Wives & Widows: Women did make wills

Zoom talk by Anna Watson Thursday 3 June 2021

Notes by Susanne Young

Retired archivist Anna Watson presented her talk based on her long experience of probate records at Lancashire Archives. Her information is drawn from the Diocese of Chester from C17th to C19th. Whilst women made wills as early as C14th, historically, married women were only allowed to make a will if their husband gave permission.

Coverture is the condition of being a married woman. A feme covert (married woman) could not own property in her own name nor enter into a contract. A feme sole (unmarried/divorced woman) did have the right to own property and enter into contracts. Neither could a married woman be sued or sue. She was not permitted to obtain an education or keep any salary for herself without her husband’s permission. Her legal status was on a par with minors, criminals and the insane. An important clause in any will is a declaration of sound mind.

In a study of the Archdeaconry of Richmond (which takes up roughly one half of the Diocese of Chester) only 7.5 % of wills were made by women. The majority (5274) are made by widows, followed by 1190 by spinsters. A spinster could be either an unmarried woman or a widow who remained unmarried.

It was not until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 that married women were permitted to hold property in their own names. Some women entered into pre-marriage settlements whereby they might retain some power of ownership over their assets including the power to make bequests in a will.

Wills made by women can be most enlightening for the family historian with information regarding bequests to individuals and charitable donations, details of debtors to whom the women had loaned money and frequently their maiden names. Many women acted as witnesses to wills and some made Renunciations if they were unable to carry out their duties as Executors.

Anna rounded up her talk with the story of seamstress Sarah Hare who died in 1744 and included in her will her wish for a wax effigy to be made following her death, ‘I desire to have my face and hands made in wax with a piece of crimson satin thrown like a garment in a picture hair upon my head and put in a case of Mahogany with a glass before and fix’d up so near the place were my corps lyes as it can be with my name and time of Death put upon the case in any manner most desirable’.  This can still be seen today in Holy Trinity Church, Stowe Bardolph.

Recommended reading: Women and Property in Early Modern England by Amy Louise Erickson.

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