The Tichborne Dole, HampshireThe Tichborne Dole can surely claim to possess the most romantic story of any British folk custom. It is very possibly a tradition dating back to the 12th century, but intriguingly the saga has had elements added as the years have gone by, all in keeping with the original tale. That a silent movie was made of the story in 1926 is not surprising; it is harder to understand why there is no more recent version, maybe with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep in the major roles. Read on.
The story goes that in the 12th century the pious Lady Mabella Tichborne was nearing the end of her days, weakened by a wasting disease. She was a gentle and pious creature, in contrast to her soldier husband Sir Roger. Mabella asked him to donate land to provide an annual dole for the poor of the district, but his response was far less charitable: her bequest would be however much land she could circumnavigate with a burning torch in her hand, so long as the torch was alight.
Undaunted Mabella had her bed taken outside, and then crawled around 23 acres with the lighted torch held in her weakening grasp. The field to this day is known as ‘the crawls’.
Fearing Sir Roger would renege on the agreement Mabella added a curse: if the dole should cease the house would crumble, and after seven sons in one generation and seven daughters in the next, the line would end.
The custom is certainly ancient – it is depicted in a painting of 1671 by a Flemish artist, van Tilborgh. For centuries 1,400 loaves would be distributed to local villagers, but in 1796 the custom was stopped by the authorities as beggars and ne’er-do-wells from all over the area disrupted the ceremony with their greedy and threatening demands.
Sure enough, the family luck changed. In 1803 part of the old building collapsed. Sir Henry Tichborne, who succeeded to the baronetcy in 1821, sired seven daughters, and he was one of seven sons. Various male relatives met untimely ends. The house and land passed to Edward, Sir Henry’s brother, who fearing the curse, revived the custom in 1835, and it has continued unbroken since then.
These days the villagers of Tichborne, Cheriton, and Lane Ends gather on Lady Day, March 25, with their sacks and pillow-cases to receive their entitlement, now doled out as self-raising flour from the local mill, blessed before distribution by the parish priest: a gallon for every adult, and half a gallon for every child – enough for cakes and pies through the whole year.
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