In The Name of God, Amen

by Cameron Talbot, 1992

Some notes on probate in the 17th century and the documents extant relating to the parish of Tewkesbury

Almost all wills of the period commence with the declaration which forms the title to these notes, suggesting immediately the authority which the Church exercised in matters of probate. Following, almost invariably, are the testator’s hopes for the future of his soul, in words varying from the perfunctory to the prolix, and his instructions for his burial. Only then does the will begin to deal with the disposal of his worldly goods and, finally, with the appointment of an executor.

For an executor in those times in England or Wales to be permitted to distribute property in accordance with the will of the deceased he would first have had to obtain probate of the will or, in the case of intestacy, Letters of Administration of the estate. To do so he would, in almost all cases, have had to have approached the relevant ecclesiastical court.

Generally, the court he would have approached would have been that of the archdeaconry of which the deceased’s parish formed part. If, however, the estate contained property in more than one archdeaconry, the executor would have had to move up to the diocesan bishop’s Consistory Court to seek probate and, should the property have extended outside the diocese, to one of the two Provincial Courts, the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury or York. If the deceased had owned property in both provinces, the jurisdiction would have been Canterbury’s, as the senior Court. Canterbury also had jurisdiction over the estates of those dying abroad or at sea. (During the interregnum, however, jurisdiction was removed from the Church, and executors were required to approach the civil courts for probate.) A small number of parishes, or groups of parishes, known as ‘Peculiars’, operated outside this system and came under other jurisdictions.

Nuncupative, or orally made, wills were acceptable provided that they were spoken in the presence of ‘sufficient and reliable witnesses’, and set to paper after the death of the testator. However, such a will could not dispose of freehold land, and was not acceptable if a previously made will in writing was in existence.

 If the deceased died intestate, the Court would be approached for the grant of Letters of Administration, usually to the surviving spouse or next of kin. Administration would also have to be sought by persons acting on behalf of executors who were unwilling or incapable, or who were minors, and in cases where the will did not name an executor. Those so applying would almost certainly have been required to enter into a Bond, sometimes for as much as twice the estate value, which pledged proper administration of the estate and would only have been discharged by faithful completion.

During the whole of the 17th century, and for a considerable period either side, the Court also demanded exhibition of the content and value of the estate, and, to satisfy this requirement, the executor or administrator would have presented a costed inventory of the deceased’s effects, detailing livestock, crops, goods, chattels, money, debts, credits and leasehold property, drawn up and appraised after the testator’s death by two or more disinterested persons. Freehold or Copyhold property was not included as land was considered, in the final analysis, to be the property of the Crown. It could, however, be bequeathed, and, hence, a measure of a person’s wealth in real estate may often be deduced by the disposition of such property in his will.

Nowadays, probate documents, going back many centuries, are normally to be found in County Record Offices [County Archives], where probate was granted by diocesan Courts, or in the Public Record Office [National Archives], where probate was granted by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. They survive in surprisingly large numbers, and are a source of great wealth both to the genealogist and the social historian. To the former, it is the will which provides the information on family relationships which, combined with extracts from parish registers, monumental inscriptions and other sources, flesh out a family tree. Inventories, on the other hand, are perhaps more interesting to the social historian, some of them giving an enormous amount of detail from which a picture of a house and its contents may be constructed and a little knowledge of the way of life of its inhabitants deduced.

The probate documents of over 450 Tewkesbury parishioners of the 17th century are available, some in Gloucester Record Office and the others in the Public Record Office. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of these include inventories, mostly from the post-restoration period, but, none the less, sufficient numbers remain to provide satisfying study. The researcher, of course, always hopes for more detail than the appraiser of the time has given; artefacts which he hopes to find listed individually are often covered by a blanket entry. How many times does one come across, in a craftsman’s or tradesman’s inventory, an entry like: ‘His shop tools, 40/-’? Imagine, therefore, the pleasure experienced on discovering the inventory of Thomas Prichett of Tewkesbury, a joiner who died in 1678, and finding the following nugget:

‘In the Shopp£ s d
‘Item Three score and one in bower planes02 00 00
‘Item Joynters foreplanes and Smoothing planes00 10 00
‘Item Fower score small cutting Tooles Gages & Squares00 13 04
‘Item Fower wimble braces00 02 00
‘Item the Laeth and all Matterialls belonging to it00 18 00
‘Item Nineteene Sawes great and small01 00 00
‘Item Three Holdfasts00 03 06
‘Item 11 Augurs 6s 8d 3 Hatchetts 1 adds & 1 Axx 5s00 11 08
‘Item one Cubbord with some odd tooles in it & a lock00 10 00
‘Item 3 great Squares 2 Jacks 2 pair Sheeres 2 Compasses & 2 Iron dogs & 2 strow tools00 17 00
‘Item One Iron Vice and Vice Bench and 2 drawers to it00 13 04
‘Item 2 Benches and 2 Wooden Vices in them 00 16 00
‘Item 2 small Neast of drawers00 08 00
‘Item 4 hammers 5 Mallotts 2 glew potts a melting pann & a Drawin knife00 06 00
‘Item One long Table Board 00 14 00
‘Item A Tester bedsted & ½ headed Bed a Field bedstead01 02 00
‘Item a Round Table, a Livery Cubbord & a Skreene01 06 00
‘Item Nine stooles one with another00 09 00

It is probably reasonable to assume that the final four items are work in progress or finished stock awaiting customers. That he manufactured speculatively for sale is further evidenced by the contents of another room in which are listed ‘Coffins great and small a Spanish Table 2 Close Stooles and one Cradle £2’.

The value of his tools at £9 8s l0d [£9.44p] is high and, in view of the quantities indicated, one wonders if, as well as plying his craft as a joiner, he also sold tools. There is little indication that he held much in the way of raw materials, the final item on the inventory reading, ‘Severall Peeces of Timber and Boards and other remnants of Timber, a grindstone & other stones a Couppl of Ladders and other Lumber £2’. This contrasts with the inventory of another Tewkesbury joiner, William Willis, who died eight years earlier, the value of whose tools is only £1 but ‘in timber reddy sawne in the Barne on the Oldbury site’ is the value of £20. Incidentally, not listed in the Prichett inventory is his spokes have which, in his will, he leaves to his brother, Symon Prichett.

Apart from the satisfaction of a discovery such as the detailed account of the tools of the trade of Mr. Prichett, probate documents yield many other delights, and many, many puzzles. Why, for example, did George Later, an Innkeeper of Tewkesbury who died in 1685, possess ‘allablaster’ to the value of 25/- [£1.25p]? Were this shown as being inside the house it might, perhaps, be considered to be something ornamental, but, listed as it is amongst the outside property, alongside coal, bricks, ashes and hay, its purpose is a riddle. Why, also, was Thomas Greene of Tewkesbury who died in 1646, designated a weaver when he was clearly more concerned with dairy farming? The only item in his inventory remotely connected with weaving is ‘for cloth at the diers and his wearing apparrell, £3 6s 8d [£3.33p]’. His wealth was, to a very much greater extent, tied up in his cattle: 1 bull, 29 kine and 16 heifers and calves, valued at £122 5s 0d, [£122.25p] and in 760 (!) cheeses and 8 gallons of butter, valued at £55 16s 8d [£55.83p].

The answers to these and other riddles which will undoubtedly surface as the investigation proceeds will, it is hoped, be found and will throw a little more light on the way of life in 17th century Tewkesbury.

Cameron Talbot, an engineer and entrepreneur, was also a student of Medieval Latin and, with Bill Rennison, went on to publish an ‘Index of Tewkesbury Wills and Inventories 1543- 1600’ which is available in the Town Library or on the Woodard Database/Doc Landing. The Society was shocked when Cameron died suddenly in 2001. (Editor)

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