This article is the result of MA degree course work at Lancaster University supported by an NCHT Bursary in 2016
The period 1600-1750 was one of great social upheaval and change. Not only was England ravaged by civil war and economic downturn, but she began to experience a shift towards a more stratified society, a shift that was later to be exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution. It is in this period that the people with whom this essay is concerned, the ‘middling sort’, start to appear. The forerunners of the modern middle classes, the ‘middling sort’ were not wealthy, landed aristocracy, but were definitely distinguishable from their social inferiors by their superior economic level and their status as ‘chief inhabitants’ within their local society [ ]. This essay is concerned with the wills left by this group of people in the parish of Giggleswick between 1600 and 1750, and in particular with their patterns of bequest. By analysing the wills of ‘middling sort’ and assessing the kinds of people bequests were being made to, it is hoped that conclusions can be drawn about patterns of bequest and kinship ties during this period. Inventories are not included as they provide a greater insight into what a person owned rather than to whom the items were given, and by limiting this study to the 177 wills identified as belonging to these ‘middling’ families, this study hopes to be able to draw conclusions about the nature of Giggleswick’s ‘middling sort’. The focus is not what was left behind, but who the ‘middling sort’ were mentioning in their wills, as ‘the range of kin named as beneficiaries is a powerful index of the depth and range of kinship bonds in early modern society…’[ ] and it may be possible to draw conclusions about status, kinship networks, and charitable bequests in early modern Giggleswick and identify changes over time.
Organisation of DataSeveral members of the North Craven Heritage Trust have spent years transcribing and digitising wills from the parish of Giggleswick from the 1390s to the 1750s, so fortunately all the original wills required for this study were already accessible (www.NorthCravenHeritage.org.uk). The first step was to identify the necessary wills; more about this is discussed below. Once the wills had been identified, organising the data from the wills into a format in which they could be analysed can be broken down in to three stages. Firstly, the selected wills were condensed into two documents, one for the 1600s and one for the 1700s. Next, that information was transferred onto a spreadsheet (see Appendix 1), which allowed an easier manipulation of the data.
The data were then transferred into two tables; one showing profession and status identifier (Appendix 2), and the other showing bequests (Appendix 3). The percentages represent what portion of testators in a 50 year period left a bequest to that particular group in their will. This comparison of data forms the core of this analysis; by looking at what changes occurred over time in which particular groups of beneficiaries it may be possible to discern some patterns over time. These patterns are then placed in context to see if a contemporary explanation can be found as to why patterns of bequest changed, or did not change, between 1600 and 1750.
Who were the 'Middling Sort'?: The selection of the groupBefore an assessment can be made of the wills of Giggleswick’s ‘middling sort’ it is first necessary to say something about wills as an historical source, and identify who we are talking about when we talk of the ‘middling sort’. Those people who left behind wills were already a self-selecting group: during the time covered by this study, they were likely to be literate and educated, and had enough possessions to warrant leaving a will. Those who left wills were predominantly male, as a woman’s property would automatically go to her husband if he outlived her. Widows and unmarried women did leave wills, but they are far less common. Wills also do not necessarily tell the whole story. The third of the husband’s property a widow was entitled to was not always mentioned in the wills because it was a legal condition that she received it on her husband’s death. Similarly, it is unknown what bequests were made before death, and if any property or money was given away before the decease of the testator. Wills could also be vague; often direct family ties were made obvious (bequests to sisters, children etc.) but often bequests were made to people with no obvious familial connection. Therefore the conclusions drawn here from the wills of Giggleswick’s ‘middling sort’ can only be speculative, as we cannot be sure what is missing from the wills.
This idea of the ‘middling sort’ began in London in the 16th century and was as intangible then as it was at the close of the 18th century [ ]. The ‘middling sort’ cannot be identified simply. They do not fall neatly into a certain economic bracket, nor do they have a communal identifier in terms of what they call themselves. Contemporary writers, such as Richard Gough [ ], seemed to lack the ‘necessary vocabulary to draw social distinctions by reference to more widely applicable categories’[ ]; this group would not have called themselves the ‘middling sort’, instead they were known as the ‘chief inhabitants’ of their localities [ ]. They could read and write, and were wealthy enough to actually have possessions and/or money to leave. The section of the ‘middling sort’ on top of these criteria results in an ‘elite’ group within the parish. However, it would be wrong to assume that just because these families enjoyed local prestige, that their membership of this group was universal; their superior standing within their own community was based on local rather than national factors, and while they may be considered ‘elites’ of their community, it is their standing in relation to the country as a whole that makes identified them as the ‘middling sort’.
Many attempts have been made by historians to define common characteristics of the ‘middle’ on more arbitrary ground than economic status such as political alignment, and shared attitudes and values [ ]. But as these are difficult to assess, for the purpose of this essay the criteria used to identify the ‘middling sort’ of Giggleswick will be more tangible: economic standing cannot be ignored, so families that own land or have more money or material possession are likely to belong to this grouping; participation in local government such as church wardens, jurors, and school governors is a vital characteristic of the local elite; being part of a ‘dynastic family’ that had been in the parish for generations is also important [ ]. While it is money that placed this group in the ‘middle’ of society, it was their participation in the community that made them elites of the local community in their own right [ ].
Thomas Brayshaw, in his book The History of the Ancient Parish of Giggleswick, identified the families of Armi(t)stead, Banks, Brayshaw, Carr, Clapham, Chapman, Foster, Paley, Preston and Stackhouse as those ancient dynastic families, most of whom had been in the parish at least since the Poll Tax of 1371, and it is the wills of these families that are used as those fitting the characteristics of the ‘middling sort’ [ ]. Prior to the collapse of feudalism, Brayshaw claimed that the ‘lords of the manor lost control’ and from that point on, the above-mentioned families ‘took over the management of affairs’ [ ]. Brayshaw identifies them as ‘old yeoman families’ - an ambiguous term - and presents a clear justification for the pre-eminence of these families. Between 1638 and 1663 the name Armi(t)stead occurs 12 times on the list of church wardens, Carr 10 times, Foster 8 times, Paley 6 times, Lawson 6 times, Preston 5 times, Banks 4 times, Clapham 4 times, Stackhouse twice and Brayshaw twice [ ]. There were Armisteads, Carrs and Paleys who were all masters of Giggleswick School in the late 17th and early 18th centuries [ ]. They are the families that are among the most prominent in the seating plan of Giggleswick Church [ ]. Within the church there is a Paley vault, a chantry founded by a Carr and a charity set up in 1692 by a Foster [ ]. Of course, not every person with one of the above-mentioned surnames would identify as one of the ‘chief inhabitants’ of Giggleswick as these families were often vast, intermarriage was common, and the fortunes of one branch of the family does not represent them all. However, bearing this in mind, given the large number of wills surviving for the period, division and analysis by surname was the most logical and efficient way of surveying the wills. By no means are these select families the only prominent families in the parish of Giggleswick: Ellershaws, Franklands and Hargreaves, to name but a few, shared a similar, if not in some cases the same, social ranking as the above-mentioned ten families, but a wider investigation into patterns of bequest is a task for another study.
The traditional identifiers of the ‘middling sort’ were the terms ‘husbandman’ or a ‘yeoman’. They often own small farms, and are not ‘wealthy or independent enough to be considered gentlemen’ [ ]. Yeomen (who typically owned 50 acres or more of land while husbandmen typically owned between 5 and 49 acres) were superior in rank as ‘while all yeomen might be husbandmen, not all husbandmen were yeomen’ [ ]. It is interesting to note that of the 177 wills surveyed, the number of people identifying as husbandmen in the period 1600-1750 fell from 20% to 1%, while the number who identified as yeoman rose from 29% to 41%. The drastic drop in the number of people calling themselves husbandmen may well be to do with the rise of the numbers of yeoman; but it must also be taken into account that in the period 1700-1750, 20% of people identified themselves by their trade compared to 8% in the period 1600-1649. This testament to social change exemplifies the trend of stratification; the yeoman class was becoming more prominent and those who could not keep up socially and economically, especially in terms of land ownership, turned their attention to the professions instead.
This may be explained by the upheaval caused by the civil war. England was the battle ground between the parliamentarian ‘Roundheads’ and the royalist ‘Cavaliers’ intermittently between 1642 and 1651. The country was ruled by the Commonwealth between 1649 and 1653, and by the Protectorate of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell from 1653 to 1659. After 1660, and the restoration of King Charles II to the throne of England, rents and grain prices fell while debts and taxes on land rose; this triggered the decline of the small farm holdings that were normally owned by husbandmen and yeomen, and these small holdings were amalgamated into larger farm holdings [ ]. This was accompanied by a growth of ‘professional people’ such as merchants and other professions that were not centred on land holding [ ]. This decline in economic fortune, as discussed below, had a significant impact on patterns of bequest especially in the period 1650-1699. As well as economic problems, England was experiencing population stagnation in the 17th century. The population of England stood at 4.1 million in 1600, and had grown by roughly 2 million in less than a century, and reached 5.3 million in 1650. It stagnated somewhat, and even dropped slightly, in the next 50 years, being only 5.2 million in 1700 [ ]. These factors undoubtedly had an effect on traditional patterns of bequest in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Patterns of bequest: The analysis of willsThe wills the ‘middling sort’ of Giggleswick give a unique insight into patterns of bequest and kinship networks in the period 1600 to 1750. Altogether, the cross-section of people considered left behind 177 wills: 30 by women and 147 by men. The data are split into four groups: direct kin, consisting of wives, parents, children and siblings; indirect kin, consisting of relations in law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and grandchildren; non-kin (familial connections), consisting of cousins, kinsmen, godchildren and other named people; and non-kin (non-familial connections), consisting of apprentices, servants, the poor, the church and schools. The civil war, the ensuing economic problems, and population stagnation seem to have had an effect on all four of these groupings, as there are often significant changes in the patterns of bequest the period 1650-1699.
Direct KinMost families in this time period were traditional nuclear families - parents, children, and possibly a servant. For the most part, very few families had extended kinship connections living in the house with them and logically this would impact on patterns of bequest [ ]. The most frequent bequests, as is to be expected, were to close family members who lived, or had lived, in the house and were prominent parts of the testator’s life. Of course, we cannot know necessarily who was living with who but since 46-79% of the wills made bequests to wives or children, it is obvious that where they existed these direct kinship ties were still the strongest. Bequests to direct kin is the most static grouping in terms of change over the three 50 year periods, but even here there are significant changes. Bequests to wives nearly doubled in the period 1650-1699; wives are mentioned in 79% of the wills in this period compared to 42% in the preceding 50 years and 46% in the 50 years after. Between 1650 and 1699, the number of men leaving wills rises, the number of women leaving wills decreases and more wives are mentioned in their husband’s wills. This would appear to show that more men were dying sooner in this period than in the 50 years before or after. By considering the burials between 1654 and 1668 we see there a few spikes that could indicate that a pestilence had struck the area; the death rate in 1660 was double what it had been the year before, and 1663-5 showed higher rates of mortality than the surrounding years [ ]. It is difficult to pin down exactly what the population of the parish of Giggleswick was at any point in this period; it is estimated that it was about 2,800 in 1671 by using the hearth tax returns for that year, but since the data are lacking for the early 1600s or the mid-1700s this figure can tell us very little [ ]. Therefore whilst it can be said that there seems to be a higher rate of mortality in the period 1650-1699 (the fact that more wills are being left in the period than the 50 years before or after supports this) it is not altogether clear why.
Bequests to children also rose in this period compared to the periods 1600-1649 and 1700-1750. Sons are mentioned in 67% of wills in 1650-1699, and daughters 54%, both about 10% more than the periods before or after; as will be shown, most other groups took a dip in terms of bequests left to them in the period 1650 to 1699. The economic problems of the mid- to late 17th century could also be a factor in this relative rise in bequests to wives and children. As discussed above, not all these extended families with shared surnames would have been as prosperous as each other and so when bequests were made, the main desire was to provide for wives and/or children, rather than to consider the wider extended kinship network [ ].
Indirect kinThis group of people, consisting of relatives-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, falls outside of the direct kinship group because they were unlikely to have lived with the testator, and they are not first-degree relations. Analysing the numbers for indirect kin is difficult as often the numbers are so small it is difficult to judge as to whether it is a trend or not, and their significance lies often in the absence of bequests rather than a great volume of them.
Bequests to sisters and daughters-in-law are interesting. When a woman married, she was no longer her father’s responsibility, but that of her husband, and he was supposed to provide and care for her. Bequests for sisters-in-law went from 5% to 0% to 9%, and were (slightly) more common than bequests to daughters-in-law which remained static at one bequest per 50 year period, the same with bequests to parents-in-law. Bequests to a brother-in-law went from 7% to 3% to 2%, which on the surface looks like an obvious downward trend. But considering the actual numerical value, the number of bequests made are four in the period 1600-1649, two in the period 1650-1699 and one in the period 1700-1750, which is a far less obvious trend. Whilst these numbers are too small to draw any concrete conclusions about the relationship the testator had with relations-in-law, it is interesting that while all these groups declined in the period 1650-1699, bequests to sons-in-law went up from 4% to 12%, then dropped again to 0%. Sons-in-law were likely to receive more help, especially during the economic problems mid-century, probably because of the patriarchal structures that kept husbands providing for their wives, and parents for their daughters.
Bequests to aunts and uncles were very few, and relatively static. Again, this group took a down-turn in the middle period with bequests to aunts and uncles being mentioned in 4%, 1% and 6% of wills. But when using the actual raw data (two bequests in the period 1600-1649, one in 1650-1699, and three in 1700-1750) the differences are so small as to be negligible. It is safe to say that while aunts and uncles were obviously a feature of the testator’s lives, they did not warrant any significant endowments, probably because, in relation to more direct kin and younger relatives, they were not deemed to be as needy, or were not considered to be the financial responsibility of the testator. While a son-in-law might receive money out of consideration of the daughter’s welfare, a more distant relative was not directly the testator’s financial responsibility, especially in times of hardship. Similarly, bequests to nieces and nephews take a significant dip 1650-1699 going from 21% to 9% and back up to 17%, which could be explained by the economic difficulties mentioned above; direct family took precedence over the welfare of the extended kinship network in times of financial difficulty. Grandchildren are a group that remain relatively static over the 150 year period, being mentioned in 21%, 28% and 24% of bequests over the three sets of 50 years. Unlike the other relatives mentioned in this group, grandchildren can be assumed to be direct bloodline relations and so provision for their welfare is of greater consideration.
Non-kin (familial connection)Families, as Brayshaw points out, are complex and ‘heaven forbid that any reader should ask for the exact relationship existing between the different branches’ [ ]. This group includes those people mentioned in wills as ‘kinsman’, ‘cousin’, ‘godchild’, and all those mentioned by name but with no familial identifier, i.e. those people who are not specifically designated as a relative. It is because familial terms are so loose that ‘cousin’ has been interpreted as applying to a potential spectrum of people, and not included with indirect kin. It is possible that the cousin mentioned was a ‘proper’ cousin of the testator, but it is equally as possible that they were a more distant family member, by blood or by marriage. The same problem occurs when considering kinsmen as the term could refer to an actual blood relation, or just a neighbour. While the number of people leaving items to cousins is so small as to be negligible, it is worthy to note that this group, like the others, still experiences a dip in the period 1650-1699, going from 5%, to 1%, and back up to 7%. ‘Kinsmen’ experience the same downward trend, but to a greater extent; the numbers of testators making bequests to kinsmen in their wills halves in the period 1650-1699 compared to the 50 years before and after. Between 1600 and 1649 20% of people leave something to a kinsman in their will compared to 9% in the period 1650-1699 and 19% between 1700 and 1750.
The group ‘other’ has been included in this section as some of the wills, particularly those of spinsters, included long lists of people who did not share the surname of the testator. The will of Stephen Carr (1725) names no fewer than 19 different surnames other than his own. Judging by the kinds of bequests he made, giving out sums ranging from a few shillings to £120, he was a very wealthy man and so his sharing of wealth could be interpreted as good Christian charity. Other testaments, such as the will of Agnes Chapman, spinster (1733), point to the fact that they have no other family. Twelve surnames are mentioned in the will, with four bequests going to ‘kinsmen’. No direct or indirect family is mentioned, so it is to be assumed that she did not have any and thus distributed her money and possessions among people she knew rather than immediate family. The raw data for bequests to ‘others’ (twelve, eleven and thirteen bequests) makes it seem as if this group is relatively static. However, when the percentages are compared, it is obvious that, as a proportion of the whole, bequests to ‘others’ takes a slight dip in the period 1650-1699, going from 21% to 16% to 24% over the 150 years. This, like bequests to other groups, can be put down to a general decline in testators making bequests to wider kinship networks over the course of the 17th century.
It is interesting to note how few bequests were left to godchildren. Religion, especially in Oliver Cromwell’s England, still played a major part in day-to-day life and so by modern estimation one could be forgiven for assuming godchildren would be a feature of early modern wills. There are two possible explanations for the absence of such bequests. Firstly, William Coster in his pamphlet on Kinship and Inheritance postulates that gifts were given to godchildren only when they were very young [ ]. Secondly, godparents were banned under Cromwell’s puritan regime; in 1660 they were restored, but many dissenting churches chose to abandon the tradition once and for all [ ]. The parish of Giggleswick was heavily influenced by Quakerism, which could explain the decline of bequests to godchildren in the Giggleswick wills. In the period 1600-1649 14% of wills left bequests to godchildren, this dropped to 3% in 1650-1699, and rose slightly to 7% in 1700-1750.
Non-kin (non-familial connectionBequests made to groups such as apprentices, servants, vicars, the poor and schools are very small indeed. In the period 1600-1649, 25% of the wills left bequests to one of more of these groups; this drastically dropped to 5% in the period 1650-1699 and rose to 17% in the period 1700-1750. Thomas Carr, a butcher, left in his will of 1718 15 shillings to his apprentice Abraham Fearnside. Given how many more people identified as tradesmen in the 1700s compared to the 1600s, it is interesting that not more people were leaving money to their apprentices. It is a drawback of the wills that they do not expressly tell us the age of person making the will. It is possible that other tradesmen were too old to have apprentices and Thomas Carr happened to die young.
Bequests to servants declined slowly over the period. Six bequests (11%) were made in 1660-1649, and two each in 1650-1699 and 1700-1750 (3% and 4% respectively). Again, it is not clear if people were eschewing servants, or just if no bequests were being made to them. It is a possibility that due to the economic climate the poorer ‘middling sort’ could not afford servants. It is also possible that more people were migrating to town to seek out work there. However, without doing a study of net migration this cannot be asserted with any certainty. Due to extended kinship ties, it is also plausible that servants were not as necessary in the rural parish; large extended families could be called on for help, which may have made hiring servants unnecessary.
Funeral sermons were the order of the day when it came it bequests for vicars. Two of the three bequests to vicars were specifically for the preaching of the funeral sermon; the bequest made in the 1700s was made by the aforesaid Stephen Carr, who seems to want to have covered all his options. The bequest for a funeral sermon to be preached in 1621 was made by Richard Armistead; all his other bequests were to nieces, nephews, and several others, so maybe he had no direct family (he does not mention brothers or sisters, so it is possible that these nieces and nephews were more distant relations). Similarly with godchildren, it may surprise the modern reader to see so few bequests to churchmen in this period. The decline of Catholicism and the rise of Protestantism and other dissenting churches can go some way to explain the lack of religious bequests in wills. Only one will expressly mentioned a religious denomination: Agnes Chapman in her will of 1733 left money to the Quakers to distribute among the poor. It is impossible to tell from this small set of data whether this was a growing trend, or if religious affiliations played a part. In a similar vein, bequests to the poor were also far less common than expected. One explanation could be the introduction of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which meant that the parish was responsible for the legitimately needy within their domain. Without looking at the wills for the 1500s it is difficult to tell, but it is possible that this law, which required the taxation of citizens to pay for poor relief, brought about a decline of charitable bequests in wills. People who were rich enough to be leaving wills had no doubt been taxed over their lifetimes and possibly felt as if they had contributed enough in life.
Only one person, William Clapham, left any money to schools, in his will of 1718. He left £100 plus interest to the School of Horton in Ribblesdale, and £100 to be paid to the Free Grammar School of Giggleswick to teach poor children. In the same vein, only one man, William Paley in 1629, expressly left money for his son, Thomas, to go to university. Possibly because of the still rural, farm-orientated nature of life in Giggleswick prior to the industrial revolution university attendance was still uncommon. Schooling, however, must have been, if not common, at least available. In 17th and 18th century England literacy rates were about 50% [ ]. By 1743, there were two endowed and three un-endowed schools in the parish, so evidently there was education enough to go around without legacies left by parish residents [ ].
ConclusionBy the 1700s, society was on the brink of the Industrial Revolution. People’s social status was changing rapidly; ‘husbandman’ had all but died out as an identifier across these families, to be replaced with ‘yeoman’ or a trade-based profession. It is likely that they could not afford to buy or rent the land anymore, which was bought by other, wealthier members of society. Along with this obvious change came significant changes to patterns of bequests. It is undeniable that the period 1650 to 1699 witnessed a drastic drop in bequests across almost all of the groups that were not direct family members. This can most likely be attributed to a range of factors. Economic hardships would logically result in a shrinkage in a testator’s kinship network; the testators have less money and resources, so what they do have is shared out among immediate family rather than distributing less among more people. Cultural and social changes such as the Elizabethan Poor Laws and the outlawing of godparents undoubtedly affected patterns of bequest to these groups; the poor were not in theory the responsibility of the parish and godparents were now no longer an essential part of the Christian experience. However, despite these fluctuations and changes, the idea of a supportive extensive kinship network that encompassed the whole community was not quite dead yet. Bequests to extended family members and friends were still common, at least among the families surveyed here in Giggleswick.
AcknowledgementsWith thanks to Sheila Gordon and Mary and Michael Slater for transcribing the Gigglewick Wills for the period 1390 to 1750. The sources used for this article can be accessed at: http://www.NorthCravenHeritage.org.uk under Archives.The Appendices are to be seen in the web version of this article.