Stainforth Wills: a study of kinship

Jenny Dodd

Stainforth is a small village in Ribblesdale just north of Settle. Various aspects of its social past and the historical potential of wills are reported in this article. A study has been made based upon fifty Stainforth wills, dating from 1551 to 1782, with supplementary evidence from the Parish Register and 1672 Hearth Tax returns. The depth and range of kinship bonds in early modern Stainforth have been examined by comparing the differing trends of bequests found in the wills of male and female testators. A comparison with the upland parish of Almondbury, also within Yorkshire, aids an understanding of early modern society in upland parishes. Furthermore, the extent to which the inheritance customs of Stainforth compare with those of the county are discussed. The various relationships and networks of kith and kin under study here and found in any society are significant. They allow insight into the history of a settlement through social interactions, care in the community, and the importance of family and friends. Wills are some of the few personal documents which survive in sufficient quantities to allow an impression of a settlement’s social arrangements to emerge. The main aspects of the wills analysed and discussed concern firstly those to whom bequests were made in terms of the nuclear family, extended kin, friends and the community, secondly the witnesses and thirdly the executors and supervisors.

For the country as a whole the number of will makers accounted for one third of the population. The majority were made by the higher ranks who possessed larger quantities of land, property and goods to be disposed of at death and who were more able to afford the cost of the probate process. The bulk of these will makers were male. Women infrequently made wills; those who did make wills were usually widows or spinsters who possessed goods in their own right, with a rare few from married women who had sought prior permission from their husbands. In Stainforth there were no more than 36% of the total recorded buried people (as found in the Parish Register) who were potential will makers, and probably no more than a third of the potential will makers who actually made a will. The period when the will makers were most prolific in Stainforth was 1612-1619, but even then they only accounted for a tenth of total recorded burials. From 1620-27 there were no will makers for Stainforth. Thus, wills can never be wholly representative of society.

So why did so many potential will makers fail to write a will? Reasons for the low number of testators, other than gender, vary. The will was typically written on the deathbed at the last possible moment, presenting an age bias. In some cases, it may be that the deceased had a sudden death and therefore no opportunity to write a will, whilst on other occasions the scribe did not arrive in time to write the will. However, it could still be taken orally and written down later, such as the nuncupative will by Alice Sailbanke. However, not all wills were written on the deathbed. William Paley being ‘ancient and full of days,’ believed it was time to devise a will. The major reason for the low number of will makers is likely to be because the majority of people, who were outside of the higher ranks and top end of middling ranks, were unable to afford probate costs or did not have enough land, property and goods to consider it worth making a will. Exceptions may be seen where there was no obvious heir and a will was desired to prevent potential disputes of inheritance. In such cases it is possible that informal wills were drawn up, whereby bequests were made, but not put through the formal probate process, thus incurring no fees and so a more feasible option for lower ranks. On this point it should be noted that the sample of Stainforth wills considered here did go through the probate process. Consequently, they were proved at the ecclesiastical courts, hence their survival as copies. There was no mechanism to register informal wills; this has inhibited survival and subsequently contributed to the appearance of so few testators. It is also likely that many people were satisfied to allow the inheritance customs of the province of York to take care of the division of the estate. Within the county the testator was bound by custom to leave one third of his goods to his wife and two thirds if there were no children. Children were left another third, although this could stretch to two thirds and to include the widow’s provisions when she died or remarried. These customs would normally be applied to a deceased’s property and goods, regardless of whether there was a will or not. Only after 1692 were testators and those relying upon custom given more freedom in dividing their estates. With the individual being bound by custom until this date, the need to write a will was not essential. In addition, some areas were more influenced by the local inheritance customs of the manor rather than those of the province. In such cases local inheritance customs could be in sharp contrast to the customs of the province. For example, highland areas such as Swaledale exhibit a strong pattern of partible inheritance whereby the main holding was equally divided among siblings. This is another example of custom rendering the need for a will less necessary.

Before delving into analysis it is worth considering the structure of a will in terms of what was unique to the testator and what was determined by the rules of a will’s format. We can see the scribe’s influence on a will’s formatting. They tend to start with a phrase such as ‘In the name of god amen’ followed by the date, the testator’s name, their settlement of residence and the county within which it lies. Next, there is usually a phrase such as ‘being sick in body but of full and perfect memory’ to ensure the credibility of the document and prevent potential disputes. This is followed by a religious preamble. Recent research has illustrated the scribe’s significant role in determining the nature of this preamble, often being influenced by his religious persuasion. Catholic preambles would, for instance, make references to saints; on the other hand, Protestant preambles would follow a format featuring a merciful God, the blood shedding of Jesus Christ and a hope to be saved. Stainforth wills follow a typical Protestant format. After this the testator usually requests to be buried in a certain place within the church or churchyard, dependent on rank. It was widely believed that the closer one was to the altar, the more it would benefit one’s religious well-being. This was a physical manifestation of the social position of individuals within a community. Those of higher rank tended to be buried in the church, closer to the altar, whilst lower ranks would be further away in the churchyard. One of the major determinants of rank was wealth. Therefore, the Hearth Tax returns can be used to make comparisons between wealth and place of burial. Having a large number of hearths is believed to represent more wealth. James Armitstead wished to be buried in the church but he only had two hearths, which is average and normally does not signify high rank. It is possible his family owned a pew and place of burial within the church or his position in society was based upon moral worth rather than wealth. These are examples of the questions that the will makes us ask. The testator would then bequeath his land, property and goods. Initially, bequests tend to start with the nuclear family, before turning towards extended family, friends and communal bequests, for example to the poor. This section is heavily influenced by the wishes of the testator, as far as custom would allow. Following the bequests the testator appoints an executor and sometimes supervisors to ensure that the will is implemented. Then the testator declares that the document is his last will and testament. The final section comprises the testator’s and the witnesses’ signatures. The witnesses are usually family and friends who have gathered around the deathbed and so tend to be within the testator’s social spectrum.

Social trends are apparent and can be analysed through the pattern of bequests. The nuclear family, a couple and their children, tend to be the focus of bequests, obviously to secure the interests of the immediate family. As was the norm in most of England, primogeniture is one of the strongest patterns within nuclear family bequests in Stainforth wills. This practice involved the eldest son becoming the principal heir to the main holding. If the testator had no sons then the main property would descend to any daughters to own as co-heiresses. The best example of this practice can be seen in the various wills of the Twistleton family. They retained the holding of Sherwood House throughout the sample period 1568 to 1773. It passed to the eldest son in 1568; the next will shows it being passed to three daughters as co-heiresses in 1723; it is still a main holding in 1773 when it is passed outside the nuclear family for the first time in the sample. Other clear examples include Christopher Cooke’s and Henry Cockett’s wills. Primogeniture was normally a practice of the higher ranks, so it would be natural to find numerous examples in documents such as these, known to have a higher rank bias. It must also be appreciated that having an accepted inheritance practice would minimise potential strife. More importantly, it would ensure that the property remained a whole, preventing subdivision that might have made the holding less profitable. Furthermore, the retention of one large holding would solicit a greater impression of status than a number of small holdings. This in turn allows the eldest son to advance himself socially and financially. However, this could be at the expense of other siblings.

Within primogeniture any younger sons and any daughters may expect to receive a ‘child’s portion’. This may be a monetary payment, small portions of land not belonging to the main holding, the residue of goods or a combination of them all. The Stainforth wills show that bequests to children other than the eldest son were likely to receive this portion. In the wills of testators such as Thomas Craven, William Husband and Christopher Cooke these goods are merely stated as ‘child’s portion’. In these cases it is safe to assume this is reference to the portions allowed to children by the custom of the province. Other wills, however, go into more detail on the allowance to younger siblings. The most common are those that state amounts to be paid by the eldest son to his brothers and sisters, which also signify the child portion. Examples include the will of Robert Browne, who asked his eldest son Christopher to pay his four sisters 70 each; James Foster asked William, whom he had given the main holding, to pay his two sisters 13s 4d. Requirements akin to these endow the eldest son with a degree of paternal responsibility, most likely to derive from the fact that he will become the head of household.

Not all the wills strictly followed the practice of primogeniture. Where a testator had accumulated enough land and holdings he could endow all sons with sufficient land and property to advance them all. A clear example of this is found in Christopher Wetherherd’s will, whereby each son was given large quantities of land in the surrounding area. Nevertheless, advancement of male children appears to have been more important than that of female children. Further provisions are found in requests to keep children in school until they come of age, such as in the wills of two Thomas Fosters in 1571 and 1590. Other deviations from primogeniture are evident where there were no bequests of holdings. For example, William Palay bequeathed only token bequests of 5 to his children. Further examples can be seen in the will of Christopher Wetherherd who had already given James some of his portion. Some children would get their portions when they married or moved out of the household and this was taken into consideration when the will was drafted. The reason for this may be because the testator was ‘ancient and full of days’ and could have already provided for his children. It is not uncommon to find that older testators have already bequeathed property during their lifetime, to better equip their children when they married and because they needed assistance to start their own household. Where a child was not yet born efforts were made to secure its future through bequests, as in Robert Iveson’s will. Evidently there was some real care involved in the devising of a will. Furthermore, the nuclear family appears to have been top of the agenda in the efforts to advance the household and secure the future and welfare of children after the testator’s death.

The bequests made to children by female testators did not adhere to the practice of primogeniture. Female testators are frequently widows living off a proportion of property they did not own outright and would transfer to someone her husband had chosen upon her death. Therefore, female testators would not normally have a large amount of property to dispose of. However, in the Stainforth wills three of the six women had significant holdings: Isabell Craven, Ellin Armitstead and Ellen Armitstead. In these wills the main bequests are to the extended family, thus inferring there was no nuclear family to which the property would normally go. With this in mind it is possible that these women were widows who received their husband’s property in full because there were no children to receive bequests, subsequently explaining why these women owned such a large amount of property when this was not the norm. Elizabeth Cockytt and Alice Sailbanke also had no children, but no significant holdings. In the sample, only one woman, Emmott Twyssilton, had children. This woman did not partake in primogeniture, for the simple reason she had no property to bequeath and her husband had already made provisions for the advancement of their children. The pattern presented reflects token bequests with little consideration of who was the eldest. Her daughters received clothing whilst her sons received the residue of goods. This overview of women’s wills tends to suggest that what women received as part of their ‘widow’s portion’ affected what they were able to leave in a will, confirming expectations that Stainforth’s society was patriarchal.

So did Stainforth exhibit a pattern in bequests to widows and if so what does this tell us? In the wills 68% of testators mention a wife, comparable with the 67% of Almondbury testators. Among the Stainforth wills, the main pattern was to endow the widow with their ‘widow right’ also known as their ‘third part.’ This was a clear reflection of the custom of the province. This portion was normally only secure during her ‘widowhood’, the length of time until she either remarried or died. After this period, the third normally went to whoever held the rest of the holding. It was the custom for a testator to leave half of the tenement to his wife if there were no children. However, James David, who had no children, bequeathed the whole of his tenement to his wife. There are also some testators, Hew Palay, Thomas Husband and Robert Browne, who gave their wives half of the tenement during their widowhood even when there were children to provide for. There are no clear explanations for this; it may be that the testator was especially conscientious to maintain his wife. After all, one of the main reasons for the custom of ‘widow right’ was to prevent the widow falling upon the poor rate. On the other hand, greater provisions may reflect the testator’s feelings for his wife. The other main way testators dealt with their wives was to give them the whole tenement until their children came of age or for a certain number of years. Again the importance of the nuclear family and paternal responsibility is expressed in the wills.

The extended family also make a regular appearance in the wills, although not to the same extent as the nuclear family. There is frequent inclusion of numerous extended kin in wills. The Almondbury wills mention a wider variety of kin than Stainforth wills. However, Stainforth does have a higher concentration of references to grandchildren, daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews. There has been an ongoing debate about the importance of extended kin in upland communities. Coster has presented a convincing argument, suggesting that highland regions in the North, such as Stainforth, were largely based on pastoral agriculture and in these regions ownership of land was not as important to survival. By-employment could fit into the agricultural year, at times when the farming workload would subside. In some households there would be looms for weaving and implements used to make cloth, gloves and hats, all to increase the household income. Two pairs of ‘walker shears’, used in the cloth industry to crop cloth, were bequeathed to Richard Foster by his father Thomas Foster in 1571. Other wills include references to shears. James Armistead’s will refers to the making of cloth. This would suggest that cloth making was a household by-employment by some of the inhabitants of this area. The ability to sustain themselves with a small amount of land and by partaking in by-employment, meant the imperative to migrate was less acute, resulting in larger collections of kin in one area. Yet the existence of wider kin in the area does not automatically suggest they were important. If we are right in believing Coster’s argument, then there were numerous extended kin living locally in Stainforth. However, if these relationships were considered to be socially significant, surely they would have been mentioned to a similar extent as the nuclear family in the wills. The lack of entries would suggest these relationships were not treasured to the same extent as the nuclear family.

The evidence from Stainforth would suggest that extended kin played a peripheral role for people with a nuclear family, but a significant role for those who did not have such family, extended kin then often becoming the main heirs. The testators Ellin Armitstead, Robert Howson and John Twistleton bequeathed significant amounts to their extended family through lack of a nuclear family. Those receiving some of the significant bequests tend to be nephews and nieces, but in one case a cousin. On the other hand, those with a nuclear family tended to make token bequests of money, clothes and gimmer sheep (a female sheep) to extended family. Women testators were notable for the amount of clothing they bequeathed. Such bequests were possibly signs of appreciation towards their relatives. Grandchildren were an exception to this because they occasionally received larger amounts. The most likely explanation is because they were in the direct line of inheritance from the nuclear family. It is important to recognise that the range of kin which could be potentially mentioned was reliant upon where in the lifecycle the testator was on death. For example, a man at the end of his life was more likely to mention grandchildren than parents. Yet, with this in mind, there were still numerous kin referred to which would suggest that they played a role in Stainforth’s community.

Non-kin, in particular friends, referred to in 24% of the wills, also appear to have exerted some significance in Stainforth’s community. The reason is as Macfarlane says - they were of great importance because they were people who were vital in everyday life. Wrightson goes further to explain this relationship by commenting on the need of friends and neighbours to offer various aspects of support, especially financial. Furthermore, he comments on how these relationships could transcend the boundaries of rank to display a degree of equality. The Hearth Tax returns may support this since the number of hearths is indicative of wealth. Unfortunately, there are not enough wills dating from around the 1672 Hearth Tax returns for Stainforth to draw some conclusions. The friend of James Armitstead, Richard Iveson only has one hearth; this may show friendship across rank defined by wealth. The inclusion of friends in wills appears to be an expression of appreciation towards friendships, for the simple reason that most of the bequests are tokens. There are bequests of clothing, animals and small amounts of money. Friends may also be mentioned indirectly in wills. For example, Thomas Foster, 1571, refers to money lent to Edward Darcie, Lord of the Manor. Only 2% of wills mentioned a servant, which is quite surprising as 5.7% of Almondbury wills mention a servant. This may be because servants were referred to as friends, especially since the percent of friends mentioned in Stainforth is much higher than those mentioned in Almondbury. Servants could often be considered as one of the family and this may have skewed the data if they were considered to be friends rather than employees. The poor were beneficiaries in 8% of the wills. Their inclusion helps to build an understanding of the communal responsibility and care a small proportion of people felt towards the less-fortunate ranks of society. Other non-kin includes godchildren, although they may be considered as spiritual kin. Their acknowledgement shows the historian that the role of godfather had some significance to the individual in early modern Stainforth. Godchildren often received token bequests such as a gimmer lamb or a small quantity of money, much like the grandchildren who only received small bequests. The appearance of godchildren in wills helps supplement a study of rank in society because the people typically chosen to be godparents were of high rank. It was felt that rank reflected moral worth, expressed in paternal responsibility. Clearly an examination of non-kin can be fruitful to social history.

After bequests, the next part of the will names the testator’s choice of executor and occasionally a supervisor was appointed to ensure the executor followed the conditions of the will. Cox suggests that the executor/s should be regarded as those with the greatest interest in the estate and subsequently they are generally widows. This would certainly appear to be the case in Stainforth. It shows the degree of trust felt towards these women, who were considered to be capable of carrying out such an important task. On some occasions the testator appointed a son to act alongside his widow. This tends to be the norm, but other testators chose to appoint younger sons and daughters. In some circumstances a friend was appointed; William Preston accompanied Richard Sailbanke’s wife. Robert Howson chose to appoint his cousin William Laukland, who had the greatest interest in the estate. The appointment of executors helps to demonstrate significant networks since the executors’ position can be regarded as a sign of competency and trust. Sometimes the testator selected a supervisor - a number of these are found within the Stainforth wills. Supervisors are friends who oversee the actions of executors from the nuclear family. They may have been thought to offer neutrality in ensuring the will was implemented because they were not major beneficiaries. Supervisors also appear to have been appointed when there were underage children to provide additional support to the widow during their upbringing. For example, Hugh Palay asked William Newhouse to help his wife and children.

A cross-referencing of witness names may aid the reconstruction of social groups. Witnesses do not display a strong social bias, because members of family, friends and neighbours, who were normally witnesses, can transcend social rank. This matter would benefit from a referral to Hearth Tax returns to establish if social networks were established on the basis of mutual degrees of wealth. However, not all witnesses wrote their names down, often their signatures being replaced with the phrase ‘with others’. The most credible witnesses could have been noted first, although this is only speculation. Furthermore, women who were often around the deathbed were rarely formal witnesses. This creates difficulties when trying to place women within society. However, it does tell us about the seemingly invisible nature of women in formal documents in Stainforth’s society. Only a handful of Stainforth witnesses are women; one was Alice Preston who witnessed Elizabeth Cockytt’s will. The names of the major families residing in Stainforth can be found by a review of testator and witness names. Some of the families were Palay, Armistead, Sailbanke, Cockett, Cooke, Foster, Swainson and Laukland. The witness names also show the nuclear and extended family’s presence around the deathbed. For example, one of William Armitstead’s sons was present, whilst Richard Armitstead’s father was a witness to his will. The presence of extended family around the deathbed should be treated with caution since it is possible that they were there in a shrewd move to be included in the will as a beneficiary. It was acceptable for a beneficiary to act as a witness before 1858, but there had to be another witness to substantiate that bequest. A future study may want to compare the witnesses to beneficiaries in the will. It should be noted that large numbers of witnesses appear to have no relation to the testator in name, implying that many of them were friends. This may be a sign of affection, but also because neighbours could be brought to the sick at short notice to witness a will if it was thought the testator was going to die soon. Also, friends may have wanted to exert pressure on the testator so they could gain inheritance. Roger Swainson named Thomas Carr and his wife as second in line to his estate; Thomas Carr had witnessed the will. Finally, one of the easiest people to discern in the witnesses is the scribe, telling us who was relied upon for the settlement’s literacy needs, a trusted and respected figure in society. In small communities he would re-occur in wills’ witnesses. His name is likely to feature in full rather than ‘with others’ because, as a literate person he would probably be of higher rank and could add credence to the document. By comparing the hand of the will to the hands of the witnesses’ signatures on the original wills he can be identified, if indeed the original will, not the probate copy, is available. The schoolmasters Christopher Shutte and William Bentham appear to have been called upon numerous times, for example, in the wills of Richard Lakeland, Isabell Craven, Thomas Foster and Christopher Metcalf. As a final point it is worth highlighting the value of witnesses’ signatures for studies of literacy in a community, by examining how well the signature was written, but this can only be done if the original will survives.

This study has made various observations regarding the social history of Stainforth in terms of kith and kin. This has allowed us to build up an impression of Stainforth’s society as various elements of the wills were examined. We know that the nuclear family was of paramount importance, not only in securing the status of the family, but also in that paternal care was exhibited by the head of the household, whether the eldest son or the father. It was also clear that the advancement of the nuclear family was high on the agenda in will-making. The practice of primogeniture is a sign of this. It is also evident that the widow was cared for, although the customs of the province do cloud judgement on how much the testator would have liked to give her. Her role in bringing up children was extremely important to the testator who took measures to ensure she had help from some trusted members of the community should she need it. Furthermore, her role as executor reflects the trust he felt and enhances the belief that the nuclear family was tight-knit in this area. The wills are also fundamental in highlighting the role of the extended family in Stainforth’s community. For those with a nuclear family it played a peripheral role whilst for those without, more significance is placed on the extended family during bequests. The number of friends mentioned also shows us their value to Stainforth’s community. They must have played a notable part in everyday life for the testators, who felt compelled to remember them in their wills. Feelings towards the community were also expressed in bequests to the poor, a sign of communal responsibility, either towards the poor or towards wealthier members who did not want the burden of the poor rate. The witnesses of the wills present an opportunity for further study. Whilst they have shown in this study the importance of friends, neighbours and family around the deathbed, this study has been unable to reconstruct family and friend networks.

The Parish Register could be used for family reconstruction to examine the role of extended family in more depth. The distances of extended family and friends across the uplands might also be determined and how, if in fact it did, this distance affected who was mentioned in the wills. This exercise has only scraped the tip of the iceberg when it comes to realising the potential of probate records for local history. I hope the use of wills is something that will be given more consideration in future studies.

Acknowledgements To the NCHT for financial support from the Bursary scheme. To Sheila Gordon, Mary and Michael Slater for providing transcriptions of wills pre-1603. To David S. Johnson for transcribed indentures and wills from the West Yorkshire Archive at Wakefield.

Here is supplementary material that did not appear in the Journal