The Value of Wills to Historians - 6 minutes read

A last will and testament does not, in and of itself, possess the value of, say, the family silver. But it is a vital document for all involved: the testator and the legatees, but also, later, for the historian. Where inventories can be more detailed in their lists of possessions made shortly after an individual’s death, the will is where kinship networks, friendships and care are found amid the stuff of the bequests. Wills reveal to us what the people of the past held dear and offer a glimpse of lives that might otherwise be lost. And we should not assume that the conventional nature of the document means that it is not also a place where individual lives might shine through. Indeed, it could be argued that this adherence to conventions highlights the distinctiveness of some testators’ choices and words.

For the testators of early modern England (the following examples are all from Essex) wills follow a pattern. The preamble includes date, place, name and occupation of testator, and the declaration that they are in ‘good health and perfect memory’ to write, or dictate, this legal document. The Protestant belief of the testator might also be made visible in the recognition that everlasting life rests on the sacrifice of Christ, rather than through the intercession of the saints. Following this opening comes the distribution of the testator’s real estate (land and property) and personal estate (money and goods).

These documents tend to include things in a certain order: the first bequests are of land and property, followed by monetary bequests and then ‘goods’, which can range from household furniture (in his will, for example, Shakespeare left his ‘second best bed’ to his wife, Anne) to kitchen equipment, jewellery, clothing and animals (although what we now call companion animals – pets – were not perceived as being ownable property, and so were not included in wills). Finally, to conclude the document there is another generic statement, a legal catch-all to ensure completeness: ‘all the rest of my goods and chattels I leave to my executor’, or something similar. The will is then signed by the testator (with a signature or a mark) and by witnesses.

Amid the generic requirements of this document, historians can find information that is unavailable in other records. As Keith Wrightson and David Levine noted in Poverty and Piety in an English Village (1979), the choice of witnesses, like the inclusion of legatees, can reveal neighbourly ties. And the nature of bequests can be telling as well. Wills written in Essex between 1620 and 1635 revealed that poultry and swine were far more likely to be left to female legatees than male (women made up 77 per cent and 68.5 per cent of recipients respectively), while only 40 per cent of recipients of horses were women. These figures reinforce our understanding of the gendered nature of labour and space in rural areas: women’s work was focused around the house and yard and this may be why they were more likely to be recipients of the animals that lived and were productive there.

As well as revealing trends in ownership, the emotional world of a particular testator can also occasionally appear through the legal document. Alongside many loving bequests we may glimpse strained family relations. In his will of 1628 Robert Salmon of Broxted included a proviso alongside his bequest of £100 to his daughter Mary that perhaps reveals something of her (and his) character: ‘I doe hereby will that if Mary my daughter shall not or will not be ordered & Ruled by my wyfe in her marriage But shall goe about to marry her self wthout the good likeing of her mother she shall lose the bequest of this my will.’ In the same year John Birche of Hatfield Peverill used his will to punish marital disharmony: ‘Vnto Mary my Vnkinde Wiffe [I give] but one shilling & sixe pence, by reason she hathe vnnaturally delte wth mee many ways especially in livinge from mee, Puttinge mee to much trouble & greefe.’ And six years later Joan Games of Little Bentley left her son George only five shillings, because he was ‘a rebellious childe’. But as well as the family struggles we can also see care and neighbourliness: in 1630, John Kitto of Ulting left 30 shillings each to Deniss (Denise?) Trolope and Susan Walters ‘for & in consideration of there great & carefull paynes they tooke wth me in my sicknes’.

As well as containing insight into the worlds of the testators in terms of bequests, wills are also material artefacts: it is not just what they contain that is of value to the historian. Sometimes their form carries meaning. The choice of expensive parchment rather than paper can be telling, as can the handwriting. Many wills are beautifully written by a highly proficient hand, but others are scarcely legible, smudged and blotted. Such wills tend to contain less, coming from those lower down the social scale and so reflecting the relative poverty of the testator and their lack of access to someone experienced in holding a quill. For these testators, the naming of particular objects reveals their significance: in a world with little, this little is vital. Whatever their social status, widows did not include real estate in their wills as property would have been entailed in their late husbands’ testaments. But widows’ wills could still be lengthy, including a large number of bequests of smaller objects (pots, curtains, petticoats) to a range of family members and (usually female) neighbours. As such, they reveal communities of women that other documents – vestry books, for example – might not make visible.

It makes sense, then, that wills should be regarded as records of loved and valued objects by historians. But they are themselves valuable: as documents that offer a trace of lives that are otherwise invisible, but also as material artefacts. To scan them and then destroy the originals after a number of years, as the Ministry of Justice proposed last year for post-1858 wills, would be to lose irreplaceable materials for future histories.


Erica Fudge is Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde.

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