The Tichborne Dole and Curse
The Tichborne family has been Lords of the Manor in Arlesford, Hampshire for centuries. Thanks to an ancient tradition it falls to every generation to dole out flour to local people on March 25th every year. And, they'd better keep up with the custom because there is a curse upon those that don't.
There seems to be no contemporary record of the events surrounding the Tichborne Dole and its curse. The story has passed through several generations and we all know word-of-mouth accounts can be a bit iffy. So, what follows is the best available version of the truth and it makes a darn good yarn.
Miserable Sir Roger Tichborne
It’s hard to work up any positive thoughts about Sir Roger Tichborne. Back in the 12th century his wife Lady Mabella was dying of a wasting disease.
As a farewell gift, she asked the miserly knight to donate food to the poorest people each year. Sir Roger pondered the request and set his crippled wife a cruel task. He was willing to give away all the wheat from an area Lady Mabella could crawl around while carrying a blazing torch before the flame burned out.
Another version of the story has Sir Roger pulling a burning chunk of wood out of the fireplace and telling his wife she had until the flames went out to claim a section of land.
The Tichborne marriage does not appear to have been the happiest of unions.
Lady Marbella managed to haul her feeble body around 23 acres and left her tightwad husband and all his heirs on the hook for his bargain. She knew her spouse would try to squirm out of his obligations so she placed a curse on him and all those that followed him if he tried to put an end to what was called the Tichborne Dole.
Historic U.K. describes the curse: If “the Dole ever be stopped then seven sons would be born to the house, followed immediately by a generation of seven daughters, after which the Tichborne name would die out and the ancient house fall into ruin.”
The Dole is Cancelled
By the 1790s, the Tichborne Dole event was getting a bit rowdy. All sorts of unsavoury people were turning up for the handout – beggars, vagabonds, even a travelling fair. In 1791, the family doled out 1,700 loaves of bread. When the bread supply was exhausted, a tradition developed of giving two pennies to those who missed out on the bread. One year about £8 was dispensed, suggesting a crowd of almost 2,000 on top of those who received a loaf of bread.
Local folk were not happy about the flood of ne’er-do-wells descending on their village for freebies. So, the Tichborne Dole came to an end in 1796; it’s not clear whether this was at the order of the family or a magistrate.
Lady Mabella’s Curse
Well, danged if a bunch of strange things followed the cancellation of the Dole.
In 1803, a corner of Tichborne House crumbled to the ground. The then-current Tichborne baronet, Sir Henry, and his wife produced seven sons. He was succeeded in 1821 by his eldest son, another Henry, who sired seven daughters.
The title and estate passed to Sir Edward Tichborne-Doughty, who changed the family name to Doughty. He seemed to dodge old Lady Mabella’s curse by having a son and a daughter. But then, Sir Edward’s son died at the age of six in 1835.
That was enough for Sir Edward. He reinstated the Dole, but with some new rules. Only residents of three nearby parishes could collect the annual reward in the form of loaves of bread. This was later changed to flour that is still handed out annually on March 25.
But, the curse lived on. In 1854, Roger Tichborne, the heir to the title and estate, was lost at sea at the age of 25. His brother, Alfred, succeeded to the baronetcy and promptly squandered the family fortune.
The 14th and last baronet of the line was Sir Anthony Joseph Henry Doughty Doughty-Tichborne. In 1968, he died without a male heir and the title died with him. He did have three daughters but the arcane system of hereditary titles meant none of them could have the honorific bestowed upon them. Sir Anthony is shown in the film below handing out the Dole in 1947.
Flour on Lady Day
The day for the Dole is March 25th, Lady Day on the liturgical calendar, also known as the Feast of the Annunciation. It is, supposedly, the day on which the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she was pregnant with the Christ child. Until 1750, March 25 was the first day of the New Year in England.
It’s said to be the day on which Lady Mabella crawled around the 23-acre field, but we do have to take that with a grain of salt.
Currently, the Dole is handed out by Anthony and Catherine Loudon; he being the son of Sir Anthony Joseph Henry Doughty Doughty-Tichborne’s eldest daughter.
He is quoted by The Hampshire Chronicle as saying “It’s very important to the family and the village to keep this going. We also collect for charity on the day because that is how this all started with Lady Mabella.
“We always look forward to this especially when you get children involved and it’s always an enjoyable day.”
A huge wooden box is put in front of Tichborne House and flour is poured into it. A blessing for the soul of Lady Mabella is delivered by the local clergy and holy water is sprinkled. After the religious ceremony, the flour is dispensed to the people at the rate of a gallon per person, and half a gallon per child.
The days of the desperately poor in need of the flour are long in the past, but the custom continues.
The area around which Lady Mabella made her painful journey is still called The Crawls.
There are several other British doles with ancient roots. One takes place on Whit Sunday in the Gloucestershire village of St. Briavels. Bread and cheese are cut into small pieces and thrown from the walls of St. Briavels Castle out to the assembled villagers. The best technique seems to be catching the morsels in an upturned umbrella.The food receives a blessing from the vicar of St. Mary’s Church and is said to not go moldy for a year. This custom is said to date from the 12th century.
Every fourth year in the Essex village of Dunmow married couples from anywhere in the world can go before a panel of six maidens and six bachelors to declare their fidelity to one another. The contestants must prove, as eloquently as they can, that in “twelvemonth and a day,” they have “not wisht themselves unmarried again.” If the jury is satisfied, the couple is given a flitch of bacon, what amounts to the side of a hog. This custom also goes back to the 12th century, and the folk who run the event give us a history lesson. In 1104, “Lord of the Manor Reginald Fitzwalter and his wife dressed themselves as humble folk and begged blessing of the [Augustinian Prior of Little Dunmow] a year and a day after marriage. The Prior, impressed by their devotion bestowed upon them a Flitch of Bacon. Upon revealing his true identity, Fitzwalter gave his land to the Priory on the condition a Flitch should be awarded to any couple who could claim they were similarly devoted.”
- “The Tichborne Dole.” Ben Johnson, Historic U.K., undated
- “The Curse of the Tichborne Dole: A Medieval Postscript to the Amazing Story of the Tichborne Claimant.” Pauline Montagna, English Historical Fiction Authors, March 27, 2014.
- “A Bunch of Flour.” BBC, undated.
- “St. Briavels Dole.” Stange Britain, undated.
- Dunmow Flitch Trials.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor