I have no shame in admitting that I really love wills, especially wills left by female ancestors! Wills are amazing documents because they offer a glimpse into the minds of ancestors at the end of their lives, and for women, they are often one of the few places where their voices can be distinctly heard. Women’s wills reveal their personalities, relatives and friends they were close to, or in some cases, who they were not close to, their favorite or most valuable possessions, their religious and charitable inclinations, and descriptions of land and houses.
One of my favorite wills was composed by my 16th great grandmother, Dame Elizabeth (Hyde) Unton on 21 April 1536. Elizabeth was the daughter of Oliver and Agnes Hyde of Denchworth, Berkshire, England. She married Sir Thomas Unton, son of Hugh Unton, of Faringdon, Berkshire. Elizabeth and Thomas had four children, including my ancestor, Alexander. Sir Thomas was the sheriff of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, and he received his knighthood at Anne Boleyn’s coronation in May 1533. Sir Thomas died on 4 August 1533 and was buried in the north transept of Faringdon Church. Elizabeth did not long survive her husband, and she was buried next to him in Faringdon Church, where their large tombs still rest.
Elizabeth’s will follows the same structure and form as other wills of this period. It begins by providing context for this period in Elizabeth’s life (date, reigning monarch, her name, marital status, and name and position of her husband). She then gives her soul to God and gives instructions as to the burial of her body. Next, Elizabeth disperses her earthly possessions to her children, relatives, friends, and servants. Her final acts are to distribute money to the poor people of the parish and to name her executors and overseer of her will.
There are several other aspects of the will that are worth noting. As per the time period, the registered copy of Elizabeth’s will was written in secretary hand, which is a challenge in itself. In addition, spelling was not standardized in the 16th century, so for example, cow was written as “kowe,” wholly as “hooly,” and satin as “Satten.” The will also contains archaic words including “kyne” (plural of cow). Between the old handwriting, spelling, and archaic words, her will is a little difficult to navigate. However, the contents were worth the effort of the transcription!
Context is very important, especially when I am determining if I am looking at the right will for the right ancestor. Elizabeth’s will begins with the date (21 April 1536) and the regnal year (27) of the monarch, Henry VIII. She then states her name, Elizabeth Unton, and her home parish, Faringdon in Berkshire. Widows often stated their marital status and the name and position of their husbands (Knight, Gentleman, Esquire, Yeoman, Butcher). Elizabeth styles herself as the “widowe and late wife of Sir Thomas Unton Knyght decessed.” She also provides some context and clues to her identity at the end of the will by naming “Thomas Hyde and John Hyde my brethren, myn executours” and “my brother William Hide Overseer.” In the 16th-century, “brother” could also refer to brother-in-law, not just a blood brother, but in Elizabeth’s case, these three men are her real brothers. In a few sentences, Elizabeth positioned herself within her family groups and in Berkshire society.
Understanding the historical and political context for an ancestor’s will can help make connections between major life events, therefore, the date of Elizabeth’s will, 1536, is particularly important. The rise of Anne Boleyn and later her fall in 1536 and the marriage of Jane Seymour to Henry VIII in the same year share some interesting connections with the personal lives of Sir Thomas and Elizabeth. Sir Thomas was knighted at Queen Anne’s coronation only a few months before his death in 1533. Elizabeth composed her will on 21 April 1536, 9 days before the arrests of men accused of having sexual relations with Queen Anne. On May 19, Queen Anne was beheaded on the Tower Green, and on 17 June, Elizabeth’s will was probated in London. Queen Anne’s ultimate success of becoming queen corresponded with Sir Thomas’s rise in station, and her death occurred probably within a month of Elizabeth’s death. On 20 May, Henry VIII became engaged to Jane Seymour, and on 30 May, he married her at the Palace of Whitehall in London. Elizabeth may have still been alive on this date, and she probably did not imagine that the execution of one queen and marriage of another would so personally affect her family. Also, the fact that the Untons were courtiers and spent time at court serving the king meant that any political or personal turmoil in the King’s life meant possible changes in theirs.
Connections with events in both the Tudor royal family and the Untons continued in the next two generations. Sir Thomas and Elizabeth’s oldest son, Sir Alexander Unton (my 15ht great grandfather), was knighted at the coronation of King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, on 20 February 1546/7.
But the most significant connection to the Tudors was still to come. Sir Alexander and Lady Cecily Unton’s oldest son, Sir Edward Unton (my 14th great grandfather), married Lady Anne, Countess of Warwick, who was born Lady Anne Seymour, eldest daughter of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, eldest brother of Queen Jane Seymour and Lord Protector, and his second wife, Anne (Stanhope) Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. The advantageous marriage of a Countess and daughter of a Duke to the son of a knight (who had yet to be knighted himself) was quite a success story for Edward. However, by studying how life events of the Tudors, Seymours, and Untons overlapped and placing those events in context, this marriage is not as far fetched as it seems at first.
It is interesting to note that due to English common law practices, Elizabeth could only bequeath possessions that were specifically willed to her by Sir Thomas. She automatically received a life interest in 1/3 of his estate, but that property would go to her husband’s heirs (their children) after her death. However, Sir Thomas gave her additional control of certain possessions and property upon his death, therefore, Elizabeth was able to distribute them to people as she desired. It is hard to imagine that women really had very little control over property unless it was specifically given to them by their fathers, through a marriage contract, or by their husbands. It is possible that some of the valuable items seen below came with Elizabeth upon her marriage, which is why Sir Thomas bequeathed them to her. Or, he left them to her for extra income and to help support her after his death (I am thinking particularly of the farm animals and stores of wheat, malt, and wool). Whatever the case, Elizabeth had control over the property seen below, and she carefully thought out to whom she would leave it.
Elizabeth thoughtfully bequeathed her most valuable possessions to her children.
- “the great palett with all thinges thereto belonging”
- “a Chaffingdishe of silver”
- “twoo candelsticks of silver”
- “a diap table Clothe”
- “a Cupbord clothe of diapre”
- “vj napkyns of diapre”
- “all the hanging of my hall”
- “the hanginges of the parlour”
- “then hanging of the Chamber over the hall”
- “my silver bason wt an Ewer of silver”
- “my twoo silver saltes gilte”
2. Anne Vampage:
- “twoo gownes”
- “twoo kirtells of Satten”
- “a velvet bonnett”
- “the bedde in the parlour with all thinges therunto apperteynying”
“thre fetherbeddes and all the mattreses unbequethed wt there appurtenances”
- “all my plate”
- “all my Carpettes and Cusshens”
- “an other silver bason wt an Ewer”
- “other twoo silver saltes gilt”
4. Edith “doughter Unton:”
- one cushion
Elizabeth’s most valuable items included textiles like gowns, napkins, tablecloths, wall hangings, and cushions, and silver pieces like salts, ewers, and basins. In order to distinguish some of her possessions, Elizabeth noted where they were located within Wadley Hall, the house and estate left to Elizabeth by Sir Thomas. This is particularly wonderful because it gives me an idea about the layout of the house. There was a hall, a parlor where a bed (likely the best bed) stood, and a chamber over the hall. The house most likely had more rooms, and by the time her great grandson owned the house, it contained 59 rooms.
Bequests: Animals, Implements, and Crops
Elizabeth also left farm animals, implements, and crops to her children.
- “fyve hundred Shepe after they be shorne”
- “viij oxen”
- “a plowe wt (with) all things therto Belonging”
- “fourty beasts that were bred since my husbond dyed”
- all my Swyne pigges and pecockes
2. Anne Vampage:
- “tenne Rames after they be shorn”
- “my hakny horss”
- “fyve hundreth ewes wt lambs”
- “tenne hundreth wethers” (rams)
- “xxxti Rammes after they be shorne”
- “viij oxen”
- “a plowgh wt thappurtenances”
- “all my carte and my Carte horsses with there appurtenances”
- “fourty kyne wt there calves”
- “tenne steres”
- “all my whete and malt wt other graynes shall remayne to thuse and mayntennce of my house”
4. Alexander and Thomas:
- “all my blades and Corne now in the feldes sowen”
Bequests: Relatives, Friends, and Servants
Elizabeth also left possessions and animals to her relations, servants, and other people who are likely other servants, tenants, or friends.
1. She left 6 shillings 8 pence to each of her servants who carried her body to Faringdon Church to be buried.
2. “my men servants and my sonns servants”
- “blak cotes”
3. Annes Badham: (unknown)
- “a kowe”
4. Mawde, Jane, and Annes: servants
- each “a kowe”
5. Dorothe Doram: (unknown)
- “a gowne of Clothe”
- “a gowne of Say”
- “a kirtell of tawnye Satten”
- “a velveet bonnet”
- “a Blak frontlet”
- “a score of shepe after they be shorne”
- “two kyne”
6. Thomas Richards: (unknown)
- “one holding in Throppe wtout paying therfor any fyne”
- “a score shepe after they be shorn”
- “two kyne”
7. Rauf Harper: (unknown)
- “twoo kyne”
- “a mattre”
- “twoo paire of Canvas shets”
- “a white Coverlet”
- “a score shepe after they Be shorne”
8. Henry Pimperloo: (unknown)
- “a mattres”
- a coverlet
- a bolster
- “a paire of shetes”
- “two kyne”
9. Thomas Wordaine: (unknown)
- “a score of shepe after they be shorne”
10. William Badnall: (unknown)
- “thirtye shepe after they be shorne”
11. Thomas Dybley: (unknown)
- “thirty shepe after they be shorne”
12. “Maistres” Hulcott: (unknown)
- “a blak gowne”
13. Sir Nicolas and to Sir Thomas: (unknown)
- “eche of them a blak gowne”
14. Thomas Cockes: nephew
- “thirty shepe after they be shorne”
15. Robert Cooke: nephew
- “twenty shepe after they be shorne”
16. Her sons and daughters, sons and daughters in law, brothers and sisters, sisters in law, nephew Cooke and his wife:
- “blak gowns”
At some point, I would like to do extra research to determine who the unidentified people were and how they were connected to Elizabeth.
Her bequests also show the scale of farming at the Wadley Hall estate. As can be seen, the Untons main source of revenue was wool.
- Sheep: 1,190 (plus lambs)
- Rams: 1,040
- Unidentified “beastes:” 40
- Cows: 52 (pkus calves)
- Steers: 10
- Oxen: 16
- Horse: 1, unspecified number of cart horses
- Swine and pigs: unspecified number
- Peacocks: unspecified number
Bequests: Church and Charity
Not only did Elizabeth leave possessions, animals, and other valuable items to her children, relatives, friends, and servants, but like a good, wealthy, Tudor woman, she also made numerous bequests and donations to the local Faringdon Church and poor people living within the parish. It was also customary people of means to request family or priests to pray for their souls and the souls of close family members.
1. Faringdon Church
- Body to be buried in Trinity Chapel next to her husband.
- 2 shillings to the high altar.
- 3 shillings 4 pence to maintain the bells.
- 20 pounds “bestowed for the newe making of seets in the Ile where my husbonde lyeth.”
- “myn executours shall fynde a preest to pray for my soule my husbande soule and all xpen soules by the space of fyve yeres and to geve him yerely for his salary sex poundes.”
2. Parish Poor
- 20 pounds “bestowed in Almes amonge pour people.”
- “twenty nobilles to be gevyn to the pour people of Ffaryingdon wtin the space of fower yeres that is to sey every yere xxxiij s iiijd.”
- “to pour people abrode in the Country in almes at tymes convenient by the space of fyve yeres thurtye pounde.”
3. General Charity
- “myne executours shall sell my Cheyne of gold and to bestowe the money therof in deades of charitie as they shall thinke best for the welthe of my soule.”
I really enjoyed getting to know my ancestress, Dame Elizabeth Unton, a little bit better this week. Her will was well organized and specific, which suggests that she was detail oriented and wanted to ensure that her valued possessions and farm accoutrements went to the appropriate people. She also seemed to enjoy beautiful clothing and fine furnishings, but she was also generous to those less fortunate than herself. Elizabeth’s will offers some tantalizing glimpses into the life of a Tudor-era woman, and I am excited to continue to research her!