All you need is love
PUBLISHED: 10:47 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:18 20 February 2013
On July 12, five couples will battle it out to prove the strength of their marriage and win a side of bacon at the Dunmow Flitch Trials. Nicky Adams reports on one of the county's most ancient and entertaining traditions
DUNMOW solicitor Michael Chapman will be dusting off his wig in readiness for a court appearance with a difference this month.
'The Dunmow Flitch Trials are certainly great fun,' he says, 'although it is a little bit of a strain as it's not at all scripted.'
Despite the lack of prepared words, the trials are extremely entertaining and every four years attract huge crowds of 700 people or more to the marquee next to the town's Foakes Hall. There, they watch as five couples - the claimants - set out to prove that they have enjoyed such a wonderful relationship that they have not 'wish't themselves unmarried again' over the course of 'twelve months and a day'. The successful couple are then presented with their prize - a flitch, or side, of bacon.
'It's run as a proper crown court trial with leading and junior counsel for the claimants and a jury made up of local sixth form students,' Michael explains. 'Interestingly, the claimant's job is to persuade unmarried people of the success of the marriage. It usually starts off rather jolly, but then becomes quite serious as the claimants realise that their marriage is on the line here.'
Michael, who is a senior partner at Dunmow's Wade & Davies solicitors and was recently appointed deputy to the Lord Lieutenant of Essex, has acted as judge in every trial since the early 1980s. However, he is still often surprised by the jury's decision and impressed by the little details they pick up on.
'One year, a lovely couple gave all the right answers and I thought they were surely going to win, but the jury disagreed,' Michael remembers. 'When I asked them why later they said it was because, although the pair had been married for 40 years, when they were standing in the dock together in front of 700 people, they hadn't touched each other once. That was surprising - you would think they would hold hands - but I hadn't noticed it.
'Another time, we had a delightful couple, who were an accountant and a solicitor. His hobby was trainspotting and hers, collecting milk bottles. When they were cross-examined, he was asked if he ever wore a duffel coat to go trainspotting and his wife butted in that she wouldn't let him leave the house dressed like that. The jury decided against them because they felt the husband was too much under the wife's thumb. So, you can never tell.'
More than 20 applications have been received from would-be claimants for this year's trials and well before his wig and gown moment, Michael has been involved in the process of whittling them down to the five needed for the day. 'We try one couple in the morning, two in the afternoon and two in the evening, although we do have one reserve couple on hand as well,' he says. 'The claimants can come from anywhere in the world at all and this year we have had applications from a couple in America and one in Mexico. Their English does need to be extremely good though, because it is very difficult for anyone to try to convey the special quality of their relationship using just the spoken word.'
In company with the local vicar and the mayor, Michael reads through the applications carefully in the search for the ideal claimants. 'We're looking for people who have a good story and can cope with the pressure of telling it in front of a large crowd and being cross-examined. People who look interesting on paper sometimes turn out to be less so in person, so we do like to meet them before making our final choice. When we have though, we don't reveal who the couples are until the day.'
As the date of the trials approaches, a huge marquee is erected next to Foakes Hall and stalls and sideshows are set up. As well as the 700 spectators who can fit into the canvas courtroom, many more throng the streets, as flitch fever hits the town. 'We usually have a contingent from our French twin town, Dourdan,' says Michael, 'although I'm sure the ones who speak English really well are wondering what we are all up to. It does seem amazing that such an old tradition is still going strong, but that is the beauty of it. I do sometimes meet local people and am surprised when they tell me that they have never been to the trials. Mind you, when I meet people who have, they are always keen to go again.'
Certainly, the trials are a battle of wits and eloquence, the like of which is seldom seen in these modern times. 'As we know, it goes right back to the medieval era,' says Michael. 'Chaucer was writing about the trials without explanation so we know his readers would have been familiar with them. The trials are such an unusual experience, and rely so much on the abilities of the claimants to try to express what it is about their relationship that makes it so special, that it is hard to describe them unless you have seen them.'
The prize too is something of a rarity. The flitch of bacon is donated by the town's two butchers, who joint it ready for presentation to the winning couple. Generally, the successful claimants take home their bacon and hold a party for their friends and family to help them eat it. However, when a flitch was given to the Queen and Prince Phillip on the occasion of their golden wedding anniversary in 1997, the royal couple sent it back to Dunmow with the instruction that it should be shared among the local couples also celebrating their 50th year.
'The trials are certainly a good advertisement for marriage,' says Michael.