With the launch of the Wiltshire Wills collection, Claire Skinner from Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre explores the historical significance of wills.
The probate collection of the Diocese of Sarum alias Salisbury (more popularly known as the Wiltshire Wills collection) is a collection of over 500,000 images of wills and related records from the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, part of Dorset and the parish of Uffculme in Devon. There are around 118,000 wills of various lengths, plus related records mainly dating from the 1560s to 1858 which include inventories of goods, administration bonds, and bonds for tuition or guardianship of children.
Through Ancestry, the Wiltshire Wills collection is being made available online in its entirety for the first time, thus completing the work of the HLF-funded Wiltshire Wills project which began in the early 2000s.But how have wills changed over time, and what is the value of a will for a family historian? Understanding more about these documents can be helpful for your family history research.
What’s a will?
Under an Act of Parliament of 1529, the purpose of a will was for the testator (person making the will) to pay debts, provide for their spouse, arrange for care of children and make charitable bequests for the good of their souls. They usually have a standard format and structure, starting with ‘In the name of God Amen’ and going on to commit the testator’s soul to God and their body to be buried in a named location; they go on to list the various bequests the testator wishes to make; any debts they owe; and then they name their executor(s) and sign or make their mark. Last of all there may be a probate clause in Latin, written by the court which proved the will, often just a few months after the date the will was written.
It is important to remember that under the pre-1752 calendar, a document dated Jan-Mar would be dated the previous year, so a will dated 17 Jan 1713 is actually 1714 under the modern calendar. If someone died without making a will the court could administer their estate under what are called ‘letters of administration’ instead.
The Value of Wills for Family History
In the 16th and 17th centuries wills were increasingly used to provide for each member of the family left behind, making them particularly useful for family history.
A good will for demonstrating this is that of John Baker of Pitton in south Wiltshire, made in 1688, (P26/387), in which he bequeaths 20 shillings to his daughter Elizabeth Pilgrem, £4 each to his grandchildren John, Stephen, and Diana Seward, Anne Toomer, and William, John, Anne and Elizabeth Smart; 20 shillings to his son in law John Seward; and the residue of estate to his daughter Ann Seward, the wife of John Seward of Pitton. As you can see, three generations are mentioned in the same document, a real boon to family historians! Wills also usefully include the occupation of the deceased – in this case a yeoman farmer – and may be accompanied by an inventory of their goods which can be very useful in showing the possessions of the deceased and their relative wealth.
Not all families were harmonious, of course – a mother who clearly had serious misgivings about what would become of her sons after her death was Margery Williams of Baydon. She added this codicil to her will in 1797: “Whereas it is the Misfortune of my sons Benjamin and Joseph to be very indiscreet and imprudent and as they have expended their Fortunes and I am extremely apprehensive any Other Property would be in like Manner Wasted and Yet unwilling that they should be left entirely Destitute…” she wills that her son Francis Williams should pay them 2 shillings a week for life! (P5/1799/27) People weren’t just concerned about their human relatives. Mary Goddard of Swindon included an unusual bequest for the care of her pets after her death: in 1788 she left £2 11s to her servant Grace Buckland “to take care and protection of my Cats and Dog, which I desire she will do with tenderness.” (P3/G/748)
Wills were also used to give instructions for the funeral: the 1681 will of Mary Beake, P5/1681/7 states: “I doe order that there be forty shillings layed out in Cakes and bread and that there be a Kilderkin of beer at my burial.” (A kilderkin was 16-18 gallons).
Sometimes wills tell us a lot about the personality of the testator and their sense of humour, something which you often won’t get from other records, for example this instruction in the will of Nicholas Daniell of Sutton Benger, 1726, for the inscription on his tombstone speaks volumes:
“From Gout and Pox and Plague and Women free
From Law and Physick and Divinity
And Knaves and Foole of every Degree
From care, fear, pain and hard necessity am freed. In what a happy state am I.”
An unhappy lovelife is also obvious in the will of Henry Hunt of Enford, 1773 (P1/H/1231) whose wife “with great Clamour, Violence & Outrage, endeavoured to hinder his making any will, declaring positively that he should make none.” Henry replied “Then this must be your will, not mine” and added “Thus it was she made her first Husband’s will”, meaning no will at all. Nevertheless Henry did succeed in making his will – he had no time to make a formal document but the testimony of his friends and a scribbled note made at his sickbed by one of them proved sufficient for the court.
Who could not make a will prior to 1858?
There were four main categories of people who could not legally make a will.
1) Children (boys under 14 and girls under 12)
2) People of unsound mind or lacking senses (only in the latter case if it meant they could not understand the will)
3) Those lacking full freedom – ie slaves, prisoners and married women without their husband’s consent (the latter before 1882)
4) Traitors, heretics and apostates (eg atheists)
Normally a will had to have certain elements to be legally valid: the date, the testator’s mark or signature (witnessed), and the nomination of an executor, but if no will in this format existed then other forms of will might be accepted by the courts. For example, Henry White’s lovely informal handwritten will of 1835 found on the reverse of an old letter was accepted:
Wills could be made on any material though normally they are on paper. Parchment wills are normally the probate copy made by the court, rather than the original.
Since making a will was possibly regarded as ‘tempting fate’ making a will was often left till the last moment when a testator was ill and facing death. If it was too late to make a written will a testator could give their wishes in the form of a verbal will, copied down – otherwise known as a nuncupative will. An interesting example of this is that of Nicholas Perry, senior, a carpenter of Salisbury St Edmund, who rode over to Combe Bissett where one of his sons lived, to tell him his will orally, because of ‘Contagion in Sarum’ in other words the well known outbreak of the Black Death in Salisbury in 1627. (P4/1627/4.)
Women and wills
Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 a married woman could only make a will with her husband’s consent or if there was a pre-nuptial agreement which allowed her to do so. There were no restrictions on widows and spinsters making wills and therefore there are far more of these than wills of married women. These include the inventory of goods of Jane Forget, dated 1588 who had been a nun at Wilton Abbey – the will shows that even though the abbey had been dissolved for fifty years, Jane continued to live a devout life and gave away all her clothing to the poor in her will. (P5/1588/19) Women usually appear in their husband’s will as the executor of his estate, at least until the 18th century.
During the Middle Ages the church gradually gained the right to prove or validate wills and grant administrations of the estates of the dead in all but a few places in England and Wales. The church took responsibility for validating wills and making sure the wishes of the deceased were adhered to through its courts. The church continued to hold authority until 1858, except for the Commonwealth period when the church courts were temporarily closed down in the 1640s and 50s – the wills for this period are at the National Archives in Kew.
When someone died their will had to be taken to the appropriate court – this could be quite complicated to determine. In some years a larger court might take responsibility for a smaller one and have the right to prove their wills. Within the Diocese of Salisbury there were 28 probate courts, including the bishop’s, the two archdeacon’s, and many peculiars. If goods or land to the value of £5 were held in areas covered by the jurisdiction of more than one court, the will would be proved in the higher court. Thus if it fell into two archdeaconries it would be proved at the bishop’s court; if it was in more than one diocese it would be proved at the appropriate archbishop’s court eg Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York. Therefore wills of rich or famous people are unlikely to be found in the Diocesan collection – the PCC was also seen to confer a certain prestige so people like Jane Austen, who didn’t own a lot of property but were of a gentry background, had their will proved there.
Once in court, the executor and witnesses swore that the will was definitely the testator’s last one, and the judge, if satisfied, would grant probate. Probate had to begin within four months of the death, and often would be much sooner. If the executor refused, or if the person died without making a will, the court would appoint administrators to sort out the estate. The court kept the original will and it is the originals which form the Wiltshire Wills collection. A second copy would also be entered into the court’s register, which is why you may find two wills for the same person – they should be identical except they will lack the original mark or signature of the testator.
The executor had to arrange the funeral of the deceased, and pay for those costs, and then make an inventory of the goods. The goods were valued at their ‘second-hand’ price and gave the executor an idea of the size of the estate available to administer – debts had to be paid before any legacies could be paid. For example William Trahare of Sherborne in Dorset, a retired soldier who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars, left his pension in 1802 to William Spooner, inn-keeper, “to discharge myself of my just debt due to him.” (P5/19Reg/4)
From 1858 the proving of wills became a civil responsibility and post-1858 wills have not been included in the Wiltshire Wills project.
Start exploring the Wiltshire Wills collection now on Ancestry.