After combing through the information contained in both the civil registration and early parish records, it was apparent that to further our search for our early Emptage ancestors, we needed to look at the possibility of finding any wills.
Survival of these documents is patchy to say the least; the earliest generally dating from the late 13th century but becoming more numerous in the late 14th and 15th centuries. Our search of the various available indexes resulted (much to our surprise and delight), in a list of some 50 documents at the Kent History and Library Centre, including wills, probate records, accounts and inventories. The latter, although interesting, were unlikely to provide the names of any family members, so we concentrated our attention on the wills, probate records and accounts.
It was with hopeful anticipation that we ordered copies of the documents on our list which was tempered somewhat when they eventually arrived. The reality was page after page of a handwritten form of old Latin, old English or a combination of both; given the olde style of writing, deciding which language was which was initially very difficult to ascertain.
Having had some previous experience with wills, Susan, website editor, had pre-warned me that the task would be time consuming and hard on both eyes and patience. So armed with strong coffee and a palaeography book, I made a start. Susan was absolutely right but, little by little, reward came when letters slowly became more recognisable, word patterns began to emerge and actual sentences took shape, albeit with a frequent question mark or gap for further review. Legal terminology became less daunting as I learnt about ‘apputenances’, ‘feoffees’ and other such words and phrases common to the era.
A feoffee was somebody entrusted with holding in possession a freehold estate for a particular purpose.
Appurtances were the rights and duties attached to the holding of manorial land, such as grazing rights, and the payments to the landlord.
The church clerks who wrote the documents obviously hadn’t had 21st century genealogy in mind when they put pen to paper, but I do bless the few who wrote in a clear consistent hand.
Despite further problems with abbreviations, bleed-through, fading and the general ageing that made the copies less than ideal to work with, names of testator’s family members actually began to emerge. Copied onto many coloured ‘post-it’ stickers stuck on a large board, their names are like pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle without benefit of picture, corner pieces or edges, and with an unknown number of said pieces missing. Trying to get a clear picture to emerge is still, I’m afraid, very much a work in progress and likely to be so for some time yet.
Commonly in use during Roman and Anglo Saxon times as a written instruction for disposal of belongings after death, wills also increasingly became an instrument of ‘religious supplication’. The soul was bequeathed to Almighty God, a resting place designated for the mortal body, sometimes instructions given for the number of masses to be said after death and gifting amounts of money to both the church and the poor of the parish. Some contain little more than this, but most do go on to make bequests of money/goods to friends and family, generally ending by apportioning property and land, usually to their closest male heir.
Quite often a named executor was a surviving spouse, brother or son and witnesses might include a brother, uncle or cousin.
Some of the early wills on our list are entirely in Latin but most are in English, apart from a few sentences of Latin probate at the end.
We would like to thank Dr. Helen Wicker of the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone for her help in providing the copies of these documents and also her colleague Elizabeth Finn for her summarised translations of the old Latin documents, (which proved far beyond my schoolgirl learning of the subject!).
Our original list of documents from the KHLC has been augmented by documents from other sources and we now have a list of over 90 wills, probate records and inventories dating from 1489 to 1847, including 12 in which Emptages were executors of, or received bequests from, non Emptage people. These non Emptage wills, such as those leaving bequests to Emptage grandchildren are also helpful in establishing family groups and relationships.
Copyright considerations mean that we cannot reproduce images of each will but we will provide notes on each one as we transcribe them. For examples see the two earliest Emptage wills: Michael Emptiach, probated in 1489 and George Emptiach, probated in 1494.
The testator is the person who makes a will and testament describing their wishes and instructions following their death, regarding their possessions, property and land.
Today the words will and testament are interchangeable but originally they referred to different aspects of the testator’s wishes.
The will was concerned with land which was held on a freehold basis, known as real estate and could be devised to the testators heirs, perhaps with restrictions. Before 1540, there were strict laws which governed what happened to land and it could not be left in a will.
The testament dealt with the testator’s personal estate, including cash, leased property or land, goods and chattels which were bequeathed, known as bequests. The person who receives the bequest, also known as legacy, is the beneficiary or legatee.
If somebody dies without leaving a will, they are said to have died intestate and their spouse, adult child or other person with a claim on the estate can apply to court for permission to administer the estate, in accordance with the law. The court will issue letters of administration.
In the will, the testator nominates one or more people as their executor, to put the provisions of the will into effect, to execute their wishes. A female executor is sometimes known as an executrix.
Before the executor can begin work, the will must be recognised by a court of law as being legally valid, in that it has been properly witnessed, has not been tampered with and conforms to requirements of the law. The court then makes a grant of probate, which allows the executor to proceed with administering the will, putting it into effect.
Until 1858, the church was responsible for the probate of wills and therefore the wills which we see are the copies which the clerks entered in the probate registers at the diocesan offices. They entered the testator’s name in the margin of the page, as shown in the two images above.
For a glossary of terms see: