The Dunmow Flitch: bringing home the bacon

This Saturday, 14 July 2012, heralds the much awaited ancient custom of The Dunmow Flitch whereby couples from all over Britain (and, in recent years, the world) come to Dunmow to persuade a formal court that they have not wished themselves unwed for a year and day.  If they win the court case, and persuade the judge and jury of their love for each other, then they win a ‘flitch of bacon’ (a large side of cured pig).  This court is very formal with a judge, jury and barristers: one barrister defends the Pig, and the other is for the couple.  Any couple who wins the Flitch is said to be ‘bringing home the bacon’ and is carried aloft on the ancient Dunmow Flitch chair by ‘yeomans’ in a parade through the streets of the town .  Once the parade arrives in the market place, the winners of the Flitch have to kneel on pointed stones and say The Oath.

The Flitch Oath
You shall swear by the Custom of our Confession
That you never made any Nuptial Transgression
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 since the Parish Clerk said Amen
Wished yourselves unmarried again
Or in a Twelvemonth and a day.
Repented not in thought any way
But continued true and in Desire
As when you joined Hands in holy Quire

The Sentence
If to these Conditions without all fear
Of your own accord you will freely swear
A Gammon of Bacon you shall receive
And bear it hence with love and good Leave
For this is our Custom at Dunmow well known
Though the sport be ours, the Bacon’s your own.

[This last line is normally said to great rousing cheers from the watching audience.]

If you are in the area of North Essex, I do recommend watching one of these very funny and witty trials.  Sadly, this year’s trials will be without the lovely agony aunt Claire Rayner, who died in 2010.  She was always tremendous fun at the Trials and gave a wonderful performance to the audience.  It was fitting that during the last Dunmow Flitch in 2008, she and her husband took ‘home the bacon’ as they successfully fought their case that they hadn’t argued for a year and a day.  She will be much missed at this year’s Trials.

The ‘custom of the flitch’ appears to have started in the twelfth or thirteenth century by the prior of the priory at Little Dunmow – although no evidence has survived to verify this. The first recorded mention of the Flitch is by William Langland in his 1362 ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’ and his contemporary, Geoffrey Chaucer in his ‘Canterbury Tales’.  Both of these authors, writing in the fourteenth century, use words that imply that this custom was, at the time of their writings, well known.

In ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, Chaucer said

The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe.

Chaucer's the Wife of Bath ‘The Wife of Bath’ from Caxton’s second edition of The Canterbury Tales,
(circa last half fifteenth century) shelfmark G. 11586, fol. b5 v, © British Library Board.

In ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman’ Langland wrote

Though they go
to Dunmow,
they never fetch
the Flitch.

Langland's Piers Plowmen William Langland, Piers Plowman (England, 1st half of the 15th century)
shelfmark Harley 2376 f.1, © British Library Board.

Confusingly, there are two places next to each other in Essex called Dunmow:  Great Dunmow and Little Dunmow.  During the  medieval and Tudor period, Little Dunmow was normally styled as ‘Dunmow Parva ’ and Great Dunmow was ‘Muche Dunmow’.  It was within Dunmow Parva that there was Austin priory which, according the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535, had the net value of £150 3s 4d.  The priory was dissolved in 1536 under the Act for the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries.  However, before it was dissolved, there is recorded instances of the Dunmow Flitch taking place at the Priory in 1445 and 1510.

During the eighteen century, the ancient custom of The Flitch was moved from the village of Little Dunmow to the nearby town of Great Dunmow where it is now held every four years.

British Pathé film archive
The Pathé film archive has some interesting silent film-reels of the Dunmow Flitches held in the 1920s at Ilford: 1920s Dunmow Flitch

Postcards and magazine articles
Dunmow Flitch

Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch
great dunmow-dunmow flitch

Dunmow Flitch

Dunmow Flitch Dunmow Flitch


A Note on the Flitch Trials held between 1890-1906, and 1912-1913
Between the years 1890 to 1906, and 1912 to 1913, the Dunmow Flitch was held every year within the town and the events of the day reported in newspapers such as Essex County Chronicle, Essex Standard, Essex County Standard, Pall Mall Gazette, and The Sketch.  From these newspapers, the author Francis W Steer of the Essex Record Office in his book The History of the Dunmow Flitch Ceremony drew up a list of all those that took part in the Trials.  This list includes those that claimed the Flitch, members of the jury (young men and women of the area all under 18), barristers and judges.  The judge, barristers, and jury were all chiefly from Great Dunmow and its surrounding villages.

Sadly, these lists contain the names of sons, brothers, lovers, and husbands of many who marched away to war in 1914 never to return to home.  One such person was my grandfather’s cousin, Harold James Nelson Kemp, son of the James and Alice Kemp, first of the White Horse, then of the Royal Oak.  On the 1st August 1904 Harold was one of the young jurymen for the Flitch Trials held in a meadow near the Causeway in Great Dunmow.  On 28 May 1916, he was killed in action in German East Africa (now Zambia). His brother, Gordon Parnall Kemp, was killed in action the following year in the mud and gore of Passchendaele (the 3rd Battle of Ypres).

Mr J N Kemp of the Golden Lion, The Conge, Great Yarmouth for many years resident in Dunmow has received information from the British South Africa Co that his son Harold has been killed in action with the Northern Rhodesian Force.  Harold was educated at the Dunmow Church Schools.  He started in life with the late Mr F J Snelland at his death continued with Mr Gifford, under whose instructions he became very proficient and acting on Mr Gifford’s advice obtained a situation in the Council offices at Sidcup where his instructions stood him in good steed.  From there he joined the R.S.A. Police and became the manager of the Police Review.  When he had served his time he obtained a good situation with Messrs. Arnold and Co of Salisbury and London.  On the outbreak of the war he volunteered for active service and now, alas, his end.  He was a member of the Dunmow church choir from his school days up to the time of his leaving Dunmow and he will be remembered as singing solo in the old church the Sunday before his departure for South Africa.
                                                                          From Essex Chronicle 9 June 1916

Mr J N Kemp for many years a resident at Dunmow and now of Yarmouth has received the sad news that his second son, Gordon, has been killed in action in France.
                                                                 From Essex Chronicle 19 October 1917

Great Dunmow - War memorial in church



Great Dunmow - War memorial in church

If you liked this post, you may also like this
– The Dunmow Flitch Trials 2012

Copyright notice
This article is © Essex Voices Past 2012. Unless otherwise indicated, the images on this post are also © Essex Voices Past 2012.

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