Bring Home The Bacon at The Dunmow Flitch Trials

Dec 20, 2021 0 comments

Married couples who can prove their undying love for each other can take home half a pig in a tradition that dates back to at least the 12th century. According to the rules of the “Flitch Trial”, couples must swear before a court that they have not regretted their marriage for a year and a day. If the jury is convinced, the winning couple is awarded a “flitch” of bacon (a cured half-pig). Such trials were once held across England, but now Great Dunmow in Essex is the only place where the tradition is still respected.


The Flitch Trial is said to have originated in the 12th century when the Lord of the Manor Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife presented themselves before the Prior of the Augustinian Priory at Little Dunmow, dressed themselves as humble folk, and begged for blessing exactly a year and a day after their marriage. The Prior, impressed by their devotion bestowed upon them a Flitch of Bacon. Upon revealing their true identity, Fitzwalter gave his land to the Priory on the condition a Flitch should be awarded to any couple who could claim they were similarly devoted.

By the 14th century, the Dunmow Flitch Trials had achieved far-reaching fame. It appeared in William Langland’s 1362 book The Vision of Piers Plowman. Half a century later, Geoffrey Chaucer alluded to the Flitch Trials in the Wife of Bath's Tale. The flitch continued to be awarded until the middle of the 18th century, when it was abruptly stopped.

Although this was a valuable prize, it was seldom claimed, because it was rare for couples to go for a year and a day without arguing. Hence, between 1444 and 1751, the flitch was claimed a total of only six times.

In Whichnoure near Lichfield, Staffordshire, where another Flitch Trail was held until the 18th century, Horace Walpole, who visited Whichnoure in 1760, reported that the flitch had not been claimed for thirty years. The Whichnoure Flitch Trial has a different origin. It is reported that the Earl of Lancaster granted the manor of Whichnoure to Sir Philip de Somerville in 1336, on the condition that a flitch of bacon be kept hanging in his hall at Whichnoure at all times of the year but Lent, to be given to “every man or woman who demanded it a year and a day after the marriage, upon their swearing they would not have changed for none other". By the time Walpole visited Whichnoure, he found only a wooden carving of a flitch displayed over the mantle of the fireplace in the main hall, presumably in order to continue to meet the conditions of the original land grant.

The Flitch Trials were revived in Victorian times, largely inspired by William Harrison Ainsworth’s 1854 book The Flitch of Bacon, where the writer recounts the attempts by Little Dunmow's publican to win the Flitch by marrying a succession of wives in an attempt to find the perfect one. The novel proved to be very popular and Ainsworth himself encouraged the revival by providing the prizes for the ceremony in 1855. Since then, the Trials have been held regularly every leap year.

The modern Trials take the form of a court presided over by a Judge, with Counsel representing the claimants and Opposing Counsel representing the donors of the Flitch of Bacon, together with a Jury of 6 maidens and 6 bachelors, a Clerk of the Court to record the proceedings and an Usher to maintain order. The couples do not compete with each other. All of them could be successful in their claim. The hardest part was surviving the cross-examination and convincing the jury.

Successful couples are then carried shoulder-high by bearers in the Flitch Chair and taken from the marquee where the trial takes place to the Market Place where they swear an oath similar to ancient marriage vows. Those couples who fail to convince the judge and jury of the merits of their case have to walk behind the empty chair to the Market Place, consoled with a prize of gammon.


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