Was Maid Marion an Essex Girl?

Matilda Fitzwalter?
Matilda Fitzwalter?

I don’t remember now where I found the story that Maid Marion was buried in Essex. The internet is a wonderful, rich and unreliable source of information. I did however find various versions of the story online, and a photo of the church. With a husband who can find anywhere in this country with an Ordinance Survey map (no Satnavs for him!) I thought we had a good chance of locating the tomb. The biggest problem would probably be getting into a country church.

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Surely this is a film set?

Little Dunmow is ridiculously pretty. Surely it’s a film set? We saw no-one in a bonnet or top hat, however, or indeed doublet and hose. A short walk following a sign-post brought us to this little building. What serves now as the parish church is part of the former priory, a small establishment but an impressive building from the information inside. And yes, it was actually really easy to get in. I’ve always felt too embarrassed to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for the key, even though the notice on the door of a church often says as much, but confidence comes with age, and the owner of an enthusiastic spaniel handed the key over with no questions asked at all.

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Little Dunmow Priory Church

Inside, we found two tombs and one memorial. The memorial is to Robert Fitzwalter, leader of the baronial opposition to King John, one of the sureties of Magna Carta, and bearer of this wonderful title: ‘Marshall of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Founder of our Civil Liberty.’ 

Memorial to Robert Fitzwalter
Memorial to Robert Fitzwalter

The tomb nearest the door is identified as Walter Fitzwalter, who died 1432, and his wife Elizabeth, nee Chiddock, who died 1464.

Walter and Elizabeth Fitzwalter
Walter and Elizabeth Fitzwalter

Local tradition says the stone effigy lying with hands clasped and eyes staring at the roof beams is Matilda, the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. In 1212 he was part of a conspiracy to kill King John, and escaped trial by fleeing to France, where he told the French king he’d risen up against his master because John had attempted to seduce his daughter. The local legend, recorded by Philip Morant, historian for Essex, says she lived at Dunmow, and was poisoned when she refused the king’s love.

Traces of the poison that killed Lady Matilda?
Traces of the poison that killed Lady Matilda?

Meanwhile, we have an Elizabethan play written by Anthony Munday about Robert Earl of Huntingdon, whose alias was Robin Hood, and whose wife was Matilda, daughter of Robert Fitzwalter. The nineteenth century antiquarian Joseph Hunter identified these two as being Robert Hood, a yeoman from Wakefield, Yorkshire, and Matilda, who joined him in Barndsdale Forest after the Battle of Boroughbridge.

This claim on Robin Hood by Yorkshire will doubtless outrage the good folk of Nottingham. The rest of us will be noting that there are two problems here. Firstly, the Essex tradition has Matilda dying, and the Munday play has her fleeing to the forest. And secondly, the Battle of Boroughbridge was 1322, more than a century after Robert’s struggle with King John. Besides, the headdress and gown worn by the lady on the tomb are quite obviously late Medieval. A more likely identification is that she could be the mother of Walter, who lies on the next tomb.

It’s rather a dull solution, though, isn’t it? I wish there was more to back up the stories. We do have a King John tradition further south in the country. He apparently owned much of the land here as a hunting chase, and a local house is said to be his hunting lodge.

King John's Hunting Lodge, Thundersley
King John’s Hunting Lodge, Thundersley
St Peter's Church, Thundersley
St Peter’s Church, Thundersley

The parish church, according to an account which has more holes in it than a colander, was burned down Christmas Day 1215 for defying the Pope’s ban on services. The catchment school is named after King John, who I always think is quite an unsuitable role model for our young people. Even putting these traditions together, there isn’t much evidence.

But hey, I’m a writer, not a historian. I love the idea that Maid Marion was an Essex girl, part of the struggle for English liberty on several fronts. There’s a story here, I’m sure.