The Giggleswick Wills Project

Sheila Gordon, Mary Slater and Michael Slater
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 


The last will and testament was a document which became increasingly important to ordinary families from the 15th century. The Statute of Wills of 1540 allowed more freedom to the testator to devise his land and home than previously when the law in most of England imposed inheritance by the eldest son (primogeniture). The document had to be proved by church authorities and for residents in the Deanery of Craven it had to be taken to York. A copy was made and the executors were given written permission to proceed to carry out the wishes of the deceased if all was in order, and might be subject to an obligation under threat of a fine of twice any money involved for disbursement. An oath was required and the grant of probate had to be paid for.

Many men were content to die intestate because their affairs were previously settled or satisfied by common law descent of lands and goods. Wills are not representative of the population since perhaps only about 30% of men left wills. A will was sometimes needed to devise land and buildings to allow immediate access. In addition, a testament was made to bequeath personal property and money.

Some insight into life in the 16th and 17th centuries can be gained by a study of wills as a source of historical information. It has to be remembered that the content may not reflect the true wealth of an individual, or his or her sincere religious sentiments since a scribe (the vicar or schoolmaster) was usually needed to write the will and he tended to use rather standardized or preferred expressions. Many testators were illiterate.

Over a period of several years a collection of photocopies has been made of the microfilmed probate copies and some originals of Giggleswick parish wills held at the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research at York University. Further wills have been found in other archives, particularly in The National Archives. The earliest is dated 1390 and a date limit of 1702 was set, the end of the reign of William and Mary. A collection of 231 wills was accumulated for the period up to 1603 when Elizabeth I died and 419 from 1603 to 1702, a total of 650; a few of the early ones are in Latin but most are in English. The handwriting is generally of a style which takes experience to read, the text on the probate copies is often of poor quality or subject to damage, and spelling is antiquated. The transcriptions are available at together with a detailed analysis.

In addition, 118 inventories were discovered dating from 1679 to 1702. At some unknown date, due to lack of archive storage space, inventories were separated from their accompanying wills and most were destroyed. The period most commonly best represented elsewhere is 1660-1730. Inventories are an invaluable resource, giving us a view of everyday life in a way that wills do not do. They give us a list of everyday paraphernalia; the furniture in the parlour or the minutiae of the kitchen, from cooking utensils to brewing and cheese-making equipment. For farmsteads the livestock are often listed, usually followed by the husbandry gear. We discover peoples’ trades and for the more affluent families the individual rooms are named.

Religious matters

Nearly all the wills include a statement bequeathing the soul to almighty God. Further statements concerning salvation are often added, in a Catholic manner in early wills, and later in a Protestant manner. In the north of England it is likely that Catholic customs were not completely to be replaced by Protestant practice until well into Elizabeth’s reign. Before the Reformation (1536) gifts were made to the church and clergy, money was bequeathed to priests to pray for a testator’s soul to minimize any stay in Purgatory, and payments of the obligatory mortuary fee and for forgotten tithes were normally made. Post-Reformation bequests for church repairs, road and bridge repairs, and to the poor were encouraged instead.

In medieval times it was customary to give the best animal belonging to the testator to the Lord of the Manor and the second best to the parish priest as a mortuary payment. An Act of Parliament in 1529 regulated the payment of the mortuary so that people with movable goods valued under 10 marks (£6-13-4) were exempt. Of the 219 wills in the period 1521 to 1603, 73% mention mortuary payments so possibly the other 27% were worth less than 10 marks. Thus it is not only rich people who made wills.

Various wills up to 1558 (Elizabeth took the throne in 1558), made individual bequests to the high altar, abbeys and convents, chantries, and for funding of a priest, a crucifix, candles and wax, tithes, bells, food, cloth and church repair. From 1562 to 1603 references mainly concern transfer of tithe rights presumably bought from the church.

Most wills made after 1603 conform to a non-fervent standard religious expression to a greater extent than in the late 16th century. Some few wills seem to express more true devotion than the more or less standard statements, including those of the clergymen Christopher Shute (1626), Anthony Lister (1685) and non-conformist Richard Frankland (1698).


The early examples include typical gifts of money and food to the poor and money for the repair of paths and bridges.
Robert of Staynford1390 to the poor and to those to whom I have done injustice 100 marks
William Newhouse1541 to the amendinge of the hieway within the parish of Gigleswicke 6s 8d
Alan Armitstede1547 2s to the mendinge of the hiewaie
Richard Browne1548 12d to the common chiste to the scoleres that day I am buried 12d
James Saylebanke1548 4d to the comon chiste
James Wilson1548 12d to the common chest
Peter Currer1550 to the poore folke that shalbe at my burial that daie ther dynner
John Howson1550 13s 4d to the poor people of the parish
Joan Watkynson1552 4d to the poore mans Boxe
     they that shall come with me to the church to
     be buried shall have cheises and bread that
     shalbe of half a bushel of meall
Thomas Foster1553 12d to the mending of claishouse lane if neighbours will make it (Closehouse?)
Robert Somerscales1553 3s 4d to the mendinge of Settell Bridge
For the period up to 1603 a greater proportion of wills compared to post 1603 made gifts to charity, perhaps a sign of pre-Reformation religious attitudes to charity. For 1670 to 1702 gifts are virtually absent.

Richard Clarke of Rathmell (1628) bequeathed 20 marks (£13-6-8 ) to mortgage land to raise an income of 11 shillings yearly for ever ‘for the poor of Rathmell and other lame people coming into Rathmell’. William Wharfe (1648) left £7 to support ‘Margrett Preston being both deaf and dumb’. Margaret Ducard (1659) left £10 for poor children to become apprentices, £6 to the poor of Rathmell and £100 for three orphans. Richard Frankland of Rathmell (1698) left £10 to the overseers of the poor. Not least is Christopher Brown (1676) who said in his will that ‘if I had a thousand pounds my wife should have it every penny ...’ Not exactly charitable giving but surely he would have given some money to charity if he had possessed any.

Women and Widowright

Ecclesiastical law provided that at least one third of a man’s personal property should pass to his widow as her dower and one third to his children. A married woman could only make a will with consent of her husband. For the period up to 1603 10% of wills were made by sixteen widows and seven spinsters. More than half of the widows left the residue of their goods to their sons. The others bequeathed to all of their children. The seven spinsters left their goods to brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces as one would expect.

Women generally did not hold tenements in their own right but based their titles on their husband’s or son’s agreement with their landlord, who in the Giggleswick and Settle area during this time was often the Clifford family. Early in the 16th century, the Cliffords issued warrants of agreement which did not specifically state that a proportion of the tenement passed automatically to the widow but, as the tenants believed this was their customary right, the Cliffords turned a blind eye when this happened. This helps to explain why tenants frequently followed the words ‘title and tenant right’ by ‘with the licence of the lord’. Warrants granted in the 1540s gave the whole tenement to the widow after her husband’s decease but those warrants granted in 1579 reduced this to a third. A study of the last sixty years of the 16th century, when wills became more detailed, shows 8% of men leaving the whole tenement - the house and land - to their wives, 20% leaving half the tenement and 37% leaving one third. One third portion became the norm towards the end of the 16th century.

A widow’s inheritance was often subject to different arrangements if she chose to remarry. Usually her portion was reduced, particularly if she had a son who was running the farm, the continuity of the farmhold within the family being of paramount importance. It was not uncommon for women to take on board the management of the farm, either solely or in conjunction with her son or sons.

The widow’s portion invariably had stipulations attached. Frequently the widowright was only until the eldest son came of age, the assumption being that the son would provide for his mother during the rest of her life, as in the will of John Houghton of 1558 ‘One chamber in the nether end of the fire house and the loft over 2 bushels of barley and one of malt during her life’. In another case the widow was to receive a half portion with the son ‘if they can agree, but if not, then one third.

Ellen Dawson was a married lady apparently with no children. She stipulated in 1647 that on the death of her husband her estate would go to ‘Ellin Lupton daughter of Roger Lupton of feazor All my lands, leases or goods which I bought of John Cooke Citticen of London and all Houses and appurtenances belonging to this my Tenment now in the tenour and occupation of my Husband’. This is an unusual situation, almost a role reversal, and it is interesting to speculate as to why her estate did not pass automatically to her husband upon marriage as was the norm for that period. The property may have been placed in trust to stop the husband claiming ownership. Normally the husband would have been in a position to devise all the estate to whoever he deemed suitable.

Robert Windser gave his wife Isabell one third of his houses and lands plus one third of his goods, but also one half of the other third commonly called the ‘dead’ part, ‘because she has been painful (has taken pains) loving and kind unto me and unto all my children’.


Hard-wearing clothes were items of value in the days of draughty houses, outdoor labour and little money for more than the basics. Similarly, for those who could afford a bit more, ‘best’ or holiday wear was carefully hoarded. In the latter part of the 17th century the bequest of clothes falls sharply, perhaps because clothes were more plentiful and old clothes would be less valued as legacies.

Men leave hose, stockings, gowns, shawls, wetherstocks (neckerchieves), doublets, jerkins, jackets, breeches, shirts, cloaks, coats, hats, shoes, boots and clogs. Colour is often used to define the article. Different fabrics (frieze, fustian, mold (moleskin?), leather buckskin, linen, damask, and ‘harden’ (coarse flax)) are mentioned. New shoes feature in two wills - a recent outlay not to be wasted. A suitably clerical ‘violet felt hat’ is left to a Sawley monk in 1461 by the local priest Christopher Altham. A ‘cardinal hat’ (colour or style?) is bequeathed in 1577. In 1539 John Caterall leaves two sallets (helmets). Clearly he is in a wealthier bracket than most others, as he also leaves a damask doublet and a chamlet (costly eastern fabric) gown.

Women leave gowns, kirtles, kerchieves, petticoats, coats, cloaks, shifts, linen clothes, woollen clothes, waistcoats, bodies (bodices, sometimes called ‘a pair of bodies’), sleeves, safeguards (protective overskirts), rails (light capes), bands, belts, aprons, neckcloths, shapen (tailored) clothes, and cloth for their manufacture. Colours again are used to define the particular garment referred to. Some items were something special - ‘My petticoat with tufted taffeta overbody’, ‘My blue mella (mixed colours) gown’.

Household goods and furniture

Furniture items commonly bequeathed as heirlooms were arks, kists (chests), armoires or aumbries (cupboards). Other widely mentioned basic furniture includes boards, tables, chairs, stools and forms. A sconce (screen or fixed seat by the side of the fireplace) is mentioned in 1548. Some items of furniture clearly had special significance, for example a chest of drawers ‘bought by me at Leeds’ in 1699, ‘my new chair which came from London’ and a ‘close stool (chamber pot in stool)’.

Bedstocks (the bedstead or its upright framework) form a large proportion of bequests. With them are found ‘beds of clothes’, feather beds, mattresses, two ‘bound work’ coverlets, sheets (’of linen’ Christopher Altham 1461), blankets and cushions.

The other basic household items of value were pots and pans. Their high value is demonstrated by Richard Wildeman (1575) - ‘...I will that the brass pot which I bought with the gold that the queen’s majesty gave me shall be an heirloom at my house and also the great board that stands above the fire and the form in the house shall be heirlooms’.

Looms, tenters and shears also appear in wills, but it is difficult to assess whether these are for purely domestic use or for a trade carried on. Robert Altham (1583) leaves ‘a stone of wool’ to his brother, and Emmott Twyssilton 1569 leaves ‘four yards of white cloth to a kirtle’ to a lady.

Silver items occasionally found in the wills studied are spoons, a silver-lined wooden bowl and a silver-lined silk purse (vicar Altham in 1461). Pewter is also rare - it is 1596 before Elizabeth Cockytt leaves 3 pewter doublers and a pewter saucer among her bequests.

Robert Crake (1594) bequeathed his virginals and strings to his godson, and his singing books to another person, ‘care to be taken in delivery’.

Other small household items are very varied. Salting tubs and other household utensils such as tableware and ironwork around the fireplace are often bequeathed. A reckontree, guilefats, gimlins and knopps are left and ‘ great pan, my pot four pewter doublers a gridiron a bakestone a brandreth a pair of tongs and a serving pan’ by Anne Swainson in 1608.

There is a great variety of miscellaneous items. Bows, arrows, quiver, sword, dagger, saddle, spurs, windles, combs, spinning wheel, bible, a clock and case, a fork, measures and stall used in Settle market, and five books are such items.

Farm goods and animals

In this rural farming area the commonest category of goods bequeathed is the general one of ‘husbandry gear’, for example:

wain and gear, carts and gear, ropes, plough and gear, harrow, iron teams, one pair of wheels and one head yoke, cowpe (cart), a pair of cowpe raithes (removable boards for heightening it), culter (coulter for a plough), a knoppe (a kind of tub), gavelockes (crowbars), axes, ‘one hacke (mattock) and one new spade do belong to the Church...’, and a great grindstone.

Grandchildren and godchildren are very commonly bequeathed lambs or ewe lambs. Joan Watkynson (1552) bequeathed two ‘wedders’ (wethers) along with other eatables to feed those who accompanied her body to the church burial. One half of a tup is bequeathed by William Armestead (1602); presumably he had a half share in one.

Oxen and other cattle are big items of value to be bequeathed. In the earliest will Robert de Staynford (1390) leaves to his daughters ‘all my animals namely bulls, cows, heifers, bullocks ...’. John Houghton leaves ‘one black why (heifer) which was under Marigold’ - an indication of how individual animals might be identified. Henry Tennant provides four bulls for the parish in 1604 and Lawrence Coulton in 1626 leaves 3s 4d towards the maintenance of a bull.

Horses include a bay horse and white mare, a ‘stagge (colt 1 - 3 years old) or coulte’, a ‘little black stoned hobbie (pony)’ and a sorrel nag. A few swine are mentioned. Roger Carr (1597) bequeaths one young swarm of bees. Jaine Crake (1597) leaves to her daughter money and gold to buy ‘myne oxen and my fishe’ - had she a fishpond enterprise?

There is no mention of goats or other animals (e.g. poultry or rabbits). There is mention of milk cows and milk from ewes. There is only one note about cheese by Joan Watkynson (1552) as part of her funerary bequests and mention of a cheese press by Isabell Howsonne in 1639.

The values of the various animals can be found in the inventories of 1679 to 1702 when they are quoted individually. In some cases the valuations of sheep are rather odd amounts of money and one wonders what the basis of valuation was.

Wills mention stocks of grain, malt, hay, straw, oats and bigge (barley) and wool. A stone of wool is left by Robert Altham (1583) and a fleece of wool is left by Thomas Watkinson (1558). Growing crops are also mentioned. Timber lying in a barn is bequeathed and tenterwood (with his tenters) by William Foster (1597). ‘Mylne timber’ is to remain at his walk mill, according to Miles Wildman (1553). A unique bequest is of ‘limestones’ by Thomas Bullocke (1571) of Tosside. Perhaps they were brought here for agricultural purposes.

Rooms in the house

It must have been very difficult for many people, whether single adults such as widows or older children, to find their own accommodation and so they had to rely on provision in other households. It seems as though one had to be lucky to have more than a small space in a corner or even a cellar to sleep in.

The earliest reference comes in 1553 when Robert Somerscales of Settle asked that his son ‘Thomas shall occupy the fierhowse’ (meaning the main room with a fireplace) and ‘ brother Sir Richard the chamber of the back side of my fire house with a sufficient bed and bed clothes’. (Sir Richard was a priest and the title Sir was a mark of respect). In 1572 Richard Foster asked that ‘Agnes Foster my sister …. shall have a bedroom in my house’.

Education and Literacy

There is mention of a school master, children’s school education, apprenticeship or university training in a few cases in the 16th century. The cost of education was a major factor in the sharing of the goods of the deceased; typically the educated child did not receive his child’s portion. There is more evidence of concern to educate children at school and university or to provide support for apprenticeship throughout the 17th century. Giggleswick School offered scholarships to Christ Church college, Cambridge, and the Alumni lists show that many local boys went to university.

The wills sometimes have the testator saying that he or she is validating the will with a mark or signature, prior to the list of witnesses with marks or signatures, and apprisers of inventories are named and sign or make a mark when these became common later in the 17th century. If the will is a copy made at York the names are copied out and are sometimes accompanied with a note that a mark rather than a signature is made. In cases where an original will is available it can be seen easily whether a signature or mark is made. It is therefore somewhat difficult to assess the proportion of the population making wills or inventories who were able to sign their name. Nevertheless an estimate of the fraction of males testators unable to sign their name of the order of 10 to 30% seems likely.


There were no banks so money was held in cash or put out on loan to others. Henry Foster (1589) says that ‘much of my goods be in creditors handes and I know not how they be gotten up…’. Loans would sometimes be forgiven as a bequest.

The wills of the 16th century prefer the mark (13s 4d) as a unit and this gives way to thinking in terms of amounts of 6s 8d and 3s 4d as well as pounds, shillings and pence. Nobles (6s 8d) are mentioned from 1543 to 1599 but the amount 6s 8d is given in wills from 1516. The shillings commonly come in sets of 5, 10, 20 and 40. It appears that people thought in terms of two sets of currency - of the mark and noble, and in pounds, shillings and pence.

Relative money values can be estimated ( as 1602 to 2008 : 160 times retail price index and 2000 times average earnings 1702 to 2008 : 150 times RPI and 1600 times average earnings.

The wills therefore concern paupers to millionaires.

Trades and professions

Before 1500 there are wills for two vicars, one chaplain, and one draper. There are a further three priests up to 1540. In 1548 Lawrence Yveson has the office of the keeping of Langcliffe mill. It is only after 1553 that people identify themselves more frequently according to status or trade. A walk mill, a property which was noted several times, is for fulling cloth, taking the name from the German word Walker meaning fuller. The other trades and trade articles mentioned in the 16th century are:

fuller, walk mill and clothmaker, tenters, shears, miller in Langcliffe, smithy, cart gear, walker shears, lime pit house, weaver, looms, ‘tools and looms as belong to the smith’s occupation’, Langcliffe mill, mercer, shop, tanner.

In the 17th century it is no surprise that in this rural area most of the testators are named as yeomen. The high number of clothiers and clothworkers reflects sheep-raising here. One clothmaker has a fulling mill. Awsten Foster (1601) is a butcher. Shoemakers would have used the locally tanned animal skins (there are also a fellmonger, skinner, tanner, cordwainer and saddler). The term cordwainer suggests a higher class of shoemaking, the term having originated in the soft Spanish leather from Cordoba. Other trades reflect what might be seen in any community. There are many references to shops but they may not be shops in the modern sense but work or storage places.

Field names

Despite a near two-hundred year gap between the dates of the wills and the date of the Giggleswick Tithe map and apportionment of 1843, over half of the fields in Giggleswick township can be accounted for. Of particular interest are the communal townfields which are mentioned, albeit rather briefly. The positions of Settle townfields are well known, but Giggleswick fields are an unknown quantity. What we appear to have are three separate groups of townfields although there may be more, a matter deserving further study.


The 118 inventories are lists of household, shop and farm goods and money credits and debts which had to be apprised or valued by four men in case of dispute. A mention needs to be made of the pitfalls in drawing conclusions from inventories. English and Welsh probate inventories only deal with goods, chattels and leasehold interests in land. They do not deal with property, therefore they are not a reliable guide to the total wealth of an individual. However, we have one instance of a house being included. Some items may not be included in an inventory because they have been given to the beneficiaries beforehand.

Hoskins in ‘The Leicestershire Farmer in the 17thC’ says that ‘it was often clear from a yeoman’s will, if not from his inventory, that he had handed over his farm, with all live and dead stock to his eldest son and retained only ‘his parlour’ in the old farmstead. There surrounded by his few treasured bits of furniture and with a cow or two and a bit of land to keep him quietly happy outdoors, he ended his days. Most of the small yeomen estates can be explained in this way’. An example from our own area is the inventory of John Carr, 1684, clerk, which lists:-
one parcel of old books 001000
The equity of redemption of some lease lands
In the T(own)ship of Settle
and yet he owned several messuages and tenements. Fortunately for us his will survives to tell us that he bequeathed all his property to William Paley by an indenture previously drawn up. We can see from this how easy it would have been to get a false impression of his wealth from looking at his inventory alone.


The project has provided interesting information about a parish in Craven not available from other sources. Work is in progress to transcribe the wills from Horton in Ribblesdale and Ingleton so that one day a comparison can be made between local parishes with different ways of life, as well as with other parishes and regions in England.

Isabelle Browne 1551 (with permission of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, York) A typical early will showing the nature of the script
Cheese Presses drawn by Diana Kaneps

Isabelle Browne 1551 (with permission of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, York) A typical early will showing the nature of the script

Cheese Presses drawn by Diana Kaneps