Why love is worth half a pig

By Ted Jeory"YOU'VE been reading too many Claire Rayner books," is not normally the sort of refrain you expect to hear from a trial judge to a court barrister.

By Ted Jeory

"YOU'VE been reading too many Claire Rayner books," is not normally the sort of refrain you expect to hear from a trial judge to a court barrister.

But then again, the Dunmow Flitch trials, which took place on Saturday, are not exactly normal. Like leap years and Olympics, they only come round every four years.

However, that is probably enough for the nervous married couples who, in a medieval version of Mr and Mrs, have to convince a mock court that their love reigns supreme. If successful, they literally take home the flitch of bacon.


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Hundreds turned up to watch this year's festivities, which have been played out in Great Dunmow for about 900 years.

It is thought the bizarre tradition was established in the early 12th Century by the devout Lady Juga Baynard, sister of the Lord of the Manor of Dunmow.

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Chaucer mentions them in his Canterbury Tales at the beginning of the 15th Century, but it was not until 1445 that the winners of the Flitch were officially recorded.

At that time many couples were abandoning marriage in favour of simple cohabitation, so residents set up a prize to show the young, naïve folk of the area that weddings were worth the plunge.

If couples married at least a year and a day could prove to a jury of six maidens and six bachelors that their life together had been one of uninterrupted bliss, they were entitled to a flitch of bacon - or half a pig, which was highly-valued in those days.

What was once a local tradition is now a four-yearly spectacular that has caught the nation's attention.

On Saturday, five couples from across the east of England were carried by procession from the town centre to take their turn sitting nervously in the dock.

For about an hour, "barristers" - some of whom were real lawyers - looked closely, if light-heartedly, into the defendants' eyes and hearts.

Agony aunt Claire Rayner, more used to cementing rather than grilling relationships, has been coming to Great Dunmow since the 1970s.

"Don't tell anybody, but I secretly hope every one of the couples wins. If I'm acting for them, I try my hardest. If I'm prosecuting - well, let's just say my romantic side takes over," said the 73-year-old. "The whole event is absolutely marvellous - we want everyone to go home happy."

Not everyone did though with only three of the five couples successful, including Copford couple Percy and Barbara Baalham.

Mr Baalham, 75, had last appeared in court decades ago for a motorbiking offence, but the memory of when he had been "a bit of a silly boy" came flooding back at the Dunmow Flitch trials.

With his wife of 44 years, the retired farm worker from Copford walked apprehensively into the marquee court room and asked: "What have we done?"

For the next hour, the court heard how the young Mr Baalham had wooed the Brightlingsea beauty, revving the engine of his desirable BSA 250cc.

Claire Rayner, prosecuting, revealed Mr Baalham had deliberately parked his bike away from his future wife's house to avoid the wrath of her mother, who was opposed to his mean machine. "There was deceit in this relationship from the start," she said.

The couple married in September 1960, but 19 years later Mrs Baalham contracted multiple sclerosis and that brought the couple closer together.

BBC Essex presenter Dave Monk, defending, said: "One word sums up this man - integrity. They spent three years in Percy's boss's touring caravan, they saved hard and then had three beautiful children.

"But then the young woman from Brightlingsea was confined to a wheelchair. No longer was Percy just a husband. He became a cook, a lover and a carer, helping her to get up in the morning because she couldn't do it herself. He was determined that she receive the best care she could.

"Now, young members of the jury, that's love - the highest form of love. By awarding them the flitch, we will be celebrating young love - and it will be a privilege to witness it."

The speech impressed the audience, but not Judge Michael Chapman, who retorted "You've been reading too many Claire Raynor books."

After 15 minutes deliberation, the jury found in favour of the Baalhams by eight to four. On Mr Baalham's last court appearance, he was fined £1 - this time he won half a pig.

After taking the famous Flitch Oath, Mrs Baalham said: "I shan't be needing to buy a ham for Christmas, that's for sure, but I think I'll need a new freezer. The day was a dream come true."

ted.jeory@eadt.co.uk

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