Stephanie Appleton's doctoral research examines domestic and community life in early modern Stratford-upon-Avon.
‘Anthony: But here’s a parchment with the seal of Caesar;
I found it in his closet, ‘tis his will:
Let but the commons hear this testament...’ (Julius Caesar, 3. 2. 125 – 127)
Some of the blogs in our series have explored the issue of death in Shakespeare’s England ( for example see Number 49, a linen sheet, and Number 26, a vanitas) and it is interesting to note that one of the few documents we have relating to the life of Shakespeare concerns his preparation for death. It is, of course, his last will and testament, with the notorious bequest to his wife, Anne, of the ‘second best bed’ (Elizabeth Sharrett discussed the difference between the ‘best’ and ‘second best’ bed in her one of her earlier posts). Shakespeare’s will provides important information about his life; it includes details of his friends and family, those he wanted to remember, and the goods he wanted them to have. His theatre colleagues, for example, are left sums of money to purchase remembrance rings, while his granddaughter Elizabeth Hall receives all his plate (except for one silver and gilt bowl, which he leaves to his younger daughter Judith).
But Shakespeare is not the only Stratford inhabitant from this period whose will survives and by examining these other wills we can gain an insight into the lives and deaths of some of the more ‘ordinary’ people of Shakespeare’s time, in particular the women. We do need to be careful, however, as married women of all ranks were prohibited by law from making a will unless they had the consent of their husband. And even if a husband gave consent, he could then withdraw it after his wife’s death. In the case of women, therefore, most wills were made by widows and spinsters. These nevertheless provide an important access point to the lives of many ordinary women of this time, and are particularly useful for discovering the kinds of objects women possessed and for exploring what this might tell us about their daily lives.
The object featured here, then, is the 1619 will of the Stratford widow Ursula Loode, which is housed amongst the extensive archives of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in a volume of around 75 original wills from this period. Ursula’s will is notable for the fact that the items listed as bequests consist entirely of clothes and soft furnishings. This suggests that her personal wealth may not have been as substantial as some of the other unmarried women in Stratford: other widows also listed household furniture and objects such as beds, chests and kitchen utensils. Unfortunately no inventory survives for Ursula, which would have provided an itemisation of all of her possessions and their value (for more on inventories, look out for my next blog!)
Like Shakespeare, prominent among Ursula’s beneficiaries are her children and grandchildren. The grandchildren receive her bedding and other soft furnishings (‘one fetharbed… one blankete’), while her daughters receive clothing (daughter Ursula receives her mother’s ‘best Hate’). Does Ursula note that she is giving her best hat to her namesake daughter to single her out as her ‘favourite’? Or does she draw attention to the hat’s newness instead to allow for its easy identification post-mortem? Ursula’s final act is to leave ‘all the rest of my goodes and my reparrell’ to her daughter Joan, whom she also appoints as executrix of her will, thus charging her with organising the distribution of bequests and the settling of any debts after her death.
Due to its important role in ensuring the correct disposal of the testator’s goods after his or her death, the will itself was an important material artefact in its own right; as the quotation from Julius Caesar (1599) at the beginning suggests, once written it would have been kept safe by the testator for the remainder of his or her life, perhaps in a closet, locked chest, or some other safe place.
(This will, along with many other items, is held within the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's archive, at the Shakespeare Centre in Stratford-upon-Avon. If you would like to visit us to view items like this you can find out more on the Reading Room pages of our website.)