Feather beds and frying pans

The following is taken from a talk given to the Thriplow Society by Pat Easthope on November 21st 2013. 

When I joined the Palaeography group I’m not sure I knew what I was letting myself in for.  I had seen the sheet illustrating the alphabet and the many ways each letter could be written.  My first thoughts when I saw the sheet were that it wasn’t so bad.   However, when I was given a will to translate, and faced with “joined up writing” where all the letters flow into one another, the letters didn’t always match the examples, many of the words were spelt differently and a good number of them were words I had never heard of which have long since gone out of use, my views on palaeography changed somewhat.  Still, I thought I’d stick with it and give it a go, which is why I find myself standing here today.

It is estimated that ½ million wills have survived from 16th century England.  Historians have realised that wills and other probate material are a fruitful source of information of the details of everyday life at the time.  In the Cambridgeshire Records office there are 249 wills and inventories for Thriplow dating from 1471 – 1854.  The earliest ones are in Latin but from the late 15th century they begin to be in English.

Originally two documents had to be drawn up – the will which dealt with land and real estate and the testament which dealt with goods & chattels, i.e. personal property and effects.  In 1540 the Statute of Wills allowed land and personal property to be disposed of in the same document and it remains so to this day.  Wills still start with the words “This is the last will and testament of…”

Furniture, furnishings and clothes formed an important part of the will – these could be seen as continuing ones person in the community, whereas money is interchangeable and livestock eventually dies.

It would appear that about 25% of wills were made while the testator was in good health but the vast majority of wills were made shortly before death.  Many wills state that the testator is “sick in body but sound in mind”.

Making the will was a memorable occasion for the family.  A scribe had to be summoned and witnesses gathered.  The will had to be dictated and then read out to the assembled company, signed by the testator and the witnesses and sealed.

In order to be valid the will needed at least 2 witnesses to the signing and sealing and the nomination of at least one executor.  After the testator’s death the will had to be proved in the appropriate church consistory court where the executors and witnesses swore on oath that this was the testator’s will that they had seen signed and sealed.  They were then given permission to administer the will and for this they had to pay fees to the church court.  Until it was taken over by the civil authorities in 1857 this made probate a good source of income for the church.  The executors and witnesses had to travel to the diocesan seat to get probate which meant that they probably had to stay overnight, or at least take refreshment, which made probate another significant event for the family.

Anyone could make a will in the 16th Century, but as the church could only charge a fee on wills worth over £5.00, any wills worth below this sum were discouraged.  Most will-makers came from the better off section of society and usually only represented a small proportion of the population.  A comparison has been made between the number of wills and the number of adult burials in an area of Norfolk for the period 1581 to 1610 and it was found that on average only 10% of the adults buried had made wills.  

Inventories were made after death.  These were a list of items owned by the deceased and their value.  A law passed in 1529 directed that goods and chattels worth more than £5 be listed within 40 days of the deceased’s death by 4 honest and skilful ‘Appraisers’; often these appraisers were neighbours or church wardens.

Some of the words we find in the old wills are no longer used and some meanings have changed, for instance, a ‘hutch’ was then a small cupboard and a cupboard was just that – a board for standing cups on.  A ‘joyned’ table was craftsman made with joints not just a plank on a trestle.  Chairs were status symbols, most people sat on forms or benches; The best beds or mattresses were feather, second best was flock.  Books were a rare possession.

The wills can tell us quite a lot about how people saw their possessions in terms of importance.  Any household goods left to daughters were likely to leave the house on the daughter’s marriage.  Items such as hutches, kettles, towels, bedding, candlesticks, coffers, platters were all portable and would provide a dowry for the daughter.  Items left to sons were tables, benches (which were often fixed to the house wall) beds, and aumbries (which were large fixed cupboards).  It would appear that these items were considered to be permanent holders of the family identity and they stayed with the house which passed down the male line.  Clothes were another item that sometimes appeared in wills and historians have suggested that the bequest of clothes was seen as a way of keeping alive the identity and memory of the deceased.  I imagine the receiver of clothes would not have seen the bequest in such a romantic light but would have taken a far more practical view and the clothes would have been gratefully received.

Other items given a value in the inventories prepared after death were Lumber in the yard and dung.  Commercially prepared fertilizer had not yet been invented so dung was a valuable commodity.

One assumes that, just as we do today, the testator trusted the executors to carry out their wishes as set out in the will but this did not, or could not, always happen.  An example of this can be seen in the will of Matthew Prime which was made on 28th March 1739.  Matthew was a Yeoman which is a farmer who owns and farms a small area of land. In the social hierarchy a yeoman was probably classed just under a gentleman.  In this will the land mentioned is some 18 acres in Thriplow and 10 acres in Fowlmere – total of 28 acres

On Lines 30 – 32 we can see that here he leaves his son Benjamin one rood of Saffron Ground (half a rood in the New Ground and the other half in the Twelvemonth setts)  and ALL MY SAFFRON THAT I HAVE BY ME NOW. 

After Matthews death the inventory of his Goods, Chattels and Cattles was made on 2nd April 1739, which is only a few days after his death and the will was made.  Nowhere in the inventory is there any mention of saffron, nor of the saffron ground.   The inventory also mentions various crops growing on 9 acres and 3 roods of the land – was there nothing growing on the other 19+ acres?   Saffron was a valuable commodity – we have to assume that this was removed before the inventory could be made so that its value was excluded.  Unfortunately we will never know who took it!

Looking at the items Matthew left and remembering that he was one of the better off people of the time, it does make me wonder what the less well off people had.

When I learned to add up it was in pounds, shillings and pence and when we have inventories to translate I can’t resist adding up the figures in my head – just to prove to myself that I can still do it – and I have actually found some errors in the adding up.

One problem in transcribing these documents is that we have to copy exactly what has been written.  Trying to tell a computer that you don’t want the spelling corrected can get very frustrating!

One of the earlier transcriptions I was given was the will of William Wallis.  The will was proved in March 1667 but I don’t know what year it was written.   It starts with the words “In the name of God amen, the seven and twenty day of May in the fifteenth year of the reign of our sovereign lord Charles the second”.   I never was any good at history dates and I keep meaning to look up what year this was – one day I might get around to it.[i]

I find that as we translate more documents, so more questions are thrown up.  Unfortunately we will never know the answers to some of them but Palaeography has certainly given me a greater idea as to what life must have been like a few hundred years ago and made me grateful that I wasn’t around then – I don’t think I would have lasted very long.

Pat Easthope 

[i] The date was 1663, – C.R.Cheney, A Handbook of Dates, Cambridge University Press, 2000.