The Archives Service holds almost 500 years of wills and probate documents, the oldest of which dates to the 1460s. These records reveal fascinating facts about people, places, and property.
Many of the earliest wills demonstrate a recurrent religious theme, with the maker of the will often leaving money for the upkeep of churches and to charitable causes. For example, Robert Heyrycke of Slapton, who made a will in 1532, left three shillings and four pence to his church and four pence to every house in his village. He also gave money for songs to be sung in church for him after his death. Some early wills also give an insight into past fashions. John Page of Northampton was a draper and his will of 1501 left a gown trimmed with fox fur to his brother Harry.
By the 1600s, wills included many more references to personal possessions. They offer a fascinating insight into the types of goods people valued, such as beds and bedding, furniture, kitchen utensils, and hardware. Mary Dalby, a widow from Bulwick, left her bed and bedding to her granddaughter in her 1693 will. Mary's grandsons received a "great brass pan," a shovel, and fire tongs.
A person’s property was often listed item by item and valued in a document called an inventory. Thomas Cowper was an ironmonger and mayor of Northampton, and his inventory of 1634 is very long, highlighting his rich lifestyle. The contents of each of his rooms are listed in the inventory. The shop contained frying pans, saws, hooks, hinges, nails, and trowels. In another room there were spices and food, including cheese, coriander, nutmeg, rice, pepper, cinnamon, raisins, figs, and sugar. Only the very richest people of the period would have been able to afford luxuries like these.
Wills are an excellent source for family history research, since they provide key details of family relationships, wealth, and status. Sometimes they even offer a glimpse into an individual’s character or the family tensions they are embroiled in, as seen in the 1684 will of John Dalby, a tanner of Deene. He left £100 each to his children, Mary, Nathaniel, and Humphrey, but only gave a shilling to another son called Samuel. John's wife was instructed in the will that Samuel could only have more money if he behaved himself and deserved it.
Wills tell us much about the trades and occupations that people had in the past. Many were made by small craftsmen, such as tailors, carpenters, weavers, wig makers, saddlers, shoemakers, or bakers. As Northamptonshire was a rural county, there are also many wills of farmers. John Baslaie was a small farmer at Everdon. His will of 1588 left his farm carts, ploughs, and harnesses to his son William, so that he could carry on the family farm. Farmers or their wives also gave livestock in their wills. John Baslaie, for example, left two sheep to his servant.
Before 1882, women could only make wills if they were unmarried or widows. In 1631, Mary Vickers of Duston made her will from her deathbed with William Collis, the man she had intended to marry, standing beside her. She left everything to him, declaring that "my love is still unto him better than ever it was." Wills are full of personal stories about the past such as this.