Historical customs have long existed. For instance, in Scotland there has been a long tradition of wearing kilts, and the custom continued despite efforts to weaken Scottish support for the restoration of the James II of England by passing the Dress Act of 1746 that forbade “Highland Dress.” Another long-time custom is Lent — forty days of fasting, both from food and festivities. There is also the custom of primogeniture that allows a deceased person’s estate to go to the firstborn male child. However, one of the more unusual, and perhaps less known customs, is a tradition known as the Dunmow flitch of bacon custom.
The Dunmow flitch of bacon custom was “the custom of presenting a flitch of Bacon to any married couple who could swear that neither of them in a twelvemonth and day from their marriage had ever repented of his or her union.” Sometimes the custom was referred to as the “Dunmow Flitch Trials” partly because it was practiced at the Priory of Dunmow in Essex supposedly since the “days of yore,” although one British historian reports it was actually influenced by a Norse tradition.
One claim about the origination of this custom is that it began with the priory’s founder, Lady Juga Baynard. She founded the priory in 1104 and was sister to the Lord of the Manor at the time. Eventually, the land passed to a family named Fitzwalter. One day Robert (some say his name was Reginald) Fitzwalter and his wife dressed humbly and presented themselves before the prior begging for his blessings. The prior was so impressed by the couple’s devotion to one another he bestowed upon them a flitch of bacon. The couple then revealed their true identities, and Fitzwalter gave his land to the priory on the condition that a flitch should be awarded to any couple who could claim they were similarly devoted.
The flitch of bacon custom also evolved into a celebratory event. Claimants to the bacon were placed in a chair and conveyed upon men’s shoulders to the designated spot for the ceremony. Along the route they were cheered and lauded by spectators that sometimes numbered in the thousands. It was a grand procession with flags waving and banners unfurling. Ahead of the couple, leading the way, was the bacon:
“[B]orne high on a pole before them, attended by the steward, gentlemen and officers of the manor, and several inferior tenants, carrying wands … A jury of bachelors and maidens, (six of each sex) following two and two, with an immense multitude of other people, young and old … rending the air with their shouts and acclamations.”
Eventually, the procession arrived at the church where the customary oath was administered and where proof (two neighbors attesting to the truth) occurred.
Despite the success of some claimants, many claimants failed to acquire the bacon as history records the chair was used only six times successfully. The successful six couples had their names published in a manuscript and are said to be the following:
- Richard Wright of Bradbourghe received the bacon in the 23d year of Henry VI near the city of Norwich, in the county of Norfolk.
- Stephen Samuel of little Ayston, a husbandman, came to the priory on Lady-day in Lent, during the seventh year of Edward IV’s reign.
- In the second year of the reign of Henry VIII, in 1510, Thomas Lefuller, of Cogshall in Essex, took the oath on September 8.
- On 7 June 1701 two couples took the oath: John Reynolds of Hatfield Broadoke and his wife Anne and, a butcher, William Parsley of Much Easton and his wife Jane.
- On 20 June 1751, John Shakeshanks, a woolcomber, and his wife Anne, also successfully received the bacon.
Despite only six successes, many attempts were made, which resulted in some epic fails. One of the most epic failures is attributed to a man who boldly demanded that he was entitled to the bacon. His demand was granted but apparently, “when a ladder was brought that he might cut down the unctuous prize, he requested that some one else would do it for him, as if he got a grease-spot on his Sunday clothes his wife would scold him terribly.” Of course, such a pronouncement immediately lost him the prize, and he was advised to be off, as “he who fears is certainly not master at home, and has certainly rued having married.”
An example of the oath taken by successful claimants was published in 1750. Accordingly, the couple knelt on two pointed stones near the church door and then the following oath was administered verbatim:
“You shall swear by Custom of our Confession
That you never made nuptial Transgression;
Since you were marry’d Man and Wife,
By houshold brawls or contentious strife,
Other otherwise at Bed or at Board,
Offended each other in Deed or Word;
Or since the Parish Clerk said Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again;
Or in a Twelve Month and a Day,
Repented not in Thought any Way;
But continued true and in Desire,
As when you joined Hands in holy Choir:
If to these Conditions without all Fear,
Of your own Accord you will freely swear:
A Gammon of Bacon* you shall receive,
And carry it hence with Love and free Leave;
For this is our Custom at Dunmow well known,
Tho’ the Sport be ours, the Bacon’s your own.”
The flitch of bacon custom was also popular enough that in the late 1700s a comedic opera titled the Flitch of Bacon was performed. The opera was created by British minister, magistrate, and playwright, Sir Henry Bate Dudley, and composer and violinist, William Shield. The two-act opera had numerous ballads and was performed at the Theatre Royale in the Haymarket Theatre in 1778. It received thunderous applause and was pronounced “a most capital entertainment.” The following year, in 1779, Dudley published the opera, dedicated it to the “Right Honorable Lord and Lady Algernon Percy,” and ended it with the following chorus:
“Mark but this, and we’ll ensure ye
To be ever blest, and wife;
Tis the charm that will secure ye
Dunmow’s matrimonial prize!”
The flitch of bacon custom waned by the early 1800s, and, then, during the Victorian Era, William Harrison Ainsworth repopularized it with the publication of his novel, The Custom of Dunmow: a Tale of English Home. The plot of his novel involved a man who married a succession of women in an attempt to find the right wife. In 1855, because of the popularity of Ainsworth’s book and because Ainsworth donated two flitches of bacon to Dunmow, the flitch of bacon custom was revived. The Dunmow Flitch Trials have continued since that time and have occurred almost annually. Today, they are organized and presented by the Dunmow Flitch Trials Committee.
* A flitch of bacon refers to a side of bacon, as does a gammon of bacon. The only difference between the two was a flitch was cured and a gammon was uncured.
If you are interested in learning more about historical customs, English Historical Fiction Authors — Debra Brown and Sue Millard — have released volume II of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales. You may purchase it at the following Amazon sites:
-  Andrews, William, History of the Dunmow Flitch of Bacon Custom, W. Andrews, 1877, p. 9.
-  “Bath, Wednesday, Nov. 4,” in Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 5 November 1778, p. 3.
-  Andrews, William, p. 45.
-  Ibid.
-  “The Flitch of Bacon,” in Chester Chronicle, 9 November 1827, p. 4.
-  “Bath, Wednesday, Nov. 4,” p. 3.
-  The Flitch of Bacon: A Comic Opera in Two Acts, 1780, p 31.