Books, Original Documents, study days, Subjects for discussion

The Importance of Wills and Other Original Documents.

Gill Whitlock’s story, “What Fools!” , demonstrates just how examining an original will can inspire writers to delve deeper into the life of the testator.  Gill isn’t the first to see the possibility that Shakespeare’s daughter may have had a hand in creating some of the early Shakespeare plays, but she is the first (as far as I know) to suggest that the sonnets are an exchange between the Bard and his wife.  Ben Elton also explores the possibility of Shakespeare’s daughter being involved in creating some of the more popular plays in the popular TV comedy series, Upstart Crow.   While Shakespeare’s will was very interesting as a source of inspiration for fiction and TV series, why do people like me, a trained historian, see wills as being of major importance? 

First of all, respect should be given to this document as it is the very last statement made by the deceased. The first part usually consists of the usual stock requests such as masses to be said for the souls of the dead; where the testator wants their body buried – often citing that they wish to be buried next to a specific person such as a spouse in a specific place within a named church.  There is always the clause that all outstanding debts are to be paid out of their estate and only after that is it defined as to how they want their goods and chattels disbursed.  These bequests often affords us a glimpse into the other members of the family and friends of the deceased, opening up opportunities for research into family members and the close relationships of the testator with those outside their immediate family circle.

As society became more sophisticated in the early modern period, so did probate law. Today, with property values so high, it is wise for anyone who owns a house or apartment, stocks and shares, or life insurance policies, not to mention valuable antiques or jewellery everyone should make a will. The bequests detailed in a will that can hold vital clues to details of a person’s life.   After probate is granted and the will registered, it becomes a document in the public domain so anyone can look at it. Usually UK government funded archives do not charge for personal searches of their documents, but bear in mind some private archives do.

When first looking at an old will it will seem very odd. First of all it is hand written and there was no punctuation so it appears as one large block of handwritten text. If the scribe found he was left with a large space at the end of a line, he would draw a red line, or make a random decorative squiggle to the edge of the paper so no one could tamper with the wording. Sometimes the final word would be split over the next line to ensure the same blocking effect. To all intent and purpose, the setting out of a will has not changed over the centuries. The big difference is that nowadays technology will produce a printed document that is justified so line fillers are now redundant. There are still the defined signatory and witness declarations showing that the person making this will is signing it in the presence of two witnesses, who sign at the same time as the testator and in the presence of each other, i.e. all three sign the document at the same time.

The late person’s assets will more often than not be described as ‘property’.  I was brought up on the island of Jersey where I started my early working career as a law clerk.[I]  Jersey is a separate legal jurisdiction to the UK and the island’s probate law has a requirement for a person to make two wills – one of personal estate which details money, stocks and shares, jewellery and any other specific items such as bits of furniture, books etc., i.e. anything ‘moveable’; and another one of real estate itemising their house(s), and any commercial property or farm land on the island.  In other words, this second will itemise the deceased’s ‘immoveable property’.  

The reason for there being two wills is linked to Jersey’s residency regulations.  If you inherit residential property on the island, but do not have the residential qualifications required for you to live there, you can live in the inherited property.  If you choose to sell that house, then you will be subject to the same regulations as other non-locals until you fulfil either the financial qualifications i.e. you are very wealthy, or you have lived the required number of years on the island to qualify you to buy a minimum class (or above) of residential property.  This is a very simplified synopsis of the Jersey probate laws and residency regulations.  If you think you might like to live there then I recommend you consult one of the many local law firms first.

My first job in 1970’s London was working at a West End solicitors and I was the clerk that had the privilege to prepare the will of the Reverend Tubby Clayton (1885 – 1972) for signature.  Together with Gilbert Neville, the Rev Clayton founded the Toc H Christian movement in Belgium in 1915 as a place where soldiers could enjoy some rest and respite from WW1.  Rev Clayton’s will is full of individual bequests and each one has the reason why it has been made.  For anyone researching him, or the Toc H movement, this document is a fabulous source of background information. Modern technology means that the Rev Clayton’s will is a great deal easier to read than wills from centuries past since it was typed on an IBM self-correcting typewriter, but I still had to rule a red line to the edge of the page as justification was not an option.

To return to the use of ancient wills; back in the middle ages the majority of society were illiterate and only a few people owned land.  Those of you who are conversant with the history immediately post the Norman conquest will know how land, not owned by the monasteries of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders was divvied up after William the Conqueror had become king, between his followers and the Anglo Saxon families that pledged allegiance to him.  

The rest of the land, until the final dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, was owned by the the various religious orders making up the Church. The Benedictine order (founded in the 5th century by St Benedict) was the first to build monasteries with the mother house sited at Monte Cassino, Italy.  The Cistercian order (founded in 1098 AD) came next, followed by the mendicant orders of the Franciscans (c1181-1260AD), Dominican (1220 AD), Carmelite (late 13th century) and The Order of St Augustine (1244 AD).  As the mother houses of the Benedictine and Cistercian orders grew and the monks settled in other areas, more monastic building were constructed.  The members of the mendicant orders took a vow of poverty and initially did not have buildings, but as these orders grew, these religious orders also built monasteries and convents all across Europe, including England.  

You might wonder why, in an article on the importance of wills, the Church is even mentioned?  Prior to 1858, after the death of a person, their executors (the people tasked with carrying out the wishes of the deceased) took the will to the church courts (known as consistory courts) for the will to be ‘proved’, where they would take an oath swearing to carry out the last wishes of the deceased. Probate would then be granted. This grant was written in Latin on the original document and a scribe would copy out the whole of the  original will, including that grant of probate, into a register and return the original will to the executor(s) for them to do their duty. It is a copy of the document copied into the register that is issued when you request an ancient will from the archives.

Another form of ancient will is one known as a nuncupative will. This form was used if an illiterate person was on their deathbed, and even in the past these individuals could be of some rank. The dying individual would dictate their wishes before witnesses, who recorded the requests in written form post-mortem for the purposes of probate.[iii]   These witnesses had to swear that what was written is what they had heard the deceased state were their dying wishes.  Time sensitive, these documents had to be registered with the consistory court within a certain number of days or in some cases, weeks.  This form was also used if someone has suffered a stroke, or other debilitating condition that had rendered them unable to sign or make their mark. This form of will is also entered into the register of wills.  The concept behind this type of last testament is best summed up in the Latin phrase, Nemo moriturus praesumitur mentiri. Faced with the reality of being about to make their Maker, it was believed that the dying person would not commit the sin of lying. I have recently been reading such a will from 1583.  

Up until 1529 there had never been a requirement for an inventory of the deceased’s property of whatever nature, to be drawn up.  The benefit of an inventory is that not only does this provide a detailed list of what the person had owned, but also a valuation of their possessions.  Inventories were required to be drawn up by two or more independent individuals (appraisers) who listed the various possessions and the debts of the dead person.  The finished list had to be presented to the court before the executors (or, in the case of someone dying intestate, administrators), could have probate granted. In the case of intestacy, it is the the right to administer the distribution of the particular estate.  The appraisers could not be the same people as either the executors or the administrators for obvious reasons. The inventory having been agreed, probate would then be granted.  The inventory would not necessarily be attached to the document, especially if the will contained detailed bequests.  

Where inventories do exist, they provide evidence of the contents of specific rooms because the rooms have to be described.  For instance, a modern inventory might have ‘Hall’, ‘kitchen’, ‘sitting room’, bedroom 1, 2, 3 etc., and then the items in these places would be listed complete with a probate valuation next to each item.  The inventories listing the assets of the estate of Sir Robert Walpole (1676 – 1742) were thought to be lost until an undergraduate doing voluntary work cataloguing one of the many boxes labelled contents unknown at the National Archives, Kew, came across them.  These probate inventories give a detailed insight into Sir Robert’s vast art collection, part of which ended up being sold to the Tsarina of Russia.  The collection cost Catharine the Great a staggering £40,555 for 204 pieces, which she displayed in The Hermitage Palace, St Petersburg. This would be the equivalent of £908,400,000 in today’s market.  Some artefacts have been sold, but 126 of the original 204 still remain in The Hermitage collection.  

When I was researching the Wadlow portrait I examined the various wills of members the influential Keck family, in addition to various other original records. This was an attempt to track the various possessions handed down through the Keck family over a couple of centuries.   I was hoping to find a defined reference to a missing portrait known to be an ‘ad vivum’ image of William Shakespeare, but the lack of a defined description of each painting owned by Keck demonstrates just how irritating a general reference to the contents of a room could be.[ii]  

Portrait of an Unknown Man (The Wadlow Portrait) 1595. Anon. Private Collection.

This search culminated in trawling page by page through the 1848 catalogue for the auction of the contents of the 3rd Earl of Chandos’s house at Stowe.  That catalogue has a whole page dedicated to the portrait we know as The Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare (National Portrait Gallery NPG1), but sadly no reference to any other image of a considerably younger Bard, which according to Keck’s will, and also to George Vertue (1684 – 1756) who saw it, used to hang on panelled walls of Robert Keck’s chambers in Red Lion Court, Southwark.  What my examination of these wills also demonstrated was how 17th century lawyers were thinking up new ways to protect the wealth of the landed gentry with the creation of trusts.

In contrast to the complicated twenty-four page 17th century last will and testament of lawyer Robert Keck, more recently I was asked to transcribe the contents of the various wills of the Brandon family dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  In particular, the will of Robert Brandon, the lawyer uncle of Henry VIII’s best friend, Charles Brandon, revealed a bequest of a sum of money to be given to the daughter of a named woman, to whom he was not married. The bequest had to be handed over by his second wife in the presence of a specifically named witness.  Robert Brandon’s will specifically states that if his wife did not carry out this task in the presence of the said witness then she could not receive her inheritance.  It is illegal in England to clause a will in this way, but when Brandon made his last will and testament it was not the case.  It would have been helpful if Brandon had given us a hint as to why this requirement was so defined, but such revelations are rare and presumably the family knew what all this was all about.  His wife must have been furious with this stipulation, but if she wanted to inherit the bulk of her wealthy husband’s estate it had to be done. I would love to have been a fly on the wall to witness the hand over.

What immediately sprang to my mind was just who were this woman and her daughter and what was their relationship with Brandon?  Was the girl’s mother his mistress, therefore the girl his illegitimate daughter?  What relationship did the women have to the Brandon family, if any? It is an intriguing bequest and to find out more would require chasing down other original documents that may reveal whether or not Robert Brandon was making provision for a lover and their illegitimate child  The answers could lie hidden in baptismal, marriage and deaths registers squirrelled away in the Norfolk archives or indeed, even the National Archives at Kew.  While this is a great puzzle, someone else can spend the considerable time necessary to solve it because I transcribed the will (plus three others) as a favour and am currently fully involved in writing up my own research to be presented at an international conference next – Covid-19 willing!  

Other things to consider when looking at a will are specific requests regarding institutions.  Henry VIII’s will made a specific request of his executors and heirs regarding the Poor Knights of Windsor. This was ignored by his children, Edward VI or Mary I.  However, the illuminated indenture for the founding of the Poor Knights of Windsor (held at our National Archives, Kew) shows that Henry VIII’s request was finally honoured by his daughter Elizabeth I who carried out his wishes in 1559. This indenture is one of the treasures at Kew and I had the privilege of examining it in the National Archive’s conservation lab when I was researching my Master’s dissertation.

When it comes to a more normal bequest, Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway (1556 – 1623), his second-best bed and the furniture.  Anne was some years older than her husband and survived him by seven years.  As a widow she was, in simple terms, the representative of her dead husband since their marriage vows had bound them into a single entity. As such you might find it a bit odd she was not the named executor.[v]  Instead, the Bard appointed his daughter Susannah (1583 – 1649) and her husband, the physician Dr John Hall (1575 – 1635), joint executors and apart from some specific bequests, they were also the major beneficiaries. When it is known that WS was in business with Dr Hall this appointment begins to make more sense, especially since Anne was seven years older than her late husband.  But what about the other children of the marriage?  

Anne had given birth to twins in 1585, but their son, Hamnet, had died in 1596. Judith, Hamnet’s twin sister, survived to adulthood, married and we see the Bard makes provision for her.  Little is known of Anne’s life, and if you want to read the various theories regarding Shakespeare’s married life and the contents of his will, then I suggest you take a look at the works by Profs Stanley Wells and Germaine Greer.  For a very interesting take on the death of Shakespeare you might like to read Who Killed William Shakespeare: The Murderer, the Motive, the Means by Simon Andrew Stirling (published by The History Press in 2013)

For those who have a keen interest in history, these documents often appear as just a load of squiggles and at first scratch their heads at the sight of apparently undecipherable writing. Palaeography, being the study of ancient hands, is mandatory at the University of Kent for those studying for a Master of Arts degree in medieval & early modern history and where I did my MA.[iv]  We learnt how to read all the various official hands used from 1000 AD onwards, and if we did not pass the exams for this and various other compulsory modules, we were not permitted to undertake our dissertations necessary to complete our degree. In addition, we learnt the medieval Latin formats used in legal documents and were encouraged to study classical Latin.  Having worked as a law clerk in Jersey, I was familiar with Norman French because documents drawn up for house sales were, until recently, all written in Jersey patois, which is very close to Norman French. For the serious student of history, knowledge of a second language is not necessary, but definitely desirable. 

There were six of us post-grads on that course in 2005 and we spent a great deal of time getting to grips with various hands and being familiar with the typical contents of the various manuscripts and documents such as wills, accounts, baptismal, marriage and death registers, not to mention the original various State Papers, Church records or private papers that have survived the centuries.  In the early stages of the course reading the document was educated guesswork until we became familiar with the various letters. Guesswork is not a good thing to indulge in, but did afford some very amusing moments. An early problem I had was distinguishing an old form ‘S’ from an ‘F’! As a result in one of our first pieces of homework I read the word ‘cossin’ which was in fact cousin, for ‘coffin’ and was baffled as to why someone was delivering a coffin costing 7s 6d to someont at St Bartholemew’s Fair! The document appeared to make no sense at all. However, my confusion was clarified by changing my ‘f’s to ‘s’s, and realising that the document was an agreement for a debt to be paid to the signatory’s cousin by the date of St Bartholemew’s Fair! My only cheer was I could at least the read the amount of 7s 6d which was written in Roman numerals – vijs vjd. That was a lesson well learnt!

Having finally passed all the requisite exams, we had to put all our new skills into use for our dissertations.  I was researching anything that threw light into the life of Levina Teerlinc (1520 – 1576), Europe’s first woman appointed as an official artist to any royal court. This involved a great deal of time ploughing through original State Papers, various royal accounts, the Coram Rege rolls (being the proceedings of the King’s Bench), wills and private scribbled notes of various courtiers.  Some of those hands, such as the surviving papers written by Sir William Cecil, are very clear.  The neatness of his handwriting suggests he was aware of his place in history and was ensuring that anyone in the future could read his thoughts.  Sir Francis Walsingham’s paper records are a terrible mass of scribble and often written in cypher. One might describe his hand as being typical of a lawyer!  Recently I was contacted by a dedicated and talented historian who has shown me some of the documents she has been working on. I take my hat off to her since these are, like Walsingham’s papers, virtually impossible to decipher and at first glance look as if a demented clerk has been working in great haste by the failing flickering light of the stub of a candle while under the influence of a belly full of strong ale. 

If you are also able to read ancient documents in foreign languages your knowledge of the period will be much improved.  For example, Dr Lauren McKay’s insightful books into the various members of the Tudor court, and Heather Darsie’s biography of Anna of Cleves, have given the reading public a new insight into this period, all thanks to their study of documents held in foreign archives, written in German, or French as well as Latin.  Dr Wilkinson’s recent biography of Louis XIV of France (1638 – 1715) was only possible because she speaks French and was, therefore, able to plunge into the French archives to read the original records in order to glean wonderful insights into the various people, plots, events and happenings at the court of France’s famous Sun King. What all this demonstrates is the skill to read the prime sources is vital if you want to unearth gems such as Robert Brandon’s bequest to a woman outside his family, or write insightful biographies such as those written by Wilkinson, McKay and Darsie.  

When it comes to using translated classical texts, such as the work of Homer, Socrates, Plato, Ovid, Virgil, Strabo, Tacitus, Cicero, to name but a few and all written in ancient Greek and Latin, and the later 14th, 15th and 16th century authors writing on natural philosophy (originally written in medieval Latin), these have all been studied by scholars of these ancient languages who were concerned with the accuracy of their translations. A purist might say that a historian should learn these ancient languages and read the surviving copies of the ancient documents for themselves.  Aspiring Oxbridge candidates wanting to study history (ancient & modern) will find that having a classical language extremely useful, but for other universities a knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin is not necessary, but a ‘nice to have’.  For a student of Renaissance and early modern history, the translations of these classical texts are a good source for those who want to understand what might have been studied by those receiving a humanist education. If you are an art historian, what inspired the works created by the Great Masters of the Renaissance such as Botticelli, Titian, and Michelangelo often comes from the works of the Roman poets Ovid and Virgil . My hero, Leonardo, was inspired by a Greek myth when he created his image of Leda and the Swan.  

Sketch for the Kneeling Leda & the Swan (1505-07): Leonardo (1452 – 1519); Original at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.

One of the first to translate and publish any of the ancient texts in print was Henri II Etienne (1528 – 1598) who, in 1566, published a controversial translation of the work of Herodotus from ancient Greek into 16th century Latin.  Despite upsetting various people in Geneva where Etienne had set up his publishing house, this translation went to twelve editions over a period of sixteen years, which demonstrates just how interested people were to learn about the ancient past since Latin was more widely studied and understood than ancient Greek.

British History online is another fantastic starting point for any serious student of the past,   but bear in mind the online version has been created from the 19th century transcribed volumes containing transcripts of the annals written by 16th and 17th century antiquarians.   The website states that these digitised records are “A primary aid for finding the original documents they describe.” The online sources are well referenced and therefore you will be able to find it relatively easy to find the original documents in the listed archives and compare them to the online transcriptions and thus will be able to see if the online versions are accurate, or not.  The results may often surprise you, so it is always better to access the original document either digitally, or in person.

Getting someone else to transcribe original documents means you cannot claim the credit for finding anything important. Often a historian will transcribe something expecting nothing more than an acknowledgement of that help. For example, the intriguing riddle of the bequest to the woman and her daughter who featured in the Brandon will.   You can also pay for documents to be transcribed, but in either case the firm or individual you have employed or asked to do the work should be clearly referenced.  To claim that you found something significant without any acknowledgement of who did that transcription is to commit plagiarism.  Not only are you lazy, since you have been totally reliant on the specialist skills of another, you are a fraud because you could not be bothered to put in the hours of study necessary to gain those skills yet were happy to take the credit for the work done by that specialist.  

If you have been captivated by either a period or person from the past and plan on writing a book, to be taken seriously you should first consider learning how to decipher these surviving original documents. The English National Archives have a great FREE online course that has been created in conjunction with the School of Libraries, Archives and Information Studies, University College London. You will find it is well worth your while putting in the effort and you never know, you may have the satisfaction of revealing some entirely unknown historic fact.  Below is a link to the NA course that you can do in your own time and without the pressure of facing an exam at the end of it. The skills you will learn means you are well on the path to being considered a serious researcher and your thoughts will be taken seriously.

For those interested in finding out more about our rich history or, indeed, their own ancestors, a last will and testament is a good starting point.  If you are ordering up documents from the English National Archives at Kew to be sent to you electronically, any fee charged will be for the time spent finding the original register, then scanning and emailing the document to you.

Good luck in your research.

© MVT September 2020.


[i] I was not allowed to even consider going to university when I left school and was forced instead to train as a secretary.  I finally started my BA in 1999 as a part-time mature student, finishing in 2005 and became a full-time post-grad in September of that year. Both were a fantastic experience and changed my life.

[ii] Ad vivum = a term signifying a portrait painted from life.

[iii] Post-mortem = after death.

[iv] Amy Licence and Toni Mount are also alumni of Kent, and Charlie Fenton is currently a PhD candidate there.  I assume studying palaeography is a requirement of other universities who offer courses in medieval history.  It is also possible to study palaeography as a stand alone subject at BA and advanced degree level.

[v] In England the status of women to be regarded as individual legal entities did not change until 1st January 1974 when the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 became effective.  Prior to this date, if a woman married a foreigner then she took the domicile of spouse as marriage was deemed to have bound the two into a single entity.  In other words, regarded as a chattel she had as much status and rights as the furniture, i.e. none. When she became a widow, a woman was finally taken seriously because in the eyes of the law, she was her dead husband’s earthly representative: in other words she became a de facto male.  Thank heavens for the 1973 Act!


The featured image is the signatory page of William Shakespeare’s will lodged at the English National Archives, Kew.

The relative value for the purchase of Sir Robert Walpole’s art collection by Catharine the Great was calculated using which calculates various values such as economic, relative, inflation, labour and project comparisons from 1271 onwards.

1 thought on “The Importance of Wills and Other Original Documents.”

  1. Fascinating article. As one who is about to enter into the world of will writing, I am curious to ask if in your research you have ever come across mischievous wills, with legacies designed to confuse historians like yourself. I am seriously considering bequests which will leave my family and friends head scratching. A joke from the beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.