All that remains of Dunmow Priory is the present church of Dunmow, which was formerly only the south aisle of a magnificent collegiate church erected for the joint use of the parish and of the priory. It stands (divided from the public road by a cornfield) four miles from the town of Dunmow, and is picturesque with the true English loveliness of tree and golden grain, ancient walls and romantic memories; for within it repose some noble English dead, one of whom was a remarkable and beautiful woman.
Her story is worth telling. She was Matilda, or Marian, the daughter of Baron Richard Fitzwalter, and was one of the fairest of England's maidens. On her eighteenth birthday her father gave a tournament at one of his castles m her honour, and for three days the jousts went on with varying success to the challengers, who came from all parts to win honour in the eyes of the lovely women who filled the galleries and gazed on the martial sport The legend has a great resemblance to the tournament in "Ivanhoe," for Prince John presided at it by the side of the Queen of Beauty - Marian Fitzwalter - and on the fourth day a stranger knight appeared clad in burnished mail, entered the lists, and vanquished the bravest of the competitors. He gave no name, his shield was argent uncharged, but his gallant bearing and his handsome countenance, as he knelt for the Lady Marion to hang the victor's chain round his neck, won the girl's heart at once. He departed alone as he had come, and the tramp of his noble steed died away in the great still forest of Sherwood.
Prince John sounded his host at that time as to his feeling about the absent Richard - then a captive in Austria - and finding him entirely loyal to his sovereign, resolved on his destruction. Moreover, he had fixed his unholy affections on Marian, or Matilda (as she is variously called), and resolved to win her. It chanced shortly after that the brother of Fitzwalter departed for the Holy Land to join the crusade, taking with him a portion of the baron's retainers.
John seized his opportunity, attacked the imperfectly garrisoned castle, and killed its lord But happily for herself Matilda had escaped into the forest and concealed herself in its green depths, taking her bow and arrow for protection from wild beasts or robbers
Here she wandered all night and part of the next day, when she heard a rustling in the trees, and suddenly the victor of her birthday tournament appeared before her. He was no longer in armour, but clad in Lincoln green and holding a bow in his hand.
Amazed at finding the lady in the forest, he questioned her as to her trouble, proffering her ready aid, and then she told him her sad story - how her father was slain, - her home destroyed by the tyrant John.
The stranger gave her his warm and indignant sympathy, telling her that she would be safe with him and his merry men in the greenwood, for that he was Robin Hood, the outlawed Earl of Huntingdon. Matilda - henceforth to be known as Maid Marian - gratefully accepted his friendship, and went with him to his sylvan home. For her better protection he gave her a very light suit of armour, such as young knights wore at festivals, and thus disguised she roamed fearlessly in the forest with Robin, Allan-a-dale, or others of the outlaw band, for they were all her devoted followers.
But one day when she chanced to be alone, she came face to face with John himself, who was seeking for her. He did not know her at first, and called on her to surrender; but Marian drew her sword and ordered him to defend himself. Prince John was as cowardly as he was cruel, but he was confident of success when he found that his opponent was a woman. He was mistaken, however; she disarmed him, brought him to the ground, and granted him his life only on condition that he should instantly leave the forest. John, shamed and furious, fled from Sherwood, vowing vengeance against the heroic maiden.
After this adventure a love idyl went on in the greenwood, and Marian became the wife of Robin Hood, his faithful companion in storm and sunshine.
But now King Richard returned, and John, forgiven too easily, had to sink into vindictive insignificance.
Robin Hood was restored to his estates and rank as an earl, and Marian presided over his lordly castle with the same grace and ease as that with which she had ruled his greenwood home "under the shade of melancholy boughs."
But their prosperity was short-lived Richard was slain, Arthur set aside and murdered, and the hateful John was crowned king of England.
The time for John's revenge was now come, and the hatred he had long nourished in his heart fell heavily on the Earl of Huntingdon. He was again outlawed, but once more found safety and true followers m the green woods of England. His faithful wife went with him, sharing all his dangers and privations. Again her husband became an outlaw, hut his band gathered together, and once more they defied the law
But when Robin perished by the treachery of his cousin, Marian, utterly crushed by her grief, took refuge in Dunmow Priory, Essex; probably she had a friend or kinswoman amongst the nuns.
John heard of her retreat, and at once resolved on a terrible vengeance. Summoning a gallant knight of his train, Robert de Medieve, or Medewe, an ancestor of the Earl of Manvers, he ordered him to ride to Dunmow Priory and present to the widowed Countess of Huntingdon a valuable bracelet set with gems, asking her to accept it as a pledge of her sovereign's pardon and of his future favour.
Marian must have been much younger than her husband, for she still retained great though mature beauty. She received the messenger graciously, and, having in much sorrow learned the duty of forgiveness, she accepted the king's gift and put it on her arm. The knight took his leave, and rode off through the forest which then surrounded the priory. But he had been struck with love and admiration for the peerless Marian, and some strange instinct bade him look on her once more. He rode back to the priory. The day had closed in, but the windows of the church streamed with the light of many tapers, and he hastened thither at once, for the priory seemed deserted. His mailed step clanged on the pavement as he entered the church, but there he paused in horror, for before the altar lay the corpse of the beautiful Marian. The poisoned bracelet had eaten into the flesh and killed her rapidly. The veiled nuns were weeping round her.
The rage and indignation of the knight who had thus been made the unconscious agent in a dreadful crime must have equalled his sorrow. Never again would he serve that atrocious John. It was long before he could he moved from the spot, and when he was, he laid aside mail for ever and became an Augustinian monk.
The grave of the Countess of Huntingdon is in Dunmow Church; shielded by a beautiful screen of dark oak which separates the nave from the chancel it stands forth in relief. The head is covered with a woollen coif and reposes on a cushion. She wears a collar of S.S., a necklace of pendants falling on a richly embroidered kerchief, a rich girdle and long robes; the sleeves close to the wrists and slit there; her fingers are loaded with rings At the head are two angels, now mutilated; there is a dog on each side of her feet. According to Dugdale, in the Monasticon, she was buried across two columns; but her marble effigy, with its slab, are now placed upon a grey altar tomb decorated with shields with quatrefoils.
It is some consolation to know that the name that headed the barons' demands on John (culminating at Runnimede) was that of Robert Fitzwalter, probably Marion's brother.
John destroyed Baynard's Castle in London, on the Thames, and every other castle the Fitzwalters possessed in his revengeful malice.
Sir Walter de Bohun and his wife Matilda are also buried at Dunmow. Robert Fitzwalter is said to have originated the custom of the flitch of bacon, by which "he that repenteth not of his marriage, sleeping or waking in a yeare and a day, might lawfully fetch a gammon of bacon."