The Tichborne Dole

 Back in the twelfth century when Henry I was King of England, the stingy and arrogant Sir Roger Tichborne ruled his north country estate with a rod of iron. His wife was the noble Lady Mabella, who had come to him, richly dowered, from Limerston, near Brightstone, Isle of Wight. She was known through out the whole countryside for her pious and charitable disposition, the very opposite of her husband’s. After a long life, filled with good deeds, she lay at last on her deathbed. She had no fear of death, but she was troubled by the thought of the distress which would fall on the poor of the village when they could no longer come to her for help. In those days the condition of the poor was dreadful. There was neither dole nor poor relief, and many of the wretched inhabitants died in their miserable mud-and-wattle huts when harvests failed, especially towards spring when the scanty supplies ran out.


So she pleaded with her husband to set aside a piece of land large enough to provide a dole of bread to all comers on the day of the Annunciation of the Lord on March 25. Sarcastically, Sir Roger agreed to grant his dying wife’s request on one condition. Seizing a blazing stick from the open hearth, he held it aloft and harshly declared he would give for a dole to the poor all the land she could walk around while the flame continued to burn. The sick woman closed her eyes for a moment in prayer for divine help, then calling her women, ordered them to carry her outside. When they placed her gently on the ground, she tried to stand but could not.


When falling on her knees, she crawled—and crawled as never woman crawled before. The knight, already repenting his rash promise followed her outside, still holding the blazing brand. But the wind seemed to have dropped allowing the flame to burn clear and steady without a flicker. Before the brand was half consumed the crawler was a mere speck in the distance and had already turned back toward her starting point. Breathlessly the servants watched the fateful flame as it slowly ran its course, while a race for life began between Lady Mabella and the expiring brand.


But before the blaze gave a final spurt and flickered out, she had returned to her starting point. She had succeeded in encircling twenty-three acres. The serving maids carried her to her pallet, and Sir Roger followed, savagely flinging the charred stump into the fire. “Listen to me again, my husband, for my time is short. God has heard my prayer, and the land thou hast given shall provide a dole of food for my poor, and the day I appoint shall be that of the Annunciation of Our Lord, the very day on which He was conceived. And,” here her voice grew stern with warning, “let no man break this solemn promise, nor tamper with so great a gift, for then a curse will fall upon him, and upon his house. Then the fortune of the family shall fail, the name Tichborne shall be changed, and the family shall die out. And as a sign that this is happening, there shall be born a generation of seven sons, followed by one of seven daughters.” She fell back on the pillow. Lady Mabella was dead.


Eight hundred years have passed, and the Tichbornes still reign over their ancestral acres.  The twenty-three acres still produce their dole of food for the poor, and are known as “the Crawls” to this day. On each Annunciation day the flour is distributed to the poor. No Tichborne will risk that terrible curse which was once fulfilled. For in 1796 Sir Henry Tichborne had stopped the distribution of loaves of bread and instead gave money to the church. Then a remarkable thing happened. One can inspect the family tree of the Tichbornes: there, plainly to be seen, is the generation of seven sons followed by seven daughters, as prophesied. The Dole was promptly restored to its original form, and the curse was staved off.


The public is freely permitted to see the ceremony which takes place every year on the Annunciation with all the stately ritual of the Roman Catholic Church. The service begins with prayers for the repose of the soul of the founder Lady Mabella. The flour is then incensed, sprinkled with holy water, and blessed by the priest; after more prayers the flour is given away to the people of the village in the proportion of one gallon for each male of the family, and half a gallon for each woman and child.


If you should ever be traveling through the North of England on March 25, stop in the village of Tichborne and witness for yourself the eight-hundred-year-old Tichborne Dole which, by providing bread to the poor, honors the conception day of Christ who is himself the Bread of Life.



Adapted from George Long