Women and Wills

Search the online catalogue of wills here!

Until the Married Women's Property Act of 1882, wives could not make a will without their husband's consent. That consent could be withdrawn at any time before the will was proved, even after the wife's death. There were some exceptions however.  Pre-nuptial settlements occasionally included a clause giving a wife the right to dispose of certain goods or property, particularly those she had brought with her to the marriage. In only about 0.8% of cases in the collection are the deceased identified as wives.

There were no restrictions on widows and spinsters making wills. 3.5% of individuals in the collection identify themselves as spinsters or single women, and a substantial 17% as widows.

There are some fascinating examples of women's wills in the collection. They include an inventory of the goods of Jane Forget dated 1588. She had been a nun at Wilton Abbey. The document shows a devout woman still living a nun's life, even though Wilton Abbey had been closed down 50 years earlier when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. One of her rooms was called the Chapel Chamber, which was probably at Woodlands Manor, Mere, where she lived with the Doddington family.

All her apparell as she had, she gave away and delivered the same before her death.

The will of Jane Forget, 1588Probate Inventory of Jane Forget's Will, 1588
Will and inventory of Jane Forget, 1588 (ref: P5/1588/19)
Click here to view the catalogue listing for this will

Women were very often made guardians of children and were usually made executors of their husband's will, at least until the eighteenth century. This is an example from the will of Nicholas Hulbert of Hinton, Steeple Ashton, dated 1594:

All the rest of my goods not given or bequeathed I give and bequeath to Mary my wife whom I make myne executrix of this my last Will & Testament. And my will and request is that shee shall keepe and bringe upp my children vertuously & in the feare of God ...
Will of Nicholas Hulbert, 1594 (ref: P2/H/134)

John Culverwell of Chardstock used his will to offer very practical support to his wife in her parental duties after his death:

First to my four Children Elizabeth Culverwell, Thomas Culverwell, William Culverwell and Isaac Culverwell I give and bequeath the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds to each of them as they shall respectively attain the age of twenty one years, or day of marriage; but if one or more of these my Children shall displease their said mother by Marriage or otherwise and not demean him or her or themselves as becomes a dutiful Child or Children, then my will and desire is that such child or children so offending shall receive at the Age or time abovesaid only fifty pounds each, the remainder of such Legacy or Legacies given as above, to be to the Use and benefit of such other Child or Children as shall demean and behave agreeable and dutiful to their said Mother, if one, to have the whole, if more, share and share alike, to be paid at the time and with the other Legacy as above mentioned.

John Culverwell's will, 1797
Will of John Culverwell, 1797 (ref: P5/1797/7)
Click here to view the catalogue listing for this will