Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Little Dunmow, Essex

St Mary the Virgin is all that remains of the old priory which was lost to posterity following the reformation and as such is fascinating. No less fascinating are the Fitzwalter tombs and effigies within. This Augustinian priory was founded in 1106, and one of its canons served as curate to the parish. The Lady chapel, now the parish church, was the east end of the choir of the large and stately Little Dunmow Priory church. It still has the magnificent columns and beautiful Gothic windows as evidence of its former grandeur. The monastic buildings stood to the south west of the church.

One of the monuments is of Matilda Fitzwalter (1161-1203)aka Marian and the church guide states: "...an alabaster effigy of a woman. The dress dates from an earlier period than Elizabeth's [FitzWalter nee Chiddock d. 1464].

Various suggestions have been made as to her identity. (1) that she may be the mother of of Walter FitzWalter [perhaps Rohese Blount], (2) 'Matilda' the daughter of Robert [FitzWalter] the Third Baron. She is said to have resisted the lustful advances of King John and been poisoned on his instructions, (3)'Maid Marion' of the Robin Hood legend, possibly because, Robert, the first baron was married to the daughter [Maud De St. Liz] of the Earl of Huntingdon . 'Marion' has become confused with 'Matilda'. (4). A later member of the FitzWalter family. This is suggested by the style of dress which appears similar to that of an effigy of Elizabeth De Strelley of Strelley Notts. which would have been the style in the late 1300's early 1400's.

ST MARY. Little Dunmow Priory was a priory of Augustinian Canons founded in 1106 by Geoffrey Baynard. It possessed a church of nave and N (and perhaps S) aisle, crossing tower, transepts, chancel and two chancel aisles or chancel chapels. The plan has been ascertained by excavation, but all that is now above ground is the S chancel chapel or Lady Chapel, used as the parish church of Little Dunmow and for the purpose provided in 1872 with a silly NW turret. Its splendid windows look down on neat new council houses. It is altogether a curiously unbalanced building, but one of interest wherever one looks, and in addition of great architectural beauty in parts. For a parish church it is long and narrow. Its N wall, that is the chancel S arcade of the priory church, has five bays of magnificent thick-set and solid piers of about 1200. They consist of four major and four minor shafts, alternatingly keeled. The capitals are crocketed or have stylized upright leaves, not yet of the stiff-leaf type. The arches are richly moulded. To the E of them, visible from outside, is a shafted, blocked C13 window with shaftrings and below it blank intersected arcading. That of course belonged to the priory chancel. In the W wall  of the church is the joint of the opening from the former S transept into the chapel, and in addition three niches. These are part of the extremely opulent re-modelling of the chapel which took place about 1360. Its chief glory is the five windows, that at the E end of five lights and the four S windows of three and four in alternation. Here lies the first wilfulness of the composition, and there are several more. The S wall thus has a rhythm of large, yet larger, large, yet larger, and at the same time of two-centred, four-centred, two-centred, four-centred arches. In addition, also without doubt a conscious device, the E window and three of the S windows have tracery of the flowing type, but the remaining S window is entirely Perp - a concession to a coming fashion, or a deliberate proof of proficiency. Inside below the windows is a charming blank arcade with leaves and animals - a ram, a pig, a squirrel, a cow - and below the E window also with human figures. - CHAIR in the chancel (the Dunmow Flitch Chair). Made up of part of a C13 stall with tracery on one side, a trefoil frieze on the back, and shafts in front of the arms. - MONUMENTS. Walter Fitzwalter d. 1432 and wife d. 1464. Alabaster effigies on a tomb-chest decorated with shields, and also a figure. The two effigies are of the highest quality available, faces which in their remote dignity have a direct appeal rare in English C15 funeral sculpture. The same cannot be said of the other effigy, an unknown woman, on a tomb-chest. The effigy is early, the tomb-chest late, C15. - Sir James Hallet d. 1753, by Thomas Adye. Obelisk with seated female figure holding a portrait medallion.

LITTLE DUNMOW. All the world knows it for the Flitch of Bacon which for so long was given here yearly to a married couple who had no quarrels. The custom was as old as anything in Little Dunmow, going back to the days of Robert Fitzwalter, one of the Magna Carta men. It is believed that he built the great white columns with five arches in the nave of the church; certainly he edified the church and adorned it, and a tablet set up in 1915, on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta, tells us that he was the founder of our civil liberty and marshal of the Army of God and the founder of this Church. He was the leader in that struggle which bore fruit at Runnymede, and one of the executors appointed to see that the provisions of Magna Carta were carried out. He lived for twenty years after seeing the fruits of the struggle of the Barons, and he lies here in an unknown grave.

The story told of the Dunmow Flitch is that Robert Fitzwalter, when lord of the manor, offered the Flitch to the man who had not repented of his marriage for a year and a day, the man having to take an oath to that effect before the prior, the monks, and the townsmen. The custom survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and records of the court awarding the Flitch in the 18th century hang on the walls of the church, which is all that remains of the old priory, except that if we call at the cottages or the farms we shall come upon pieces of wood or stone brought from the priory ruins; they are built into the barns and gabled houses of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. In the church also is the prior’s chair used in olden days at the court which made the award each year. It is made up of 13th century oak, though the top rail is 15th century. The successful claimants of the Flitch of Bacon were enthroned in the chair, and it is interesting to know that a document of the priory preserved in the British Museum has the names of three men to whom the Flitch was delivered in 1445, 1467, and 1510.

There is a tomb of a Walter Fitzwalter of those days lying with his wife with painted shields about them, he in armour with an elaborate belt and his head on a helmet, she supported by angels at her head and two dogs at her feet and wearing a sleeveless gown, a narrow hip belt, and a corded cloak in the fashion of 500 years ago. A kinswoman of this lady lies in similar costume on an altar tomb under another bay of the old arcade, an attractive figure in alabaster.

The bell-turret of the church rests on the masonry which formed the corner stones of the priory’s central tower. There is a wonderful array of beauty in stone on the south wall, delicately carved with animals and tiny flowers; it is set in panels and runs along at the level of the windowsills, and we noticed among the animals a goat, a mouse, a sheep, a pigeon, and a dragon. The font and a beautiful pillar piscina are both 600 years old, and there are two coffin lids of the same time. The shafts of the east window come down to the floor. Built into a wall are about a dozen brightly coloured 14th century tiles, on one of which a man and a woman are exchanging rings under a tree.

In the pulpit are seven lovely panels of 15th century wood tracery, and in the altar rails and reading desk are ten more pieces of medieval carving. A delightful little cherub with its mouth firmly set and its eyes wide open looks out from the back of the priest’s chair. In the sanctuary is a mourning figure holding a medallion portrait of Sir James Hallett who was buried here 200 years ago.

One interesting piece of family history we came upon in the register here. There was a John Bull of Little Dunmow long ago, and five of his nine daughters married brothers and cousins named Portway, so that five sisters became Mrs Portway at these altar rails.

A Magna Carta Champion

LEGEND, ballad, and history combine to keep green the memory of Robert Fitzwalter, who has slept here for seven centuries. Divested of fable, he stands clean-cut in history as a dauntless champion of liberty. He was born to great possessions in London and in the counties. As long as his sense of right permitted, he was loyal to John, although disgusted at the king’s infamy, he surrendered a French castle he was defending. For this he was imprisoned and held to ransom.

Restored to favour, he saw the mismanagement of the kingdom at close quarters, and is believed to have been a party to the appeal to the French king to invade England and dethrone the tyrant John. The plot betrayed, he fled to France, but his pardon was a condition of John’s absolution when he surrendered the crown, and became the vassal of the pope. Fitzwalter was appointed "Marshal of the Host of the Lord and Holy Church" which marched to force Magna Carta on the king, and was one of the 25 barons appointed to insist on the execution of its provisions. He was a principal figure in the fighting that followed, and was excommunicated by the pope when the charter was annulled.

One of the two nobles sent to France to call in the aid of the Dauphin, he remained loyal to King Louis after his landing until all was fortunately lost at the Battle of Lincoln, where the Baron was taken prisoner and the charter confirmed. He afterwards went on Crusade, but was back in time to see Henry the Third subscribe to the Great Charter, and he passed to his grave in 1235 with the promise of national rights and freedom fully assured. None had striven harder or suffered more for its accomplishment than he.


  1. The FitzWalters are my ancestors and I recently visited Little Dunmow and the Priory Church--I have taken a few photos and videos as well----I was overwhelmed with joy--I will need to re-visit because the video of the graveyard failed to record--kind regards Sheila E Wood