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 1500s.
Why were they made?
According to William Lye of West Lavington in 1677, it was
ye Duty of every Christian man desiring Peace and to give Satisfaction of my mind...
(will ref: P1/L/179)
How were they made?
Upon the death of the testator, the executor had to take the original will of the testator to the appropriate court for probate (to check that the will was authentic) and to say whether or not they wished to accept or renounce the role of executor. If they could not accept the role, the court would commit administration of the goods to the person with the largest beneficial interest in the estate (this is generally known as an administration with will annexed). The act of renunciation of the named executor would be registered by the court. In many cases the executor did not actually need to go to court, as local clergy might be licensed to administer the appropriate oaths and then return the documents to court on their behalf. From 1529/30, an executor had to make an inventory of the goods of the testator, procure the will to be proved, pay the debts, discharge the legacies of the deceased and render an account to the court.
The court would determine if the will was lawful, and if so would annex a probate to it, which confirmed the will. This was usually done by writing the probate (in Latin prior to 1733) on the back of the will. The original will was usually then filed and kept by the court. A probate copy of the will was made and sealed by the court and given to the executor as his authority to act. This copy will occasionally be deposited in county record offices or archives separately amongst estate papers. A third copy of the will was often made, written in a bound volume of registered wills. For Wiltshire, these are indicated by a reference number containing the word REG. The original copy is therefore the only one to contain the testator’s signature.
A fee had to be paid for registration, and for some courts there may be a number of unregistered wills. The executor, before he received the sealed probate copy of the will, had to make an oath, and might enter into a bond, to render a true account of his stewardship of the estate. Because of this, some wills are accompanied by the oaths and testamentary bonds of the executors. The account had to be rendered within a year or at the court’s discretion, checked by the court and discharged, but this document would often be only kept for a time and then destroyed.
If someone died intestate (i.e. without making a will) their goods were administered by someone after a probate court had granted letters of administration (often abbreviated to admon) to a relative, creditor or stranger appointed by the court. The court could also grant letters ad colligendum bona defuncti to a stranger to gather up the goods of the deceased or else act itself. Persons seeking to administer an estate might make an allegation to the court of their intent, and then upon receiving letters of administration be required to enter into an administration bond with sureties, to make an inventory of the goods of the deceased and render a true account of them.
Another type of record you will find in the Wiltshire probate records is the tuition bond. This was basically a promise by a tutor or guardian to provide for the unmarried infant children of the deceased, bring them up appropriately and administer their goods faithfully. Boys aged 14 and girls aged 12 could appoint their own guardians, notwithstanding their fathers’ wills.
There may be other legal papers among the probate records relating to disputes. If you are interested in going into this subject in more depth, we recommend reading one of the works in the bibliography.