The Dunmow Flitch Trials, or why you should shun the coast.

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The Dunmow Flitch Trials, or why you should shun the coast.

The Possibilities for Life and Love in Dunmow, Essex?

Are you ready for Trial? Do you have a ‘peaceable temperament’? 

Have you brought home the bacon recently?

Many of our Parents at High House Day Nursery, come from the delightful town of Great Dunmow. Perhaps a synopsis of just one of the quaint customs, will make you smile whilst enjoying your traditional British breakfast of bacon and eggs!

The origin of “Have you brought home the bacon” is disputed, with some believing that it began in 1104 with the Dunmow Flitch Trials, while others ascribe its inception to an early twentieth century punch-up.

So you be the jury and decide which version is the likelier of the two.

The Flitch Trials, the oldest, surviving, recorded competition in Britain today, are thought to have started in 1104, at the Augustinian Priory of Little Dunmow.  It was then that the Lord of the Manor, Reginald Fitzwalter, and his wife dressed as humble people and went to the Prior of Little Dunmow to seek his blessing one year and a day after their marriage.  Their devotion so impressed the Prior that he awarded them a flitch, or side, of bacon.  On receipt of this gift, Fitzwalter revealed his true identity and gifted his land to the Priory on condition that the Priory should continue to bestow a flitch on any couple who could prove that they were equally devoted to each other.
That the custom was well established is proved by references to it in William Langland’s 1362 book, The Vision of Piers Plowman, and in Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale,1395, in neither of which does the author find it necessary to elaborate upon the custom’s meaning.

The Trials were not limited to the inhabitants of Little Dunmow, nor of Great Dunmow, whence they moved in 1832, and applicants came from all over the country.  Neither was the award a competition between the couples, as more than one couple could be given a Flitch if they satisfied the requirements.

There is evidence that similar Trials were held in other parts of Britain and overseas.

In 1714, a wit, writing in The Spectator , parodied the tradition, stating that, in his opinion, he had found just two couples in that century, who qualified for the award.

Couple number 1

The husband was a sea captain and the pair had not clapped eyes on each other for the year and a day since their marriage.

Couple number 2

The man had ‘good sense’ and a ‘peaceable temperament’ and the wife?

Was dumb !

We shall leave you to draw your own conclusions.

It was only in 1445, however, that the winners of the Dunmow Flitch were recorded.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII the custom was transferred from the Priory to the Lord of the Manor.  In 1832 the request to hold a Trial was refused on the grounds that such a practice ‘lowered the tone’ of the neighbourhood.  Fortunately for tradition, the Trials were revived in 1855 and have been held every four years, in a leap year, since the end of World War II.

The modern Trials provide much entertainment and take the form of a court, with a Judge presiding.  Counsel for the Flitch attempts to persuade the jury of six maidens and six bachelors, to refuse the applicants the prize, whereas counsel for the couple try and convince the jury to award them the Flitch.  There is a Clerk of the Court, who records the proceedings, and an Usher, who maintains order.

The Trials are held in a Marquee on Talberds Ley, Great Dunmow, and the successful couples are then carried shoulder-high in the ancient Flitch Chair by bearers to the Market Place.  Here, they take the Flitch Oath, which, in summary, states that they have never repented of their marriage, in word or deed, since they married over a year and a day past.

While reciting the oath the couple kneel on pointed stones atop a dray.  Unsuccessful couples walk behind the Chair to the Market Place and receive a piece of gammon as a consolation prize. Tasty with a fried egg in the morning!


Had the Trials been held in Blackpool, the organisers would have found it hard to give away a rasher of bacon, let alone a flitch, as in 2015, this was found to be the place in Britain with the highest divorce rate.

In fact, statistics showed that the worst places in the country for divorce were all seaside towns, so if you value your marriage, live inland.

As to the expression, ‘To bring home the bacon’, one of the other explanations for its origin is that in 1906, in the USA, a boxer named Joe Gans, was competing for the title of world lightweight champion.  Before the match, Gans’ mother sent him a telegram, exhorting him to ‘bring home the bacon’.  As bacon is another word for body, and the body is the key to one’s fortune in boxing, the phrase might have meant ‘Win the prize money’, or ‘Come home safely’.