Updated: May 28
An introduction into the way wills can be an invaluable resource to the local historian. Wills can offer the researcher information about a person that cannot be obtained anywhere else, it is in many respects a way of hearing the words of those long departed. The information available from a will can give you a glimpse into the person's social standing, their financial and family circumstances, and even where they want to be buried. and much more.
It is often that you will find people of low status mentioned in wills, either as witnesses, or maybe a loyal servant being gifted . Now I have highlighted what information we can gain from a will, I shall explain in plain language what a will is.
What is a will!
A will, or last will and testament, originally dealt with immovable property such as land and houses plus personal items such as cloths or money, the will was the immovable property the testament was the personal items such as cloths and money. In England, the last will and testament was the one and same document and commonly referred to as a will. Traditionally in most of England, inheritance of property was to the oldest son, however in
Kent the custom of equally dividing property between all sons rather than the oldest was followed.
Pitfalls of wills
Wills can be very confusing for the researcher for the following reasons, they never give a complete picture of a persons' life, only near the time of death, wills are written by lawyers and in many cases in old English and a barrage of legal language. Finding wills can be problematic . Take into account wills do not represent the whole of society, for example women are very poorly presented compared to men, it was not until the 19th Century women could write a will without their husband's consent.
A will was made by the testator and usually witnessed by two or three persons, known as witnesses a testator would appoint an executor to apply to the court to approve the will, and in turn the court would grant probate which enabled the conditions of the will to be carried out by law. Valid wills could not be made by traitors, heretics or prisoners.
Most wills after the 16th Century are written in English, although the style and language code of the scribe can be hard to follow. . Wills can varie in size from a few pages to a large bundle, much of it will be legal writing.
I hope this little guide explains simply about wills and is helpful, remember wills are a primary source of historical information about a person long gone, it gives us a snapshot of their being , their social status, their family and friends and much more,