The outstanding Salisbury Diocesan Probate collection contains 105,000 wills and inventories and approximately 400,000 individual documents dating from Tudor to Victorian times c.1560-1858. This unique collection covers the whole of Wiltshire and Berkshire, and those parts of Dorset, and Uffculme in Devon which came under the jurisdiction of the Dean of Sarum.
In January 1858 civil registries became responsible for probate matters. The Salisbury Diocesan wills were sent from Salisbury to the new Principal Probate Registry in London. Conditions were far from ideal and in 1874 the wills were moved to Somerset House. Somerset House was not able to cope with the volume of documents it received and after the Second World War, a new county record office opened in Wiltshire and this was a sensible alternative place of deposit for the wills. In the 1950s the office was approved as an authorised place of deposit for probate records and the Salisbury Diocesan wills were transferred to the Record Office at Trowbridge. With the closure of the old Record Office in 2007 the wills were moved with the rest of the archive to our current purpose-built facility in Chippenham.
After receiving substantial Heritage Lottery (and other) funding, the Wiltshire Wills Project was inaugurated in 1999, to re-index and digitise the records. They have all been catalogued onto a computer database, flattened, re-packaged and (where necessary) repaired. This has ensured that they will be cared for better than ever in the future–particularly since digitisation means that the originals will not normally be handled anymore. Digitisation, which proved a lengthy process, was carried out by ourselves until last year when the company Ancestry took over. The whole collection will be available online (hopefully from mid November 2017) through the Ancestry website.
A will or testament is the documentary instrument by which you regulate the rights of others to your property and your family after your death.
A person's formal declaration (usually in writing) of his intention as to the disposal of his property or other matters to be performed after his death. Oxford English Dictionary, 1933
Originally a will dealt with real estate – land and buildings - and a testament with personal property - for example, clothing, furniture, stock, money, books - but they have been combined into one document since the 1500.
The preamble to an Act of Parliament of 1529 (21 Hen. VIII, c.4) detailed the purpose of will-making, explaining that testators should pay their debts, provide for their wives, arrange for the care of their children and make charitable bequests for the good of their souls.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wills were increasingly used to provide for each member of the family left behind. George Beverstock senior of Bradford on Avon demonstrated that principle in his will of 1689, leaving two looms to his son-in-law thereby giving him a livelihood, and distributing his cows amongst his sons and daughters.
Writing a will was thought of as a spiritual duty as well as a worldly one; from 1552 clergy were required when visiting the sick to remind the dying of their duty to make a will.
To encourage will-making, the church made no direct charge for proving the wills of the very poor. There was just a cost of 6d for making a copy of the will and a further 6d if an administration bond was required.
There were rules on what constituted a valid will. Technically the following elements were required:
• the date
• the testator's mark or signature - duly witnessed
• the nomination of an executor.
They also may include some or all of the following:
• the testator’s name, residence and occupation
• a statement of health and mental capacity
• the “religious preamble”, a statement of faith
• a preferred parish of burial
• details of bequests/legacies
• provision for the widow
• provision for the children
• special funeral instructions
• appointment of overseers to supervise executor
Having said that, not all the wills in the collection follow these rules, for if no formal written will existed or it could not be found, other evidence could be used. Holograph wills (in the testator’s own handwriting) were generally accepted so long as they were agreed to be genuine. Henry White’s will is a lovely example of an informal hand-written will, found on the reverse of an old letter:
In very immediate terms, wills were used to give instructions for the testator's funeral. The will of Mary Beake 1681 states
• I doe order that there be forty shillings layed out in Cakes and bread and that there be a Kilderkin [16-18 gallons] of beer at my buriall.
In the Early Modern period, wills were often made when the testator was "nigh unto death". Many wills begin like Widow Benet Allum's - her will of 1642 explains she is
• feeling my selfe weake of body but in perfect memorye and good remembrance the lord bee thanked
If it was too late to make a written will, a testator could recite their wishes on their deathbed in the form of a spoken (nuncupative) will, of which there are many examples within our collection: about 2.5% of the wills are nuncupative.
And it was not just illness that prevented a testator making a will until the last minute. The wife of Henry Hunt of Enford, tried to prevent her husband making a will in 1773
"The above minutes I took on Sunday in the afternoon July 1773 from the mouth of Mr Henry Hunt, after his wife had been convey’d down stairs,who with great clamour, violence and outrage, endeavoured to hinder his making any will, declaring posititively that he should make none."
There is evidence in our collection of testarors planning to exert their influence on the living from beyond the grave. Henry Gill who died in the 1770s commanded
• ….and should any one of these mentioned in this my will enter or commence any law sute that person so doing to have by my desire but one shilling
Although all manner of people are mentioned in wills, not all people could or did make them, and abject poverty was not the only bar. The general rule was that if you were "a creature reasonable" you could make a will. However there were exceptions that excluded a great body of people. They fell into four main categories:
• those lacking judgement: children (boys under 14 and girls under 12) and people of unsound mind (disputed cases often turn on whether the testator was of sound mind and really knew what they were doing);
• those lacking full freedom: slaves, prisoners and married women;
• those without their principal senses: though only if it meant they could not understand the will. If they could indicate understanding they could make a will;
• traitors, heretics and apostates.
Until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, a wife could not make a will without her husband's consent. That consent could be withdrawn at any time before the will was proved, even after the wife's death. There were some exceptions, however. Pre-nuptial settlements occasionally included a clause giving a wife the right to dispose of certain goods or property, particularly those she had brought with her to the marriage. In only about 0.8% of cases in the collection are the deceased identified as wives. Women were very often made guardians of children and were usually made executors of their husbands’ wills, at least until the eighteenth century.
The spoken will of Thomas Kyngton of Atworth, who died in 1577, begins ‘Thomas Kyngton… being in his perfitt mynde and memory about a senight [a week] before his decease sytting by the fier in his owne house’ said unto his wife and family ‘Wife I am olde and shal not lyve long I knowe well wherfore my mynde and will is…’
Although Thomas was not able to commit his final wishes to paper he was more prepared for his end than William Mowdy of Boyton who, in 1579, ‘beinge sicke’, was ‘demanded’ by his two neighbours whether he was content for his estate to be bestowed on his children to which he answered ‘yea’. This is probably as close to a last gasp will as possible.
You can see even from these few examples how valuable the wills are. Both the quality and the quantity of their information is outstanding. They can be used to research a wide variety of topics:
• Literacy Did witnesses and testators sign or make their mark?
• Occupations Those stated by testators can be analysed. Anecdotally, there seems to be considerable specialisation of occupations in Salisbury - the city boasted a brandy merchant, bookbinder, cheesemonger, coach trimmer and tripe seller amongst others.
• Family, kinship and inheritance Through bequests made and the appointment of trustees for children and provision made for the nuclear family, not only are large numbers of relatives often named but their relationship to the testator may be described.
• Friends and peers When friends are mentioned and overseers are appointed a picture of the testator's social world also begins to emerge.
Inventories in particular provide fascinating lists of personal possessions and trade goods. There was a well-established practice whereby several relatives, creditors or reputable neighbours drew up an inventory of the deceased's goods as soon as possible after the death. The goods were costed according to their second hand price.
One which demonstrates the particular value of inventories for researching trades and crafts is that of John Cox, a Salisbury goldsmith.
It is worth noting that not all goods were listed. Those without the potential to be re-sold were often excluded - perishable foods, for instance, and sugar, tea, spices and potatoes. Some stored foods are listed - cheeses and bacon, for example. In tradesmen’s inventories sugar, tea and spices are listed in large quantities but this is because they are counted as trade rather than household goods. Another important omission to be aware of is that only debts owing to the deceased, not those he or she owed, tend to be listed in inventories. So inventories may not provide a reliable representation of wealth but they do at least give an indication of the level of comfort the testator enjoyed.
Inventories changed over the centuries - sixteenth century ones are often just lists of possessions, seventeenth century ones tend to be listed room by room, while by 1750 they may just be summary inventories.
Centuries after the creation of a will, we are able to use it as a prime source for finding out more about the testator’s life, family and times. They continue to enlighten and entertain with their detail and ability to recreate scenes of ordinary life. Little did these people know how valuable a resource their wills would be for generations to come.
Jane Silcocks, Community History Advisor
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