In the main people in the past did not leave wills unless they had property or money to leave to their nearest and dearest. However in the late 15th and 16th centuries men such as nailers, husbandmen and gardeners left wills. As parish registers were not kept until the end of the 16th century, wills can be one of the ways we can find out more about the people further back in time. Educated men such as the parish clerks and curates were often called upon to write these early wills and inventories. As more people became able to write the need to employ a scribe decreased as the 17th century progressed.
An Act of Parliament in 1529 required that an inventory and evaluation listing the goods, cattle and chattels of the deceased (but not property or land) be made if they amounted to more than £5 in value. The appraisers were to be honest and skillful persons, often friends and neighbours of the deceased. Inventories accompanied wills and Letters of Administration until the middle of the 18th century. Inventories at the National Archives only exist from 1661, as earlier records were lost in the Great Fire of London.
In the 17th century wills were mainly written in Secretary hand, a cursive hand which could be written at speed. Transcribers have to overcome the difficulties of poor handwriting, variable spellings and abbreviations.
Relationships between people mentioned in early wills is not always clear. It has to be remembered that in the 17th century nephew could mean grandson, cousin could mean nephew or niece and a sister could be a sister in law.
Before 1858 wills were proved in Courts belonging to the Church. These are kept in County Record Offices/Archives, at the Hive for Worcestershire, as this is where diocesan records are usually kept. If a person held property in more than one diocese or had a large estate their will had to be proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and these records are held at the National Archives, Kew.
During the Commonwealth, however, 1653-1660, all wills were proved in London and can be seen at the National Archives, Kew.
A will could be made verbally in front of witnesses, who could write it down later. This is called a nuncupative will.
If no will was made and the deceased left an estate then the widow or next of kin could apply for Letters of Administration.
A husband sometimes made conditions in his will in case his widow should remarry, or a son would be disinherited if he should contest the will.
When inventories were taken for probate purposes it was the function of the appraisers to arrive at a proper valuation of the goods and chattels of the deceased person. This was especially the case when a person died intestate and the next of kin had to apply for Letters of Administration of the estate. Often two or three people, and sometimes as many as five, were involved in this process, carried out in minute detail. One of them would write up the inventory, although sometimes a separate scribe was employed. The document was then signed by the appraisers. Usually the appraisers were neighbours or people in the same trade as the deceased.
In the 16th century inventories were usually a list of the possessions of the deceased. With the rise of the more wealthy yeoman class in the 17th century inventories were often divided up room by room but by the 18th century there were so many possessions in a dwelling that the appraisers began to summarise the contents and finally ceased to record them.
From January 1858 wills were left in the Principal Probate Registry in London. They are now housed at The London Probate Department, First Avenue House, High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP.
Until 1883 a married woman had no property of her own; it all belonged to her husband, even her clothes. All a married woman could own was a legacy left to her to dispose of as she wished. After the death of her husband, a widow was the next of kin and entitled to one third of her late husband's estate for life. On marriage a woman's property became that of her husband again, so after obtaining this financial freedom wealthy widows were often reluctant to remarry. Because of this wills that are left by women, in the main, are those of spinsters and widows before the mid-1880s.