Essex traditions: have you heard of the Dunmow Flitch Trials?

Flitch bearer carrying the flitch of bacon in Dunmow Essex

Flitch bearers carrying the flitch - Credit: Dunmow Flitch Trials

The Dunmow Flitch Trials 

In the first instalment of our series on the folklore of Essex, Andrew Millham investigates the Dunmow Flitch Trials – a weird and wonderful marital tradition dating back more than 900 years – which will return in July 2022.

Each British county has its own myths, legends and shared beliefs, but Essex is particularly rich in the currency of tradition – all of which takes cover under the umbrella of ‘folklore’. 

Have you ever heard of a flitch of bacon being awarded to a married couple? It is a centuries-old English tradition, remnants of which survive only in Great Dunmow, Essex. The Flitch Trials are held in the town once every four years around Whit Monday (the day after Pentecost Sunday) in June. Its origins are obscure, but some claim that the trials were inspired when, in 1104, the Lord and Lady of the Manor in Little Dunmow dressed themselves as humble folk and begged the blessing of the Prior, one year and a day after their marriage. The Prior, impressed by their devotion, gifted them a flitch of bacon – a salted and cured side of pork. 

Etching by George Cruikshank of a couple being carried above a cheering crowd

Etching by George Cruikshank of a couple being carried above a cheering crowd - Credit: Wellcome Collection

Historically, the day of the Dunmow Flitch was started by summoning a mock court, consisting of a judge and a jury of six bachelors and six maidens from the town. Couples that had been married for a ‘twelvemonth and a day’ were invited to come forward before the judge and swear under oath that, across the whole year, they never once regretted their marriage or quarrelled with each other. Such an oath was taken whilst kneeling on sharp stones outside Dunmow Priory, whilst the crowd chanted a long verse – here is an excerpt: 

If these conditions without all fear, 

Of your own accord you will freely swear, 

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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. 

If any couple successfully convinced the jury of their happy marriage, and this rarely happened, they would literally take home the bacon, and were noisily paraded around the town in a ceremonial carved oak ‘Flitch Chair’, which now sits in the parish church of Little Dunmow. 

The Flitch Chair in Little Dunmow church

The Flitch Chair is found in Little Dunmow church - Credit: Wikimedia

Winners are recorded back to 1444, when the flitch was won by Mr and Mrs Wright from Badbourge near Norwich, suggesting that folks travelled from miles around to take part in the proceedings. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, there was a long gap between Flitch Trials before the tradition was revived in 1701 when the awarding of the flitch was taken over by the Lord of the Manor. After another lapse, the trials were revived in the Victorian era after the tremendous success of novelist William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1854 book, The Flitch of Bacon. 

This pageant is still held every leap year in Great Dunmow – the next one will take place in July this year, as it was postponed for two years in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, a council of respected locals and Essex folk are asked to cross-examine couples who travel from far and wide attempting to prove that they are deserving of the meaty prize. 

It is a testament to Essex’s community spirit that a tradition once carried out across the whole of England now exists only in Great Dunmow. The trials are an unadulterated celebration of true love, marital harmony and – of course – bacon. Long may it continue.