OUR DETAILED ROAD atlas – yes, we are still using one of these in preference to ‘GPS’ – marks ‘churches of interest’. One of these is at Little Dunmow in Essex and was labelled ‘priory church’. As we were nearby, we made a small detour to the tiny village of Little Dunmow and found the superb gothic structure standing near some small modern dwellings. As is frequently the case, the church was locked up, but someone suggested that if we asked the lady who lived in one of the nearby houses, she would most likely open it for us. We knocked on her front door and a neighbour looked into her back garden, only to discover that she was not at home. Another of her neighbours suggested that she might be out walking her dog. We saw several ladies out walking with their dogs, and the third one we asked happened to be the one with the key to the church. She opened the church for us, and we had a good look around its interior.
The church of St Mary in Little Dunmow is all that remains of what was once a huge priory church. In fact, it is what was once the Lady Chapel on the south side of the chancel. The rest of the church and the Augustinian Priory, to which it was attached, was demolished in the 16th century following the passing of the Suppression of Religious Houses Act 1535 during the reign of King Henry VIII. Some of the great area that was once occupied by the priory and its large church now contains the village’s extensive cemetery.
The Augustinian Priory of St Mary the Virgin was founded by Geoffrey Baynard in 1106 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp175-180). In 1086, at the time of the Domesday Book, Geoffrey was “immediate lord over the peasants after the Conquest, who paid tax to the tenant-in-chief” (https://opendomesday.org/name/geoffrey-baynard/) in various parts of East Anglia including Essex. The parish church of Little Dunmow, whose remains we see today, was established by Geoffrey’s mother Lady Juga Baynard (https://www.magnacartabarons.info/index.php/the-towns-and-villages/little-dunmow-essex/), two years before the formation of the priory.
The north wall of the existing church was the south arcade of the chancel of the former priory church. The arches through which one could have passed from the Lady Chapel into the now demolished church have been filled in with masonry, but the original supports of the arches remain intact. The south wall of the current parish church has four large gothic windows and on the eastern wall another, which allow a great deal of light to suffuse the church. Probably, these date from 1360 when the chapel was, according the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner writing in his Essex volume of “The Buildings of England”, opulently remodelled. The red brick bell tower at the western end of the edifice was added in 1872 and Pevsner describes it as being “… a silly NW turret.”
The church’s well-lit interior has a wonderfully spacious feel beneath its ceiling lined with simple dark timber beams. Apart from enjoying the place in its entirety, several features attracted my interest. Two alabaster effigies, a man and his wife lying down with carved animals at their feet, commemorate Walter Fitzwalter (died 1432) and his wife Elizabeth (née Chideock, died 1464). Walter was the grandson of Robert Fitzwalter (1247-1346), First Baron Fitzwalter. And, more interestingly, Robert’s father, Robert Fitzwalter (died 1235), feudal baron of Little Dunmow, was one of the barons who opposed King John and made sure that he adhered to what was contained in the Magna Carta, which he signed in 1215. A modern plaque on the eastern wall of the church honours his memory.
The pair of effigies are located next to the north wall of the church, west of an alabaster effigy of a now unknown woman, also located next to the wall. Information in the church suggests that she might have been the mother of Walter Fitzwalter, or Matilda, the daughter of Robert, the Third Baron, or even Maid Marion of Robin Hood fame.
Another curious feature within the church is a wooden chair with carvings made in the 15th century, using wood with 13th century carvings. This, the Dunmow Flitch Chair, is a unique piece of furniture. Its seat is wide enough to comfortably seat two adults. It was used during the so-called ‘Flitch Trials”, which still take place in Great Dunmow every four years:
“The ancient Flitch of bacon custom rewarded a couple who had been married in church and remained ‘unregreted’ for a year and a day, with a flitch of bacon. The claimants had to swear an oath kneeling on two sharp pointed stones in the churchyard. They were then carried through the village to be acclaimed.” (www.magnacartabarons.info/index.php/the-towns-and-villages/little-dunmow-essex/)
A flitch of bacon is a side of bacon (half a pig cut lengthwise). The trials were held at the priory church in Little Dunmow until 1750, and were later revived in the 19th century following the publishing in 1854 of “The Flitch of Bacon”, a novel written by William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882). In the preface to his story, the author hints at the origin of the tradition:
“”Among the jocular tenures of England, none have been more talked of than the Bacon of Dunmow.” So says Grose, and truly. The Dunmow Flitch has passed into a proverb. It is referred to by Chaucer in a manner which proves that allusion to it was as intelligible in his day as it would be in our own. The origin of the memorable Custom, hitherto enveloped in some obscurity, will have found fully explained in the course of this veracious history. Instituted by a Fitzwalter in the early part of the Thirteenth Century, the Custom continued in force till the middle of the Eighteenth—the date of the following Tale.”
According to the novel, the couple attempting to win the flitch of bacon had to came to the priory church at Little Dunmow, where they were subjected to a trial with witnesses, jury, and judges, to assess whether their marriage had been without blemish for a year and a day. On arrival at the priory church, Ainsworth related, the couple:
“… kneel down on the self-same spot, and on the self-same stones, where, more than four centuries ago, Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife knelt when they craved a blessing from the good prior. Benedicite! fond pair! Ye deserve holy priest’s blessing as well as those who have knelt there before you. Bow down your gentle heads as the reverend man bends over you, and murmurs a prayer for your welfare. All who hear him breathe a heartfelt response. Now ye may look up. He is about to recite the Oath, and ye must pronounce it after him. The Oath is uttered.”
Having been awarded the flitch, we learn that:
“All is not over yet. Ye have to be placed in the antique chair, and, according to usage, borne on men’s shoulders round the boundaries of the old Priory, which in the days of your predecessors stood hereabouts. And see! the chair is brought out for you. It is decked with rich though faded tapestry, woven with armorial bearings, which ye must know well, since they are your own, and with a device, which each of you may apply to the other—Toujours Fidèle.”
Well, our road atlas marked the church at Little Dunmow as being “of interest”, and having visited it, we can assure you that it is of very great interest.