I am delighted to welcome Mary Lawrence to On the Tudor Trail. Mary is the author of The Bianca Goddard Mystery books, which are set in London during the 1540s in the final years of Henry VIII’s reign. To celebrate the release of the third book in the series, Death at St. Vedast, Mary has written an enlightening article about what wills tell us about sixteenth century Tudor women.
I also have a copy of Mary’s latest book to give away! See ‘Conditions of Entry’ below.
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What do wills tell us about 16th Century Tudor Women?
By Mary Lawrence
In researching my third Bianca Goddard mystery, Death at St. Vedast, I needed an understanding about wills and testaments in the sixteenth century, specifically those written around the year 1543. By then, Henry’s Reformation was in its ninth year. I wanted to understand the rules of probate, but more interesting to me was the content of these wills and what it tells us about the lives of women in Tudor England.
Leaving a last will and testament was not exclusive to the elite, or wealthy middle class. While fewer diaries and wills have survived from the lower class, the ones that have, give interesting insight into the lives of these women. Instructions for the distribution of wealth was not the only function served by these documents.
So what did a woman hope to accomplish by setting down her last will and testament?
Around this time, most wills and testaments served the following purposes: atonement and forgiveness of one’s sins; dispersal of assets to provide for loved ones and for service rendered; and finally, an attempt to ensure that one’s memory would not be quickly forgotten.
In the days before the Reformation–before Henry and Cromwell launched their campaign to denigrate purgatory–the rich spent a substantial amount of wealth funding the church. Money went for prayers of intercession, to chancery priests, and to an exhaustive menu of ceremonies designed to hasten a soul’s journey through purgatory to its reward. Priests made sure that their parishioners understood the grim experience awaiting an unrepentant soul in purgatory. Around 1543 these expenditures were, for the most part, quashed, but old habits died hard among the wealthy class. A few still managed to try to buy their soul a quick trip to heaven.
In Women’s Voices in Tudor Wills, 1485-1603, James asserts that “a significant number of unmarried women were able to regulate their lives and remark upon their personal condition in their wills more or less without male oversight”(7). If one remembers how brief life could be in the sixteenth century this makes a great deal of sense. Death and disease were commonplace. Widows made up a large portion of those unmarried women and it is likely they sought scribes whom they could trust to outline their last wishes. Not every woman waited until the end of her life. Indeed, a number of women wrote their last will and testament before childbirth.
Common to the wealthy and to the lower classes was the desire to reward faithful family members and servants, and to influence their behavior from beyond the grave. Elizabeth Morley of Southampton left money for a ditch to be dug connecting her two sons’ land holdings as a way for them to make peace, ‘so they shall live quietly like good brethren’ (James 150). The threat of disinheritance was a weapon liberally brandished by women of all classes. There is also evidence that women sought to provide for children left out of primogeniture entitlements. Although the elite were more likely to follow the laws of this tradition, less wealthy women often found ways to stretch the bounds of it. Owning land and property was not restricted to the upper class.
While a man might rely on his wife to manage his end-of-life care, women would depend on relatives for hers. If there was no one willing or able, women often negotiated with an amenable caregiver and set the terms into her will to be rewarded upon her death. This was a common practice even among the lower classes. A resulting ‘cottage industry’ of midwives, nurses, and caretakers thrived during the period without any oversight. As a result, women became more reliable and practiced in medical matters regarding end-of- life care.
Besides the dispersal of money, material goods were bequeathed. Clothing and personal effects are perhaps the most illuminating and, arguably, the most interesting items in a woman’s life. Her clothing was usually passed on to her daughters in the order in which they were born; for instance, her best kirtle might go to her eldest daughter, her second best kirtle might go to her second oldest, etc. Clothing was expensive and a valued gift for all economic classes.
Common to wills before the Reformation was ‘a paire of beads’ or rosaries. The stones and materials used to carve these beads almost always reflected a woman’s wealth and her superstitious beliefs. Various stones were believed to offer protection in more than just a religious way. While the wealthy preferred their rosary beads to be made of gems, lower class rosaries were carved from wood, horn, or bone.
A woman might leave her house to her eldest son, but its windows to her daughter. Wainscoting, stools and chairs, beds and their linens, as well as spoons, drip pans, cups and shovels were singled out to be given to specific people. Lower class women in rural parts of England might bequeath their store of barley or bacon.
Finally, there seems to be little distinction between the sexes in regards to wishing to be remembered. Women of wealth could afford memorials, portraits, or carved effigies of their likeness. They also sought remembrance with expensive funeral processions, the hiring of mourners, public prayers of intercession, and prolonged tolling of the church bells. However, with the reformation, money once reserved for church-funded vehicles of salvation and remembrance went increasingly to support charitable causes outside of the church. Women of all classes seemed to support these causes to a greater extent than did men. Orphans, education, institutions, and infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and ditches benefited from this money, just to name a few. Women also extended their charity to women outside of their immediate circle of relatives.
Probated wills and testaments have long been plumbed for answers to questions about lifestyles, beliefs, and customs in different periods. Assumptions about women’s lives are being constantly revised as scholars increase their understanding of women’s roles and goals in distributing their wealth in Tudor England. The sixteenth century was a changing time and it is valuable to know that Tudor women adapted to it.
James, Susan E. Women’s Voices in Tudor Wills, 1485-1603. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015.
Arkell, Tom, Nesta Evans, and Nigel Goose. When Death Do Us Part. Oxford: Leopard’s Head Press Limited, 2000.