Making the Most of a Will

Zoom Talk by John Titterton Thursday 20th October

Notes by Susanne Young

An interesting talk by John outlining the main features of wills and using a case study from his own ancestry to illustrate how helpful they can be.

Prior to 1500 a will and a testament were two separate documents. A will covered freehold or copyhold property such as a house, barn or grazing land and a testament covered leasehold property, chattels, furniture, animals and money. These two documents were gradually merged into one, becoming a will & testament. 

Until 1858 all wills were proved by the Church in ecclesiastical courts and disputes over wills were dealt with in the King’s court (Chancery). Executors applied to the local Bishop’s court for probate, providing an inventory and entering into a bond to complete probate within one year. The court then filed all the relevant papers. Where there was no will the Administrators similarly applied for administration of the deceased’s estate. So, the main documents that may be available for research are the will, an inventory and a grant of probate (or administration). Inventories can be very interesting as they provide clues about a person’s wealth and lifestyle.

However, wills proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury were instead entered into a ledger so the original papers will not be available – only the ledger entry.

Wills begin with a preamble concerning the deceased including name, occupation and place of abode. Then the deceased’s bequests are set out, followed by details of executors, signatures and witnesses. References to relations can be interpreted in different ways eg a sister in law may be referred to as a sister or a brother in law may be a step brother. The nature of bequests or lack of them can also be very revealing.

John’s Titterton ancestors were farmers at Deepdale in Grindon, North Staffs and by studying various Titterton C18th wills of both known and unknown relatives he was able to expand the family tree created from parish register information and ascertain the family link between generations. It can be useful to examine wills of ‘unknown’ relatives with the same surname to look for possible connections to the family you already know about. One of the wills he examined was ‘nuncupative’ which means not signed, where the testator had been so ill that he was unable to sign (this would not be legally acceptable today). Where a person has made their X mark on a document, we should not assume that the person was illiterate, they may simply have been too poorly to sign. It was possible to identify where beneficiaries had previously been provided for and were consequently left a nominal shilling by the deceased. Family links were also identified from the names of witnesses and signatures were compared to establish who was who.

The study of wills in the course of family history research can be most rewarding and informative. A vote of thanks was given by Linda Balmforth.

Leave a Reply