Wills, inventories, administrations and probate accounts are a most fascinating collection of documents for both family and local historians. Most wills were proved in the Archdeacons Court and are filed under deaneries in the Diocesan Record Office (RO), which may also be the County Record Office. Some may be kept in other places, like Derbyshire wills which are kept at Lichfield and those for Berkshire kept in Wiltshire. Wills of those who owned property in more than one deanery were proved in the high Prerogative Courts of Canterbury (kept at the Public Record Office in Kew) or York (kept in the Borthwick Institute, York). Here in Northamptonshire we have Northampton Archdeaconry Wills, Peterborough Consistory Court Wills, Rutland Wills (proved in Northampton & Peterborough courts), and several Peculiar Courts outside the county have wills of testators who lived within this county. The documents from some Peculiar Courts such as Ketton and Liddington Courts are held partly in Lincoln RO & some are in Leicester RO. Those of the Banbury Court are deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, so a check needs to be made for the whereabouts of these records. If they exist and survive Probate records are a really good source of “flesh on the bones” for any family tree, and give us an insight into the social attitudes of the time in history when they were written. Some other documents may also be filed with a will e.g. guardianship, affidavit, deposition.
Inventories or the listings of “all and singular the goods and chattels” of a testator will give the value of everything in a house or farm, often a room by room account, and may include his clothes and “money in his purse”, firewood in the yard, tools in the barns or workshops, crops in the fields and any livestock. These lists were usually drawn up within days of the testator’s death by two or more trusted inhabitants of the same village.
Administration was granted to the named Executor of a will, but if no will was extant, then it was often granted to a son, brother or widow. In some cases it was granted to the “principal creditor” who could then take or sell enough goods to cover the debts of all creditors.
Guardianship of orphaned children may be awarded at the probate court, but if no one came forward to care for the children then the parish overseers of the poor may seek someone to take on the child. The overseers would take the goods, if any, and sell them to pay a sum of money towards the “maintenance” of such children, or as an incentive to a tradesman to take them on as an apprentice, or to a farmer to take them as a servant.
Probate accounts were usually completed one year after the grant to administer, by the Administrator, and gives details of how the assets were distributed. It may detail how provision was made for any children to be apprenticed or fostered, as well as the settlement of debts, collection of rents and sale of goods. Where they survive, these too give us a glimpse into the lives of our ancestors.
A will was written by a testator to set down his wishes for the disposal of his property and possessions, and is a legal document under church jurisdiction. Some labourers and servants made wills as well as the more affluent yeomen, farmers, tradesmen, vicars and gentry. Many wills start with “In the name of God Amen”, followed by the date, the testator’s name, and often gives his parish and sometimes his occupation. He may then declare himself to be of “good mind and memory” and the first request is often for “my body to be decently buried in the churchyard”, followed by the distribution of his property, any monetary bequests, then the disposal of his “worldly goods and chattels” followed by the naming of the Executor and any supervisors, and finally his signature or mark together with those of witnesses. Wills proved within a month of being drawn up suggests they made a will only when they were near to death, but if they recovered from an illness it might be proved 20 or more years after it was written. A few death bed wills were made “by word of mouth” when someone present would ask “what is your will?” or “how will you dispose of your goods?” Those present would then be required to swear an oath and would quote what the testator had said, this would then be written down as a memorandum, and may just say “I give it all to my wife” without even giving her forename. These are called nuncupative wills and tend to be less informative. Only a few women made wills in earlier times, and were mostly spinsters or widows.
After the disposal of premises and money, the most interesting part of the will is the disposal of all their worldly goods and chattels, as it is a social statement of the values of the day. Usually the things most highly valued are given first, to the family in order of standing. The eldest son is usually the first, followed by the wife, other sons and sometimes their children, married daughters and sometimes her husband or children, unmarried children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, godchildren, friends, neighbours, servants, and the poor of the village may all be mentioned. Finally the Executor and any supervisors or overseers were nominated, and then the testator signed or made his mark, and the witnesses signed. A few wills have codicils added, but more often a new will was probably written as it was declared as the last will and testament “revoking all former wills by me made”.
The eldest son would most often get the homestead or farm, sometimes jointly with his mother until her death, “so long as keeps herself a widow” and did not re-marry. Any other sons would perhaps get smaller houses or sums of money, married daughters would get household items or money, any grandchildren might be designated to take over property after their father’s death or be given money to “put themselves apprentice”. After all these bequests had been made “the residue of my goods and chattels after my just debts and funeral expenses paid” would usually be left to the Executor. It is the listing of the bequests that gives us a feeling of what was most important in those days, and what our ancestors treasured most. The main property or farm was rarely divided. All the things mentioned may paint us a picture “my best fustian coat”, or “my brindle mare”, the “best red cow”, the “great brass kettle”, the “second largest pot”, two pairs of “flaxen sheets”, a “skep of bees”, or the “tools of my trade”, any “lumber in the yard” and even the “bed wherein I now lie”.