IntroductionAs an historical source, wills are useful in understanding complex social trends such as kinship, inheritance and religion . Nevertheless, some historians, including Nigel Goose and Nesta Evans, have argued that the usefulness of wills is diminished because they only survive for a portion of the population . The factors affecting who could write a will have been separated into age, social class and gender. Although such concerns are valid, wills are nonetheless a vital source for understanding the lives of individuals who did not leave behind any other form of written record, yet were in a position to compose a list of wishes relating to the objects and people they felt were most important. It would be irresponsible to disregard wills as a source entirely because there is important information that can be drawn from them in spite of the partial record of society that they provide. Accordingly, this article aims to demonstrate that contrary to the claim of Goose and Evans, gender was not a clear-cut impediment to the making of a will and that wills, in particular those by women, are worthy of study.
The research presented in this article is based on a study of the wills of women from four parishes in the North Craven area, namely Clapham, the Ancient parish of Giggleswick, Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Ingleton. It will look at the data from each parish individually and comparatively in order to identify differences between the parishes and to use them as an indicator of general trends in North West England. The choice of data has been limited to those wills from the Elizabethan period of 1558 to 1603 to reduce the number of wills to analyse. This period has been chosen as Elizabeth’s reign marks a stretch of relative stability following the short and tumultuous reigns of previous Tudor monarchs; as Smith has stated, the “strong Elizabethan governmental system” differed clearly from the “weak rule of Edward VI and Mary” . There is an awareness among academics that ‘Elizabethan’ has its limitations as an all-encompassing term for the whole of England, in a society which varied according to year and geography . This article will use the term solely to refer to the time period.
Specifically, this project will look at wills by women, due to the insight they give into the female position within society during the period in question. The focus of the analysis will be on the beneficiaries and executors chosen by the female testators, as an indication of which people women viewed as the most important and influential in their lives. It will also seek to prove an active independence of the testator in making her own legal decisions. Considering other historians’ analyses will allow a link to be made between the priorities of women in rural areas and those in urban centres, as well as identifying any unusual trends or anomalies in the group of wills from North Craven.
Wills as an historical sourceAccording to Coster, wills hold an unrivalled position among historical sources . As a group, they are the only personal document surviving in significant quantities concerned with a wide range of members of society. The high number of wills can be linked to religious motives: there was a belief by early modern society that making a will was a key part of the spiritual preparation for death . This can be seen in the involvement of the clergy in the will-making process, and the religious overtones of the language within the wills themselves. Although few testators wrote their own wills, all wills are important in understanding the beliefs and attitudes of individuals.
Naturally, as with any source, there are some limitations to wills. They are a form of legal document, which means they were framed by common law at the time and often followed a specific rubric . It could be argued that this reduces the importance of wills as individual documents. However, it is possible to look beyond the set phrases of a will to the contents, to gather an idea of the priorities of a certain person. It is true that wills were not always necessary as people could choose to follow the laws of inheritance to the letter or enter into joint tenancies with their children before their deaths . Nevertheless, the wills that were created and survive to this day are worthy of study as evidence of social trends found throughout England.
The wills of womenThe 1540 Statute of Wills was a key landmark in 16th-century legislation. The Act determined that the majority of freehold land was to be devised by will, but it also contained a clause explicitly forbidding married women from making a will in their own names; instead, a wife could only make a will with her husband’s permission . Despite this legislation, Erickson has estimated that between the mid-16th century and the end of the 18th century, out of two million wills, around a fifth of those were made by women . Of these 400,000 women’s wills, around 80% were made by widows, and around 20% were made by single women or spinsters; married women make up less than 1% . It is clear from these estimates that a relatively large proportion of women in the 16th and 17th centuries left wills. Thus, these wills can offer a considerable amount of information about the way of life of a wide range of early modern women . Wills were not only made by the wealthy, and the age span of those women making wills is considerably wider than one might assume, with maidens, newly widowed mothers and elderly widows among the testators.
The Church had a clear stance on will-making, namely that everyone had a responsibility to make a will, regardless of gender. Indeed, the Church insisted that testaments made by married women were valid even if they had been made without the consent of the husband . This challenged the legal system of 16th-century England, which argued that such wills were not legitimate. However, canon law did not regard the law of succession as an inherently spiritual manner; ecclesiastical jurisdiction over probate was seen as a matter of English custom rather than canonical principle . Consequently, the Church could not actively support the rights of married women to bequeath property as they saw fit.
In cases where married women were able to leave a will, Davis has claimed that such documents were framed by “authoritative, masculine speech acts of consent, permission and bequest”, derived from a common law system in England which greatly restricted the rights of women . Upon marriage, a woman’s property was deemed to have moved into the hands of her husband, and as such, wives were not seen as having any property to leave in a will. A married woman’s will may contain the husband’s signature as a mark of consent or name the husband as an executor or witness, which implies consent. However, after the woman’s death, the husband could still withdraw consent to the will .
In spite of the restrictions on which women could make a will, the choice of beneficiaries and executors indicates an active independence of the testator, with her decision made on her own terms and for her own reasons. It has been found in most case studies, as this article will discuss later, that women, in particular widows and single women, tended to favour female legatees, for example daughters, granddaughters, nieces, relatives outside of the nuclear family, and friends; this suggests an awareness on their part of women’s susceptibility to poverty as well as a desire to remedy the economic sanctions on their gender . Men generally followed the rule of primogeniture, leaving their property (including the property that the wife had brought into the marriage) to their sons. Daughters tended to be ignored by their fathers as it was believed that any property left to them would leave the family upon their marriage. In some cases, a widow’s will has been interpreted as an effort to reverse their late husband’s wishes, in order to equalise their daughter’s inheritance portions compared to that of their sons . Amussen has argued that women shaped their wills according to the experience and competence of other women, as her study of the bequests of the wills has shown . She has concluded that a mother was far more accepting of the capabilities of their daughters, which their fathers were more likely to doubt. Thus, a woman’s will not only marks her own independence, but often transfers that independence onto her female beneficiaries.
Choice of dataThe wills for Clapham, Giggleswick and Horton have been transcribed by members of the North Craven Heritage Trust, which are fully accessible in digital form at the website of the Yorkshire Dales Community Archives . Those for Ingleton were transcribed by members of Ingleborough Archaeology Group and are available in book form . The research informing this article comprised of four stages. Firstly, one must identify the relevant wills, in terms of gender and date, from a large group of wills dated from the late 14th century to the mid-18th century. Secondly, one must extract the raw data from those relevant wills, namely the marital status of the female testator as well as the beneficiaries and executors of each will. This information is put into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, as working with that program allows the data to be sorted electronically, for example by year or by name. Once this stage is complete, the results can be summarised in table form, changing the data to percentages where appropriate. This allows for the identification of any trends or patterns over the time period in question. Having analysed the data, one can reach certain conclusions about the priorities of Elizabethan women.
For the period 1558 to 1603, there are 428 wills in total across the four parishes, as demonstrated in Table 1. There are also inventories for two of the parishes, but this article will focus solely on the wills both to ensure that the project treats each parish equally and because inventories do not offer an insight into the relationships of the testators. The 428 wills can be separated by parish as such: 107 for Clapham, 172 for Giggleswick, 87 for Horton-in-Ribblesdale and 62 for Ingleton. The differences in the number of wills for each parish can be attributed to a difference in population size or to the proportion of wills that have survived to this day through careful preservation. Of those 428 wills, fifty were by female testators, which equates to around 12%. These wills include twelve from Clapham, fifteen from Giggleswick, twelve from Horton-in-Ribblesdale and eleven from Ingleton. As the number of wills varies considerably between parishes, to view each parish fairly, one must look at the percentage of women’s wills rather than the raw numbers. Women’s wills account for 11% of Clapham wills, 9% of Giggleswick wills, 14% of Horton-in-Ribblesdale wills and 18% of Ingleton wills. The figure of 12% for the four parishes combined is less than Erickson’s suggestion of 20% of all wills nationally in the early modern period being by female testators. However, this can be attributed to a smaller sample group as well as the rural nature of North Craven, which means that records are likely not to have been kept as diligently as its urban counterparts.
Female testators are generally separated by marital status, into widows, spinsters and, on some occasions, wives. Where the will does not explicitly state the marital status of the testator, this project will follow the example set by Biggs: “one must assume, through an analysis of bequests, that those wills containing bequests to children were married, but likely because of the legal restrictions on married women, to be widows (especially if no husband is mentioned)” . Likewise, if no children are mentioned as beneficiaries or as executors, one must assume the woman was a spinster. In this sample group, none of the wills are stated to have been written by a married woman. As Table 3 shows, widows account for twenty-seven of the fifty wills, while ‘assumed’ widows account for seven more, representing 68% of women’s wills in total. The other 32% is separated into two named spinsters or single-women, and fourteen ‘assumed’ spinsters. With regards to each parish individually: Clapham has ten widows (83%) and two spinsters (17%); Giggleswick has eight widows (53%) and seven spinsters (47%); Horton-in-Ribblesdale has ten widows (83%) and two spinsters (17%); and Ingleton has six widows (55%) and five spinsters (45%).
As well as the reasons mentioned above, this article is specifically focussed on the Elizabethan period because of the data it provides. Restricting the time period in question reduces the size of the source material, but there are still a number of women’s wills for each parish. It is a long enough period with enough data to be able to come to a worthwhile conclusion, whilst also coming under a single monarch or government. Furthermore, as shown in Table 2, the women’s wills are spread out fairly evenly across the forty-five years. It is important to consider that the first and last decades do not completely fit within stated time parameters, so the data can be viewed as only a portion of the true figure. With this in mind, there is a clear increase in the number of women’s wills as the period progresses, from four wills in the 1560s or 8% of the total number, to eighteen wills in the 1590s (36%). This trend can generally be seen in each parish individually, although there are naturally some anomalies. For example, the highest number of women’s wills in Ingleton comes in the 1570s, while Clapham has a relatively high number in the last two years of the 1550s.
Analysis of dataThe focus of the analysis of these data will be on the executors and beneficiaries of these women’s wills. These individuals were the people that the testator trusted most with their wishes and property. Of the fifty wills, the majority have a single executor (60%), as Table 4 shows, while 24% have two executors, 6% have three executors, and four of the wills do not specify an executor. All four parishes have a similar pattern to each other, although there are a few inconsistencies. Clapham has six wills with a single executor, accounting for 50% of the sample, with four (33%) having two executors. Furthermore, Ingleton has a high percentage with a single executor at 73%, with only 9% including two executors. In the cases where an executor is not named, it is possible that this is due to these wills being less well preserved, potentially resulting in the last section of the will being destroyed. Alternatively, the testator may have assumed that executorship of the will would automatically fall to the beneficiary.
Relating the choice of executor to the marital status of the testator reveals some clear trends, as Table 5 demonstrates. The majority of widows in the sample group (48%) chose their children as the sole executor or one of the executors of their will, whereas spinsters favoured their siblings (18%). Only two of the thirty-four widows chose any of their siblings as their executors. The choice by single women to pick their siblings as their executors is understandable, as brothers and sisters would have been their most immediate family members. With regards to executors who were not children or siblings, the marital status of the testator is largely irrelevant. One spinster from Giggleswick chose her mother and step father as executors, which could be explained by the testator and any siblings being underage and the parents being alive at the time of writing. Two widows, one each from Giggleswick and Horton-in-Ribblesdale, chose other family members as executors, a granddaughter and a grandson respectively. Eight of the women’s wills had non-family members as executors, split equally between four widows and four spinsters.
There are naturally more beneficiaries to a will on average than executors. The majority of the women’s wills in this sample have five or more beneficiaries at 36%, as shown in Table 6. However, 14% of the wills have a sole beneficiary, 12% have two beneficiaries, 18% have three beneficiaries and 20% have four beneficiaries. Horton-in-Ribblesdale is the only parish without a will with a sole beneficiary, while Clapham does not have a will with two beneficiaries. Furthermore, Ingleton is the only parish which has more wills with one beneficiary, than wills with two, three, four or five or more beneficiaries. The beneficiaries and executors of a will can be linked. Where there is a sole beneficiary, that person is also the sole executor of that will.
As with executors, there is a clear link between the marital status of the testator and the beneficiaries chosen, with widows favouring children and spinsters favouring siblings (Table 7). Thirty of the wills made by widows bequeath items to their children, which accounts for 88% of widow’s wills. Six widows, or 18%, left items to their siblings; the same number left items to other family members such as grandchildren, nieces and nephews. The beneficiaries of twenty-one widow’s wills (62%) include non-family members, which can be seen as indicative of the wider social network that came with marriage. Two widows from Clapham, one widow from Giggleswick and one widow from Horton-in-Ribblesdale did not leave anything to any children; this may be because they were childless or because their children had predeceased them. None of the widows of Ingleton left anything to any siblings or family members that were not their children. With regards to spinsters, eleven, or 69%, left items to their siblings in their wills, while seven (44%) left items to other family members, primarily nieces and nephews. Half of the spinsters’ wills include bequests to non-family members, a lower percentage than widows, which can be linked to a smaller social circle. One of the two spinster’s wills in Clapham did not leave anything to family members that were not siblings.
Other case studiesThere have been a number of case studies using early modern women’s wills done by other historians. These include Barron’s study of London, Becker’s study of Suffolk, Cross’ study of Leeds and Hull, and Helt’s study of Essex. To place the data from North Craven into a wider historical context, this article will consider three case studies in particular which are similar to the criteria of this sample group: Amussen’s study of Norfolk, Bigg’s study of Northamptonshire and Froide’s study of parishes across England. These three historians have chosen a selection of parishes to investigate, considering the role of marital status, beneficiaries and executors, within the early modern period. The time parameters are not an exact match to this article, but observations on general trends can be made. The similarities between this research and the other projects allows a direct comparison between the area of North Craven and other locations.
Amussen has looked at five villages in Norfolk, namely Cawston, Winfarthing, Shelfanger, Stow Bardolph and Wimbotsham, in the period between 1590 and 1750. Within this period, there are 471 wills from the five parishes combined, accounting for ninety-one women’s wills or 19% . These women’s wills have been divided by marital status into single women at 15%, married women at 3% and widows at 82%. Amussen has concluded that women were far more likely to choose their daughters as the beneficiaries to their wills and were less likely than the men of the parishes to leave land to only one son where there were multiple surviving children . Women were also more likely to leave land solely to their daughters rather than solely to their sons. Amussen has interpreted these patterns as men believing that land and property left to their daughters left the family when they married, whereas women saw property as an important means of independence; by ensuring a daughter owned property in her own right, she had a sense of security if she was widowed unexpectedly or her husband did not have much in the way of wealth . With regards to executors, the women of these five parishes were likely to choose daughters to execute their wills . This is a direct contrast to the male testators who rarely picked any female executors, with the exception of their wives. Amussen has noted that women were more likely to pick sons over daughters as executors if they had the option, suggesting that although women felt a duty to pass items onto other women, they felt men had more authority in carrying out their wishes.
The first difference to be noted between the wills from North Craven and Amussen’s work is that the sample from these five parishes has some married women’s wills, which North Craven does not. In North Craven, 38% of female testators left something to their daughters, whereas only 30% left something to their sons; this supports Amussen’s thesis that women chose their daughters over their sons, but the figures are not distinctive. Equally, four of the wills left everything to their daughters, compared to two which had sons as the sole beneficiary; this supports Amussen’s claims but is not conclusive. With regards to executors, 20% of women chose their sons as sole executors, and 18% chose their daughters. This reinforces the claim that women chose their sons over their daughters where possible.
Biggs has looked at three parishes, Blakesley, Kingsthorpe and Castor, which lie close to each other in the county of Northamptonshire. For the period 1543-1709, there were seventy-six female testators, accounting for 19% of the total wills . These can be separated into fifty-seven widows (75%), eight single women (11%) and eleven wills where the marital status is unspecified (14%). According to Biggs’s analysis, female testators generally recognised a smaller range of kin than male testators, but they spread their bequests further than the nuclear family, which men tended to focus on . Of the seventy-six wills, sixty-one or 80% had a single executor, while fifteen or 20% had two executors . In this sample group, female testators clearly preferred to pick their children as the executors of their wills. Biggs has argued that the increase in women’s wills towards the end of the early modern period can be attributed to wills becoming more common in urban areas, where the mortality rate was higher in comparison with rural England .
The figures for widows are similar to the North Craven sample, and the difference in the number of spinster’s wills may be explained by those ‘unspecified’ in marital status. The North Craven women’s wills have a wider range in the number of executors; they have a lower proportion with a single executor in comparison to Biggs’s sample, but higher percentages of two or three executors. The choice of executor is similar however, with a majority choosing their children. Biggs’s argument that the number of women’s wills increases throughout the early modern period is supported by the women’s wills of North Craven, which demonstrate an increase in number into the late 16th century.
Finally, Froide has used samples of singlewomen’s wills from Bristol, Oxford, York, Southampton and a selection of parishes in Hampshire from the 1500s to the 1700s . According to Froide’s work, single female testators were the most women-identified testators in the early modern era as a whole . Singlewomen’s social relationships were significantly female-centred, which accounts for the majority of legacies going to other women. More than half of the single female testators from Southampton and Hampshire remembered more women than men in their wills, a figure which rises to 60% in Bristol and York, and 70% in Oxford . Siblings were the most prominent relatives in all of these five samples, more specifically sisters over brothers. In Southampton and Hampshire, 66% remembered sisters compared with 45% in Bristol, Oxford and York; by comparison, 27.5% in Oxford, 40% in Southampton and 35% in Bristol, York and Hampshire involved brothers . Between 79% and 86% of single women in Bristol, Hampshire and Southampton recognised either a sibling or a sibling’s child as their heir, while 50% in York and 61% in Oxford did so. These women especially favoured their female kin, and sisters were overwhelmingly the primary beneficiaries in all five samples . However, while the majority of beneficiaries were female, the majority of the executors were male; sisters were the most common group to be chosen, but if not, the next groups were brothers, male friends, kinsmen, brothers in law and nephews . Froide has noted that in these samples, executors were less likely to be related to the female testator.
Although this work focuses on a specific group of women’s wills, the conclusions can be viewed alongside the data from North Craven. In the wills of spinsters from North Craven, 56% left items to more women than men, which supports Froide’s conclusions. Furthermore, a higher percentage of spinsters left items to sisters at 56% than to brothers at 50%; these figures are not striking however and cannot be considered decisive. Of the sixteen singlewoman’s wills of North Craven, thirteen or 81% left items to either their siblings or their siblings’ children, which supports the conclusions of Froide’s data. With regards to executors, the data from North Craven backs up the idea that most singlewomen chose men to execute their will. 56% of spinsters chose a man or men to be executor, whereas only 12.5% chose a woman or women. On the other hand, these men were more likely to be brothers of the woman rather than unrelated.
ConclusionThis article has examined the patterns of Elizabethan female testators in their choice of executors and beneficiaries of their wills. It should be remembered that usually only widows and spinsters made wills. Although a relatively small sample group, the wills of North Craven offer an insight into who these women viewed as the most important in their lives. The comparison of the women’s wills of North Craven with other case studies of England has shown that even geographically remote areas exhibit similar patterns in terms of beneficiaries and executors chosen by female testators. Although not definitive, there is clearly an argument to be made for the wills of rural areas being as important as the wills of urban centres. It is clear that women tended to leave items to other women in their lives, specifically daughters for widows and usually sisters or nieces for spinsters. This can be interpreted as women deciding of their own accord to pass their independence onto their female relatives and friends, to combat the propensity of men to leave their property to other males. The study of the wills of the women of North Craven has proved that, contrary to the claims of Goose and Evans, gender was clearly not a full impediment to the making of a will. Through making a will, the early modern woman made a statement of intent to the rest of society.
AcknowledgementsThis project was carried out as part of an MA degree at the University of Lancaster with the support of a Bursary granted by the North Craven Heritage Trust.
Thanks are due to the members of the North Craven Heritage Trust and Ingleborough Archaeology Group who have transcribed the wills of Clapham, Giggleswick, Horton-in-Ribblesdale and Ingleton, namely Elga Balmford, Chrissie Bell, Sheila Gordon, Kathy Hall, Nigel Harrison, Carol Howard, David Johnson, Susan Manson, Isobel Palmer, Brenda Pearce, Ken Pearce, Jeff Price, Geraldine Reardon, Philip Robinson, Helen Sergeant, Mary Slater, Michael Slater and Jill Sykes. The wills can be found at: http://www.dalescommunityarchives.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/north-craven-wills-inventories.
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