The Romance of Wills and Testaments
THE ROMANCE OF WILLS AND
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
SONGS AND LYRICAL POEMS
PRAYERS AND PREFACES FROM
ROMANCE OF WILLS
EDGAR VINE HALL
T. FISHER UNWIN
LONDON: ADELPHI TERRACE
LEIPSIC: INSELSTRASSE 20
(All rights reserved.)
By way of preface it is necessary to explain the sources from whichthe material for the following pages is taken. The chief feature ofthese essays consists, I think, in the large amount of original matterrescued from the multitudinous MS. volumes of wills, &c., which arepreserved at Somerset House and elsewhere.
As in death, so in those volumes, small and great rest side by side.Of the majority their wills, or, if they died without wills, theirintestacies, are their only memorials. But it is fascinating to comesuddenly upon some well-known name. In a volume of intestacies ofthe year 1674, for instance, is an entry stating that administrationwas granted to Elizabeth Milton, widow of John Milton, late of theparish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, his nuncupative will not having beenproved—“testamento nuncupativo dicti defuncti ... per antedictamElizabetham Milton allegato nondum probato.”[Pg 8]
Different types and times, the lighter or the more serious pages ofthis book, will appeal to different readers. I would, for my part,especially suggest attention to wills illustrative of times of plagueas likely to interest students of human nature and history. Time andopportunity for research have been limited—not unfortunately, perhaps.Amid greater abundance of material, choice would have been the moreperplexing.
It is desired to make full acknowledgment of the various printed bookswhich I have perused, and from which I have sometimes borrowed, viz.:such books as “Wills from Doctors’ Commons” (Nichols and Bruce), “FiftyEnglish Wills” (Furnivall), “North Country Wills” (Surtees Society),“Testamenta Eboracensia” (Surtees Society), “Testamenta Vetusta”(Nicolas), “Testamenta Cantiana” (Duncan and Hussey), “Wells Wills”(Weaver), “Lincoln Wills” (Gibbons), “Royal Wills” (Nichols), “AHistory of English Law” (Holdsworth).
Again, there are books, not directly connected with the subject, inwhich wills or pertinent tales occur. In this class I am indebted tosuch books as Messrs. Maclehose’s edition of “An Historical Relationof Ceylon” (Robert Knox), “Anna Van Schurman” (Una Birch), “Bygone[Pg 9]Leicestershire” (Andrews), “The Old Sea-Port of Whitby” (Gaskin),“Beckenham Past and Present” (Borrowman), “Walks in Islington”(Cromwell), “Gentleman’s Magazine,” “Table Book” (Hone), “London”(Knight), “Ancient Monuments” (Weever), “Seventeenth Century Menof Latitude” (George), “Ancestral Stories and English Eccentrics”(Timbs), “Haunted Houses” (Harper), “Real Ghost Stories” (Stead),“Naturalisation of the Supernatural” (Podmore), “Dreams and Ghosts”(Lang), “Folk Lore and Folk Stories of Wales” (Trevelyan), “The Annalsof Psychical Science,” and “The Occult Review.”
Especial acknowledgment is due to Messrs. Constable and Co. forpermission to make use of articles in “The Ancestor”; to Mr. C.L. Kingsford and the Delegates of the Oxford University Press forpermission to introduce the story of the last days of Elizabeth Stow,as contained in Mr. Kingsford’s Introduction to his edition of Stow’s“Survey”; and to Mr. R. de M. Rudolf for valuable illustrations drawnfrom his book, “Clapham Before 1700 a.d.”
The idea of this book is the writer’s own. It was inevitable that theidea should have been anticipated, but of such anticipation I wasunaware until the book was under weigh. The nearest approaches which Ihave read are Mrs. Byrne’s “Curiosities of the Search Room: A Collection[Pg 10]of Serious and Whimsical Wills” (1880), and Walter Tegg’s “Wills ofTheir Own: Curious, Eccentric, and Benevolent” (1876), to both of whichI acknowledge indebtedness. But those who are interested should repair,if possible, to their entertaining pages. An earlier anticipatoryvolume is G. Peignot’s excellent “Choix de Testamens Anciens etModernes, Remarquables par leur Importance, leur Singularité, ou leurBizarrerie” (1829).
Since these essays were written Mr. Virgil M. Harris, of St. Louis,Missouri, has published at Boston, U.S.A., a large collection of willsunder the title, “Ancient, Curious, and Famous Wills,” a work, however,distinct in scope and style from the present book.
Scattered about these pages are instances of wills, &c., gatheredfrom newspapers from time to time. This source, also, is gratefullyrecognised. Lastly, I have to express my thanks to Mr. Fincham, ofSomerset House, for affording me facilities to introduce two or threeexcellent illustrations of my theme.
Other references are mentioned in the text. If any work to which I amindebted in any respect has not been acknowledged, I trust I may beaccorded a ready pardon.
|I.||THE ROMANCE OF WILLS||13|
|II.||WILLS NOT FULFILLED||59|
|III.||DR. JOHNSON’S WILL||69|
|V.||WILLS BY WORD OF MOUTH||93|
|VI.||THE POLYCODICILLIC WILL||106|
|VIII.||THE DEAD HAND||123|
|IX.||WILLS OF FANCY AND OF FANTASY||134|
|XI.||LOVE AND GRATITUDE||159|
|XII.||THE SERVANT PROBLEM||169|
|XIII.||ANIMALS AND PETS||178|
|XIV.||THE WAY OF ALL FLESH||187|
|XV.||BURIALS AND FUNERALS||197|
|XVI.||WILLS AND GHOSTS||230|
The Romance of Wills and
THE ROMANCE OF WILLS
“The older I grow,” Mr. E. V. Lucas has said, “the less, I find, do Iwant to read about anything but human beings.... But human beings, ashuman beings, are not enough; they must, to interest me, have qualitiesof simplicity or candour or quaintness.”
The words of the writer are peculiarly apt to describe the charm ofwills. But the older we grow, the more do men and women, by reasononly of their humanity, absorb our interest. In wills human nature ismost vividly and variously displayed. In wills the dead speak, andin a manner live again. The poor and the rich, men learned and menilliterate, all alike have made interesting wills. In some cases humourand pathos are more unconscious, in others opportunity for effect is[Pg 14]greater; but in wills of every class, and of every age or form, thereis much worthy of remark.
Historically they are invaluable records. In them are reflected allsocial, political, and religious revolutions. By them the history offamilies or places is preserved and illuminated. As long ago as thesixteenth century John Stow realised their value, and often referredto them in his “Survey of London.” No local record to-day would becomplete without the wills of its worthies.
There is unrivalled scope for the imagination in perusing the lastdispositions of the dead. How easy it is, with these documents beforeus, to picture the figures of each generation; the fervent Catholicof the fifteenth century, the pious benefactor of the sixteenth, the“heroic English gentleman” of the seventeenth, the Whig or Tory ofthe eighteenth; and at all times the homely or eccentric testator whoallows many a secret comedy or tragedy to appear, many a prejudiceor foible, many a sentiment of resignation or revolt. Some give theimpression of peevishness and irresolution, of spite or hate; some ofsentimental or petty desires; some of serene care for the future, ofdignity and calm.
Little, indeed, in all literature is more arresting than the revelationof personality, the unveiling of intimacies that are seldom seen: inwills these intimacies occur, the veil is withdrawn, in a manner thatelsewhere can rarely be observed. Whether they be light or serious,[Pg 15]amusing or tragic, the occurrence of such vivid traits in a will givesthem a character peculiarly humorous or correspondingly sad. The idiosyncrasyis magnified, the bias more distorted, when placed in such a setting.
On the other hand, the interest of a will may arise not merely or somuch from its provisions in themselves, as from our knowledge of theinner history of the testator’s life and death. Bishop Corbet, thatwitty and jovial soul, was one of those fathers who, for all theirlove and longing, for all their piety, are disgraced by their sons. Inhis will, dated July 7, 1635, and proved on the 5th of the followingSeptember, he wrote: “I commit and commend the nurture education andmaintenance of my son and daughter into the faithful and loving care ofmy mother-in-law, declaring my intent by this my last will, as I haveoften in my health expressed the same, that my desire is that my saidson be brought up in good learning, and that as soon as he shall be fitbe placed in Oxford or Cambridge, where I require him upon my blessingto apply himself to his books studiously and industriously.”
He had in “health expressed the same” by verse: but the son Vincent,in spite of prayer and admonition, was a ne’er-do-well, and after theBishop’s death a beggar in London. These lines were addressed to himupon his third birthday by his fond but ill-requited father:—[Pg 16]