprietors be it said, they either held it as a solemn engagement which they had inherited with the land, or they had the sense to appreciate and desire the continuance of the ancient joke. Doubtless, the records of many applications during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are lost to us; but at length, in 1701, we are apprized of one which seems to have been conducted and acted upon with all due state and ceremony. 

‘Be it remembered, that at this court, in full and open court, it is found and presented by the homage aforesaid, that William Parsley, of Much Easton, in the county of Essex, butcher, and Jane his wife, have been married for the space of three years last past, and upward; and it is likewise found, presented, and adjudged by the homage aforesaid, that the said William Parsley and Jane his wife, by means of their quiet, peaceable, tender, and loving cohabitation for the space of time aforesaid (as appears by the said homage), are fit and qualified persons to be admitted by the court to receive the ancient and accustomed oath, whereby to entitle themselves to have the bacon of Dunmow delivered unto them, according to the custom of the Manor.

‘Whereupon, at this court, in full and open court, came the said William Parsley, and Jane his wife, in their proper persons, and humbly prayed they might be admitted to take the oath aforesaid. Whereupon the said Steward with the jury, suitors, and other officers of the court, proceeded with the usual solemnity to the ancient and accustomed place for the administration of the oath, and receiving the gammon aforesaid, (that is to say) the two great stones lying near the church door, within the said Manor, when the said William Parsley and Jane his wife, kneeling down on the said two stones, the said Steward did administer unto them the above-mentioned oath, in these words, or to the effect following, viz.

‘You do 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, in bed or at board, 
Offended each other in deed or in word: 
Or in a twelvemonth’s time and a day,
Repented not in any way;
Or since the church clerk said Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again,
But continue true and in desire
As when you joined hands in holy quire.’

‘And immediately thereupon, the said William Parsley and Jane his wife claiming the said gammon of bacon, the court pronounced the sentence for the same, in these words, or to the effect following:

Since to these conditions, without any fear, 
Of your own accord you do freely swear,
A whole gammon of bacon you do receive,
And bear it away with love and good leave:
For this is the custom of Dunmow well known;
Tho’ the pleasure be ours, the bacon’s your own.’

‘And accordingly a gammon of bacon was delivered unto the said William Parsley and Jane his wife, with the usual solemnity. Examined per Thomas Wheeler, Steward.’ At the same time Mr. Reynolds, Steward to Sir Charles Barrington of Hatfield, Broad Oaks, received a second gammon.

Exactly half a century afterwards, John Shakeshaft, woolcomber, of Weathersfield, Essex, appeared with his wife at the Court Baron, and, after satisfying a jury of six maidens and six bachelors, received the prize, and the lucky pair were duly chaired through the town, attended by the Steward and other officers of the manor, the flitch being carried before them in triumph. The woolcomber showed himself as shrewd a man as he was a good husband, realizing a considerable sum by selling slices of the well-won bacon among the five thousand spectators of the show. A picture of the procession was painted by David Osborne [from an engraving of which our representation of the scene is taken].

The engraving Chambers included in his book. Note the Dunmow Chair in the center of the procession.

The bacon was again presented in 1763; but the name of the recipient has escaped record. After this the custom was discountenanced by the lord of the manor, the swearing stones were removed from the churchyard, and the old oaken chair remained undisturbed in the priory. One John Gilder and his wife claimed the flitch in 1772; but when he and his sympathizers arrived at the priory, they found the gates fast; the expectant couple were compelled to go away empty-handed, and the Dunmow festival henceforth was consigned to the limbo of extinct customs.

In 1851 the lord of the manor was astonished by a worthy couple named Harrels demanding to be rewarded for their matrimonial felicity—a demand to which he declined to accede. However, the good people were so disappointed, and their neighbours so discontented thereat, that a compromise took place; the usual ceremony was dispensed with, but the candidates for the flitch received the bacon, after taking the prescribed oath at a rural fete at Easton Park.

In 1855, Mr. Harrison Ainsworth determined to revive the old custom; the lord of the manor refused to allow the ceremony to take place at Little Dunmow, and some of the clergy and gentry strenuously opposed its transference to Great Dunmow. On the 19th of July, however, Mr. and Mrs. Barlow, of Chipping Ongar, and the Chevalier de Chatelain and his English wife, appeared before a mixed jury of bachelors and spinsters in the town-hall of Dunmow. Mr. Ainsworth was judge, Mr. Robert Bell counsel for the claimants, Mr. Dudley Costello conducting the examination in opposition. After two hours and a half questioning and deliberation, both couples were declared to have fulfilled the necessary conditions, and the court, council, and claim-ants adjourned to the Windmill Field, where the oath was administered in the presence of fully seven thousand people, and the flitches presented to the deserving quartet.

(L) The engraving of the Dunmow Chair included in Chambers’ book. (R)The custom continues in the 21st century, usually in Leap Years only. Due to COVID, the 2020 Flitch Trials will actually be held July 10, 2021. (Image and date: ITV)

The whimsical custom of rewarding immaculate couples with a huge piece of bacon is not peculiar to Dunmow. For 100 years the abbots of St. Meleine, in Bretagne, [4] bestowed a similar prize for connubial contentment, and a tenure binding the lord of the manor of Whichenoure, in Staffordshire, to deliver a flitch of bacon to any husband ready to swear he had never repented becoming a Benedict, but would, if free again, choose his wife above all other women, dates as far back as the reign of the third Edward, but no actual award of the Whichenoure prize is recorded.

Notes:

(1) A flitch of bacon is a half of a pig, cut lengthwise.

(2) King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to hold the title, granted by the pope in October, 1521 (King James IV of Scotland received the title in 1507). After Henry dissolved the monasteries and became head of the separate Church of England, the pope revoked the title. In 1543, the English Parliament conferred the title on Henry VIII. All following English (British and Commonwealth) monarchs carry this title as Head of the Church of England.

(3) The idiom “save the bacon” dates to the 16th century, so Chambers would be playing with it here, although the expression was slang for “save your skin” or “save yourself” at the time. While the Dunmow Flitch of Bacon is not the origin of that phrase, it is the origin of the expression “to bring home the bacon.”

(4) St. Melaine, Brittany (modern English spellings)

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