Newbury Branch meeting held at West Berkshire Museum 12th January 2022
Speaker: Sue Ellis
Wills were made in ancient Greece, and the practice was adopted by Christianity, when witnesses were introduced. King Alfred’s will survives.
In common law wills officially dealt with landed property, which traditionally passed to the eldest male heir. Testaments detailed bequests of personal estate (goods and chattels).
A nuncupative will was a spoken statement of bequests, given and recorded before three witnesses. To be valid this had to be done in the testator’s home, usually at a deathbed.
Wills could not be made by children: up the 1837 the age threshold was 12 for girls, 14 for boys. After 1837 it became 21 for both. “Lunatics”, “idiots”, criminals and those deaf from birth also used to be barred from making wills.
Seventeenth and eighteenth century wills almost invariably began with a standard religious preamble, which can help readers determine the pattern of orthography. Preambles became less common in the nineteenth century.
Intestacy or executive failure required an inventory of personal estate to be taken. Items were then distributed according to familial status. Inventories were taken room by room, revealing the level of domestic comfort. They had fallen out of practice by 1900.
Bequests can reveal family relationships, including disputes and feuds. A will provides the opportunity to say such things as might not be said in life. Bequests of a shilling usually denote the recipient’s having had an advance portion of the estate.
Many county FHSs have indexed wills, and these indexes can usually be found in record offices. Subscription websites have some, and TNA holds a those surviving from the probate court of Canterbury. Wills are best sought online.