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Berkshire Family Historian
December 2001

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2001 Contents

A practical guide to using wills for family history

David French

Whilst parish registers are the staple fare of genealogical research, much useful information can also be gleaned from old wills, whose bequests and legacies are a rich source of references to family members, both close and not so close.

Not only do wills bring together information which otherwise often can only be found in a number of unrelated parish registers, but in constrast to the brief details in parish registers (particularly up to the end of the eighteenth century), a will usually specifies the occupation of the testator and explains the family relationship with individual beneficiaries (often divulging their place of residence as well). A will can therefore provide a textual snapshot of the testator's immediate family and relatives.

This article also draws on a case study of the parish of Barkham, near Wokingham, a small and relatively isolated agricultural parish (1,362 acres), whose population in Tudor, Stuart and Georgian times probably ranged between about 120 and 200. 92 wills of Barkham residents made between 1532 and 1857 survive. There are 24 wills from 1532-1599 (26%), 43 wills from the 1600's (47%), 20 wills from the 1700's (22%) and 5 wills from 1800-1857 (5%).1

Where to find old wills

Prior to the legal reforms of 1858 obtaining probate (i.e. the formal ratification of a will to make its terms operative) was an ecclesiastical rather than a civil matter, administered by the church courts.2 Tracking down old wills sometimes can be a frustrating exercise, since although there was a clear hierarchy (as explained below), there were over 300 ecclesiastical courts having probate jurisdiction, many of them small, and the interrelationships were complex.

Before Berkshire was transferred to the Diocese of Oxford in 1836 it was in the Diocese of Salisbury, and the wills of most Berkshire testators ought to be found in the records of the following courts:

i) Until the nineteenth century the majority of Berkshire wills were proved in the Archdeaconry Court of Berkshire. In the case of Barkham, virtually all Tudor wills were proved there (96%), and in the 1600s and 1700s the proportion was 56%. Wills could only be proved in the Archdeaconry Court if the deceased's property was solely in the archdeacon's jurisdiction (see below) in Berkshire. The archdeaconry probate records are to be found at the Berkshire Record Office. It should be noted that until 1911 the parish of Caversham was in Oxfordshire and in the Archdeaconry of Oxford, whose probate records are at Oxfordshire Archives.

ii) The wills of the gentry and well-to-do yeomen farmers were usually proved in the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury in London (generally abbreviated to P.C.C.). In principle the P.C.C. had jurisdiction where the deceased owned property in more than one diocese or peculiar jurisdiction (see below), but in practice it did little or nothing to deter the probate business of those testators' families which sought the social prestige of a family will proved in the P.C.C.

A Tudor deathbed scene

From the seventeenth century an increasing proportion of the wills of Berkshire testators were proved in the P.C.C., in the case of Barkham rising from 37% in the 1600s to 60% in the first half of the nineteenth century. Use of the P.C.C. initially increased since many church courts effectively ceased functioning at the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). Indeed the church courts were formally abolished 1653-1660 by the Long Parliament, and a civil court in London granted probate for the whole of England and Wales. After the restoration its records were absorbed by the P.C.C.

The probate business of the P.C.C. continued to increase rapidly with material progress, doubling between 1789 and 1829. Its standing was even further enhanced in 1810 when the Bank of England ruled that it would accept only P.C.C. wills.

Register copies of wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury may be viewed on microfilm at the Family Records Centre.

iii) In the case of testators leaving personal property in the jurisdiction of more than one archdeaconry within the Diocese of Salisbury, wills were proved in the Consistory Court of the Bishop of Sarum. In the case of Barkham, only 9% of wills from 1532 to 1857 were proved there. These records may be found at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office in Trowbridge.

iv) A number of Berkshire parishes, however, were in'peculiars' (special ecclesiastical jurisdictions) outside the authority of the bishop and archdeacon.

In the ancient county of Berkshire the peculiar of the Dean of Salisbury was the principal peculiar jurisdiction. It covered the parishes of Arborfield, Hurst, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, Sonning and Wokingham in east Berkshire and the parishes of Aston Upthorpe, Blewbury and Upton in north Berkshire. These records are to be found at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office.

Hungerford, Wantage and West Ilsley were in the peculiar of the Dean and Canons of Windsor. These records are also at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office, except that Wantage wills 1582-1668 are to be found at Oxfordshire Archives. The wills of testators from Faringdon and Little Coxwell were proved in the court of the prebendary who held the Faringdon stall in Salisbury Cathedral, which wills are now at the Berkshire Record Office. The wills of testators from 'peculiar' parishes were not eligible to be proved in the Archdeaconry Court or the Consistory Court.

The foregoing is not a comprehensive list of church courts having some probate jurisdiction in the ancient county, and (disregarding the P.C.C.) if a testator left property in the jurisdiction of more than one court, the will would need to be proved in some higher court outside Berkshire. A further complicating factor is that during ecclesiastical vacancies or episcopal or archiepiscopal visitations local probate jurisdiction was 'inhibited' (i.e. suspended) and jurisdiction temporarily exercised by a higher church court.

Who made wills and why?

It is impossible to say with any degree of precision what proportion of the adult population made a will by reference to burials recorded in the parish registers, since family historians will know only too well that it was not the practice to record anything other than the name of the deceased and the date of burial. Also, not all parishes are fortunate enough to have an uninterrupted run of registers from when they were first required to be kept in 1538. Parish registers did not become more informative in the case of Barkham until after 1782 when the Rev. David Davies became rector. One of his many innovations was to note the ages of the deceased in the burial register as a matter of course.3

The principal unknown factor in determining the incidence of will making by reference to burial registers is the unquantiflable rates of infant mortality, which remained high until well into the nineteenth century. Consequently there is some uncertainty about the proportion of will makers in specific communities from time to time, but working on the basis, for the sake of argument, that (say) an average of 55% of the recorded Barkham burials relates to adults produces the following indicative statistics:

  1538-99 1600-99 1700-99 1800-57
Total burials 169 331 343 202
Assumed adults (55%) 93 182 189 111
Surviving wills 24 43 20 5

Any statistics about adult will-making are further distorted, however, because married women (femme covert) normally could not make wills (a legal incapacity shared with slaves, traitors and heretics). Subject to limited exceptions (e.g. under a marriage settlement), women married before 1883 lacked legal capacity to own property and therefore had nothing to dispose of. With the rare exception of wills by married women with their husbands' consent, family historians will therefore only be able to find wills made by widows and spinsters. In the case of Barkham, of the 92 wills made by local residents during 1532-1857, only nine (10%) were made by women, eight of whom were widows. There was no corresponding limitation in the case of personal representatives, however, and the majority of married testators appointed their wives as their executrix.

The occurrence of the highest rate of will making at Barkham (say 26%) during the Tudor period can be partly attributed to the requirement of late mediaeval canon law that everyone of sound mind (i.e. compos mentis) owning personal property (e.g. goods, chattels or animals) worth more than 5 (bona notabilia) should make a testamentary disposition leaving at least one-tenth of his property to pious uses for the redemption of his soul.4 If a person failed to do so, his soul would be damned in the eyes of the church. 5 would have represented a significant sum in Tudor times, corresponding to the value of (say) five horses or ten bullocks.

Not unsurprisingly, in an agricultural parish like Barkham, the majority of testators were either gentry or farmers (yeomen or husbandmen), and poorer inhabitants are sparsely represented. An analysis of the occupations of the 92 Barkham testators between 1532 and 1857, disregarding four testators whose occupations are not given (or cannot be inferred from inventories), shows the following:

Gentry 17%
Yeomen/husbandmen 59%
Craftsmen/tradesmen 14%

The average value of the estates of the 21 Barkham testators between 1532 and 1599 the value of whose personal estates is known (in 18 cases their probate inventories survive) was 36. 16s. Only three estates were below 12, and two of these were less than 20 shillings.

Analysing old wills

To read Tudor wills, not only is it necessary to decipher strange handwriting, but the spelling is almost totally phonetic - not by reference to the standard English of today, but reflecting the
marked local accents of country folk over 450 years ago. Many wills continue to present problems of legibility until well into the eighteenth century, and even thereafter there can be some unwelcome surprises, nineteenth century clerical hand being particularly indecipherable.

Much of the beginning of a will is formulaic, however, so that anyone who perseveres in familiarising himself with the script employed for standard phrases in time will be able to decipher even the seemingly most impenetrable script. For example, the beginning of the will made by John Wilson in 1558 employed the following standard terminology: 'I John Wilson yeoman of the parish of Barkh[a]m in the countie of Berkes beying sicke in mie body but hole in my mynde thanckes be to god make this my laste will in forme folowing ffirst I bequeth mie sowle to Almightye god to o[u]r blessed ladie And to all the Saintes in heauen and mie bodie to be buried in the church erth of god & sainte James the Apostle at Barkh[a]m'.5

Mastery of the script may not be enough, however, since in Tudor and Stuart times it was normal for scribes to make extensive use of abbreviations (e.g. for which, y.t for that), although these are largely standard. The other potential complication is that capital letters and surnames are notoriously difficult to decipher. In practice this is a problem only in the case of beneficiaries with surnames different from that of the testator, and even this can usually be resolved by carefully scrutinising the way in which the scribe has shaped his capital letters.

Finally, although consistent with the style of old legal documents the text of wills is in continuous format, this again is not usually a problem because, following the formulaic preamble of a will, each separate bequest is introduced by the word Item.

In the case of P.C.C. wills, which represent an increasing proportion of Berkshire wills from the 1640s onwards, handwriting is less problematic, since researchers have access not to the original wills but to microfilm copies of contemporaneous transcripts fair copied in a relatively legible standard court hand into register books.

Anyone reading Tudor probate records cannot fail to be impressed by the speed with which the whole process operated. Wills typically were made only a few days before death. Since recovery was generally unlikely, any acute illness was taken as a signal to make one's last will and testament. Leaving the making of a will (effectively a public document because of the need for independent witnesses) to the last minute also avoided exposing the testator to the risk of family squabbles during his lifetime. Further, in Tudor times a will was invalidated not only when the testator married, but also by the birth of a child.6

Tudor and Stuart probate inventories, a high proportion of which survive in the case of the Archdeaconry Court of Berkshire, can also be a fascinating source of information. They contain


Inventory of Robert Williams, 1698, Consistory Court of Sarum, Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office

exhaustive lists of the deceased's possessions (even itemising cutlery) room by room and in outbuildings.

The probate inventories show that even well-to-do farmers (yeomen or husbandmen) had very few material possessions, and it was normal in Tudor and Stuart wills to make detailed bequests of clothing, specific household goods, grain and animals. Pewter plates, saucers, brass pots, heifers and sheep frequently featured in bequests. In his will in 1558, William Norman left'A kowe with A pyed [i.e. black and white] face'to his'doughter Alis', and'A kowe crompyll horned' [i.e. with curly horns] to his son Nicholas.7

The potential value of old wills to family historians is demonstrated by the analysis by George Sherwood in 1918 of all 4,382 wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in the year 1750, which reveals that there were 40,320 individuals mentioned, an average of over nine people mentioned in every Will.8

1. Handlist of extant Barkham probate documents, B.R.O. Ref. D/EX 1211/44/1/1-8.
2. Court of Probate Act 1857 (20 & 21 Victoria, cap. 77).
3. Barkham parish registers 1741-1812, B.R.O. ref. D/P 13 1/2.
4. R. Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, Vol. IV, London, 1775, pp. 41-56.
5. B.R.O. refs. D/A1/6 C.52 and D/A1/132/116.
6. A.J. Camp, Wills and their whereabouts, 4th edition 1974 (revised and extended), limited edition, London, 1975, p. xi.
7. B.R.O. ref. D/A1/101/15.
8. George Sherwood, A List of persons named in the P.C.C. wills proved in the year 1750: Register Greenly, London, 1918.

Further reading: When Death do us Part, edited by Tom Arkell, Nesta Evans and Nigel Goose; 422pp; Leopard's Head Press, Oxford 2000; Local Population Studies, University of Hertfordshire at Watford.

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