History of Little Dunmow

Little Dunmow © Copyright The Francis Frith Collection 2005. http://www.francisfrith.com
Priory Place, Little Dunmow, c.1955
Reproduced courtesy of The Francis Frith Collection.

History of Little Dunmow >> White's Directory 1848

White's Directory of Essex 1848

DUNMOW, (LITTLE) a small scattered village, pleasantly situated in the vale of the river Chelmer, 2 miles East South East of Great Dunmow, has in its parish 385 souls, and 1683 acres of fertile land.

At Domesday Survey, it belonged to Ralph Baynard, but being forfeited by his son, it was given to Robert Fitz-Gislebert, progenitor of the ancient Earls of Clare, from whom the noble family of Fitzwalter descended. Robert's posterity held this lordship as part of the barony of Fitzwalter, through ten generations.

One of their co-heiresses carried this and other estates in marriage to Thomas Ratcliffe, whose son was summoned to parliament as Lord Fitzwalter. The manor of Little Dunmow afterwards passed to the Mildmay and Hallet families.

A Priory for canons of the Augustine order was founded here in the year 1104, by Lady Juga, sister of Ralph Baynard; and there was a manor belonging to it, which was granted at the dissolution, with the site of the priory, to Robert, Earl of Essex. On its suppression, the revenues of the priory were valued at £173.2s.4d. per ann. The monastic buildings stood on rising ground, south-west of the church, but were razed to the ground many years ago, and some part of the site is occupied by the manor house.

church - exterior
St Mary's Church, Little Dunmow.
© Copyright Robert Edwards contributor to the Geograph Project and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

The Priory Church (St. Mary,) was a large and stately fabric, but only the east end of the choir now remains, and forms the Parish Church in which the massive columns, the capitals covered with the foliage of oak, elegantly carved, and the beautiful Gothic windows, give a sufficient evidence of the magnificence of the fabric when entire in its pristine grandeur.

A tomb under an arch in the south wall is believed to contain the remains of the foundress. It is of a chest like form, and of great antiquity. Near this is a tomb, on which lays the mutilated effigy of Walter Fitzwalter, who died in 1198.

An alabaster figure, of superior workmanship, lying between two pillars on the north side of the choir, represents Matilda, the beautiful daughter of the second Walter Fitzwalter, said to have been destroyed by poison, for refusing to gratify the illicit passion of King John.

Many of the Fitzwalters were interred here; and in the church are inscriptions in memory of various members of the Hallet family.

The manor, commonly called Priory Place, was held by the Wyldes in the 17th century, and afterwards passed to the Toke family. Originally, the induction to this church was by the prior and canons selecting one of their own body; but since the dissolution, the benefice has been a donative, or curacy, in the gift of the lord of the manor.

The Rev. William Toke, of Dover, is now the patron, and the Rev. R.R. Toke, M.A., of Barnston, is the incumbent. Though the living is now only valued at £72 per annum, it has been augmented with £600 of Queen Anne' Bounty, and with £400, in two benefactions. The impropriate tithes, now held by Edward Knight, Esq., were commuted in 1839 for £515.18s.9d. per annum.

The ancient and well known jocular custom of the manor of Little Dunmow Priory, of giving a Gammon or Flitch of Bacon to any married couple who took the prescribed oath, is similar to that of Wichnour, in Staffordshire, and to one which existed for 600 years in Bretagne, at the Abbey of St. Meleine, near Rennes. It is supposed to have been instituted here by one of the Fitzwalters.

In the Chartulary of the Priory, now in the British Museum, three copies are recorded to have received the bacon previous to the suppression of the religious houses. Since then, the bacon has been but four times claimed and delivered. The last time the ceremony was performed was at the court-baron, held by the manor steward in 1763. The ceremony consisted in the claimants' kneeling on two sharp-pointed stones in the churchyard and there, after solemn chanting and other rites,taking the following oath:-

You shall swear by custom of confession,
That you ne'er made nuptial transgression;
Nor since you were married man and wife,
By household brawls or contentious strife,
Or otherwise at bed or at board,
Offended each other in deed or in word;
Or since the parish clerk said Amen,
Wished yourselves unmarried again;
Or in a twelvemonth and a day,
Repented not in thought any way;
But continued true in thought and desire,
As when you joined hands in holy quire.
If so these conditions without all fear,
Of your own accord you will freely swear,
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.

The pilgrim, as the happy husband was called, was then taken up in a chair, on men's shoulders, and carried about the churchyard and through the village, with the bacon borne before him, attended by the parishioners and other spectators, with shouts and acclamations, and at last sent home in the same manner.

The Bacon oath, at Wichnour, in Staffordshire, is much more easily swallowed than the above, which Morant thinks was modelled by one of the lords of the manor to "save his bacon."

A gammon of bacon is now given annually by the Great Dunmow Agricultural Society, with a more sensible object; and the late Col. Montagu Burgoyne, in his latter years, occasionally amused himself by giving bacon in the manner prescribed by the ancient tenure or custom.

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Dunmow Priory
Dunmow Priory
print published 1834

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Little Dunmow - Cary's New and Correct English Atlas, 1798

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Little Dunmow - First Series Ordnance Survey Map 1805

This work is based on data provided through www.VisionofBritain.org.uk and uses historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth. Licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence BY-SA-4.0

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