The practice of making a will goes back to Anglo Saxon times, but was originally restricted to the wealthy. The custom was not widely adopted by the middle classes until the 16th century. Labourers and poor people rarely made wills even in later times. Will making was always a minority concern, for the transmission of property was usually a straightforward matter, regulated by local custom. Comparing the numbers of adult males who made a will, with those whose deaths are recorded in the Pirton Parish Register, indicates that the ratio that survives is about 1 in 4.
Most wills have a long preamble which usually follows one of the formats recommended in books of advice on how to draw up a will. After the disposal of religious matters, the testator shared out his or her worldly goods and arranged for the payment of all debts and funeral expenses. Executors were appointed and friends called in to sign as witnesses. Last wills and testaments were often made shortly before death to annul all previous wills. Originally the will was concerned with real estate, this was devised and the testament dealt with personal estate which was bequeathed. By the 16th century the two terms were interchangeable.
Family historians will find many wills invaluable in detailing relationships, but wills were not the only way of transmitting property, and not all descendants are necessarily named. Adult children may have been provided for at marriage. A common provision safeguarded the interests of children should the widow remarry. Widows and spinsters made wills but very few wives did so, as they were supposed to require the consent of their husbands. Normally wills were written by a scribe, cleric or in the testator’s own hand but some are nuncupative wills which were oral wills which were later written down from evidence given by witnesses.
In order to put the provisions of a will into effect, an executor has to obtain a grant of probate. This is the official recognition by a relevant court of law that a will has been proved—accepted as legally valid. An administration is a grant, made by a court, authorizing an appropriate person to administer the estate where no will has been left by the deceased. Letters of administration may be granted to the widow or next of kin or to a creditor. They allow the administrator nominated by the court to collect rents and debts and to distribute the estate.
The earliest wills for Pirton are from 1535 to 1600 and these are kept at the Huntingdon Record Office. The later wills from 1600 to 1850 are on microfilm held at Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies (HALS). All HALS wills and administrations for Pirton have been transcribed and included in the database and those from Huntingdon are in the process of being prepared. There are 26 Huntingdon wills dating from 1488-1586, and 180 HALS wills dating from 1595 to 1853. Also there are 4 accounts, 20 administrations and 4 affidavits
Registers of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury
The PCC was the metropolitan probate court for the Southern Province and, as such, was by far the busiest and most prestigious court. It sat in London, in Doctors’ Commons, and had overriding jurisdiction in all England and Wales. It had sole jurisdiction where the deceased possessed land or goods in two bishoprics or two peculiars in the southern province, and also over estates of people who died at sea or abroad leaving personal property here. During the Interregnum, 1653-60, the Prerogative Court, in the form of a civil Court of Probate of Wills and Granting Administrations, was the only court.
The only probate court records deposited in The National Archives are those of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1383-1858.All wills in PROB 11 are now available online at www.documentsonline.nationalarchives.gov.uk. They have been fully indexed and are searchable by name, place, occupation and date.
The will of Alice Humfray of 1610 the wife of John Humfray. Alice was buried at Pirton on 20-10-1610 and John was buried in the churchyard on 23-5-1606. This will is enrolled in a book of wills kept at Huntingdon Record Office, as Pirton wills were proved in the church courts of the Archdeanery of Huntingdon. Reference 54 HW 16 – this reference number is for a copy of the will to be found at HALS in Hertford.