Testament Capability

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Although all manner of people are mentioned in wills, not all manner of people could or did make them, and abject poverty was not the only bar. The general rule was that if you were "a creature reasonable" you could make a will. However there were exceptions that excluded a great body of people. They fell into four main categories:

  • those lacking judgement: children (boys under 14 and girls under 12) and people of unsound mind (disputed cases often turn on whether the testator was of sound mind and really knew what they were doing);
  • those lacking full freedom: slaves, prisoners and married women;
  • those without their principal senses: though only if it meant they could not understand the will. If they could indicate understanding they could make a will;
  • traitors, heretics and apostates.

Incidentally, if you were captured by the enemy during a war you could not make a will, but if pirates captured you when there was no official state of war you could, though quite how you would write it and convey it to safety is another matter.  

There were also special rules for those in the forces to make it easier for wills to be quickly made. The collection contains many examples of pro-forma naval wills. They are very simple and have only one beneficiary.

A Sailors Will, 1745
Will of John David, sailor on HMS Edinburgh, 1745 (ref: P2/D/592)
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