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End of Life, Start of Eternity: Stratford’s Tudor Wills and Impending Death

Wills are an important research tool for historians and can tell us a great deal about the changing attitudes towards death and how people prepared.

Jim Ranahan
Will of William Homes, 1590 (BRU/15/6/63)
Will of William Homes, 1590 (BRU/15/6/63)

With Shakespeare’s original ‘Last Will and Testament’ starring in the ‘Treasures’ Exhibition at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust [16th July – 4th August 2016], the profile of wills as research tools is very high. The Trust holds some 4,000 wills (original and draft) spanning the Fifteenth Century to the Twentieth. These have proved to be an invaluable resource for family researchers, social and economic historians and many others, not least our stock of Tudor wills. Such wills often reflect individual views about and responses to the religious Reformation, part of which William Shakespeare experienced, as the Elizabethan Religious Settlement evolved. Regardless of religious standpoint, all were united by an overwhelming knowledge that death was not only inevitable, but was pervasive and could be sudden and dramatic. The ‘Memento Mori Seal’ illustrated here reflects this well. The seal dates from about 1600 and is in the Trust’s museum collection. Its ‘death’s head’ and inscription ‘ N.R. Memento Mori - a reminder that you are mortal’ leave no doubt about our universal fate.

Memento Mori Seal, c.1600 (STRST: SBT 1872-4)
Memento Mori Seal, c.1600 (STRST: SBT 1872-4)

Such reminders were reinforced by the lived experience of personal tragedy through high child mortality and the onset of old age as people reached their fifties.  Disease stalked communities, as revealed by Stratford’s volume of Composite Registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. Just weeks after Shakespeare’s birth is noted, this key volume records the arrival of Plague in Stratford (July 1564). This proximity of vibrant life with sudden death in peoples’ lives was paralleled by a very strong commitment to religion, the belief in God and the Eternal After-Life having almost complete acceptance.  

Burial entries in Stratford for 1564
1564 Burial entries in Stratford's Parish Register including inscription "hic incepit pestis" (here began the plague) (DR243/1)

For people who could afford to have them drawn up, wills formed part of the transition from life to eternity, marking both a practical concern to make material arrangements for those left behind, but also to ensure that Eternity would be joyous. Heaven, Hell and Divine Judgement to decide the fate of one’s soul (the immortal essence of a person), were accepted concepts and were reflected in entries in wills. The practical and the spiritual aspects were not separate but were directly related to each other and the person making the will would have both in mind when specifying its provisions. This is something that current researchers should bear in mind when consulting Tudor wills.

These wills often contained a ‘commendation of the soul’ for the person initiating the will. In the earlier Tudor period, a standard commendation was to ‘God, the Virgin Mary and the Saints in Heaven’ or variations on this theme. As the Reformation progressed, the form of commendation increasingly reflected altered devotions, sometimes because of a reforming clergyman’s influence. In Stratford, the Curate William Gylbard alias Higges wrote twenty nine wills for people between 1583 and 1612 and all commend the soul only to Almighty God. No mention is made of the Virgin Mary or the Saints in Heaven.

This widespread (but incomplete) rejection was not the only way in which wills could indicate religious affiliation, particularly with regard to the concept of Purgatory, a longstanding tenet of Catholic theology, but which Reformers rejected as having no Biblical justification. Purgatory was seen as an intermediate state for a soul ultimately destined for Heaven, but who would first have to atone for past sin. Prayer on the soul’s behalf could ameliorate the punishment of Purgatory, as could intercession on its behalf by the Virgin Mary and Saints. Wills had long contained bequests to ensure prayers would be offered on behalf of the diseased, whilst charitable giving was also common, financial and practical support for the poor being seen as good works which could also ameliorate time spent in Purgatory. The Probate copy of the will of Sir Edward Ferrers, now held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust [DR3/307], called for five masses to be said for his soul and for one hundred shillings to be given as alms to the poor for the good of his soul. 

As the Reformation progressed, such devotions ran contrary to a belief that Salvation was by Faith alone and that good works (such as help for the poor) had no role in Salvation. In Stratford, out of the twenty nine wills written for others by William Gylbard alias Higges, only five make provision for the poor. Yet, in 1616 William Shakespeare left £10 to ‘the poor of Stratford’, providing scholars with yet another piece of evidence to weigh up in the debate about his true religious convictions.

Will of Richard Baylis, 1606 (BRT/3/1/7)
The will of Richard Balis, 1602 (BRT/3/1/7)

Stratford’s wills are a great resource for Reformation studies and many other research interests. A process of digitising these is underway, but this is inevitably a long term project. Examples of wills already scanned are shown here and you are welcome to visit us and view our collections. Please also come and see the original Shakespeare will whilst it is in Stratford.  

Further Reading

  • R. Bearman (Ed.) ‘The History of an English Borough: Stratford-upon-Avon 1196-1996’ (1997)
  • K.Grannum & N. Taylor ‘Wills and Other Probate Records’ (2004)
  • M. Scott ‘Prerogative Court of Canterbury: Wills and Other Probate Records’ (1997)
  • A. Shell ‘Shakespeare and Religion’ (2010)

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