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Sunday, November 02, 2008

A Medieval Last Will and Testament

In thirteenth century England, the Church extended its jurisdiction over last wills and testaments, notably challenges to their validity, and the performance of executors. Where a testator held property in two or more jurisdictions, it was generally necessary to obtain probate from an ecclesiastical court

Historians debate to what extent we can trust wills as evidence of the religious attitudes of the testators

However medieval wills show that the testator was in particular concerned with religious matters and what would happen after his or her death.

The Preamble of most medieval Wills is like a prayer.

Charitable bequests especially masses for the repose of souls of the Testator and his family are common.

Here is a transcription of part of the last will and testament of Robert Chichele. (died 1439), twice Lord Mayor of the City of London

He was one of three brothers who all achieved positions of importance in society. His younger brother Henry, born ca.1362, settled on a career in the Church and was chosen Archbishop of Canterbury in 1414, dying in that office in 1443.

His Will is particularly strong on charitable bequests including the relief of prisoners.

"In the name of God, Amen. On 5 June 1439, in the 17th year of the reign of Henry VI, king of England, I, Robert Chichele, citizen and grocer of the city of London, being of sound mind and memory, make and set out my testament concerning my moveable possessions, in the following manner.

First, I leave and commend my soul to almighty God, my creator and my saviour, to the Blessed Virgin Mary his mother, and to all the saints, and my body to be buried in the nave of the parish church of St. James Garlickhithe, London, of which I am presently a parishioner.

I bequeath to the reverend lord Henry, by the grace of God archbishop of Canterbury, my brother, each and every pearl that I own, or whatever sort it may be, large or small. I bequeath to the rector of the church of St. James 40s., that the rector may say special prayers for my soul. I bequeath to each chaplain of that church who celebrates there and undertakes services to pray especially for my soul, 13s.4d. I bequeath to each of the parish clerks of that church 6s.8d, also to pray for my soul. I bequeath towards the structural fabric of that church, for my burial as pre-arranged, £10. I bequeath to each of the four orders of mendicant friars in the city of London (that is, the Augustinians, the Minorites, the Preachers, and the Carmelites) 40s., that the brothers specially commend my soul to God. I leave 20s.to the friars of the order of the Holy Cross next to the Tower of London, on the same condition. I leave £10 to be expended on and distributed among chaplains who celebrate services within the city of London and its suburbs; each chaplain to receive 4d. for as long as the £10 holds out, so that they may pray for my soul.

I bequeath £20 to be distributed in the same fashion among prisoners held in the gaols of the city of London and its suburbs or persons laid up in hospitals within the city and suburbs, each prisoner or patient to receive 4d. while the £20 lasts. I bequeath to the convent of Tandridge £6.13s.4d to pray specially for my soul.

I bequeath £60 for the marriage of thirty girls of good reputation; that is, 40s. to each of the thirty girls as her dowry.

I bequeath £60 towards acquitting and freeing from gaol various prisoners detained in the gaols within the city of London and its suburbs, or in the King's Bench and Marshalsea; to go as far as it will stretch, on the understanding that no more than 20s. maximum be paid for the acquittance and freeing of any single prisoner.

I leave £133.13s.4d to be distributed among prisoners held in the gaols within the city of London and its suburbs, as well as in the King's Bench, Marshalsea, and the gaol of the abbot of Westminster; that is, each week for the two years following my death, 26s.8d for the purchase of bread to be distributed among those prisoners, so that the prisoners in those gaols receive weekly a loaf worth a halfpenny, throughout those two years.

I bequeath £20 to be distributed among poor householders in the Vintry and Queenhithe wards, at the discretion of my executors identified below.

I bequeath my nephew, John Chichele, £20. I bequeath £20 to have twenty trentals celebrated in St. Gregory's for the souls of myself, my wives Elizabeth, Agnes, and Agnes, as well as those of my parents, friends, and benefactors, together with all deceased Christians.

I bequeath to John Stystede, my servant, and his wife £10. I bequeath £20 to be distributed, at the discretion of my executors, among my other servants who are in my service in London on the day I die. I bequeath £20 to be distributed among the parish churches of Higham Ferrers, for their fabric. I bequeath to Thomas Spytele £5. I bequeath £20 to support poor brethren of the London grocers' company. I bequeath £5 to Anthony Astell, fishmonger of London. I bequeath £5 to his brother, John Astell, saddler of London. I bequeath to Lady Florence, the widow of John Darell and daughter of William Chichele, my brother, £10. I bequeath £10 to Thomas Knolles, citizen and grocer of London. I bequeath £10 to the master of the college of Higham Ferrers and his colleagues of that place, to pray specially for my soul. I bequeath 100s. towards the structural fabric of the parish church of Tandridge. I bequeath £5 to be distributed, at the discretion of William Warbylton esq., amongst the poor of Tandridge parish. I bequeath 40s. towards the structural fabric of the parish church of Sherfield. I bequeath £10 to William Warbylton.

I bequeath to each of my executors identified below, for undertaking the task of executing this my testament, £10.

The remainder of all my moveable goods and chattels whatsoever, after my debts have been paid and my testament fulfilled, I wish and bequeath to be entirely disposed of by my executors in works of charity for [the good of] my soul and the souls of those mentioned above; such as in the celebration of masses, distribution to poor people, repairs to bridges and roads, and other pious uses, just as their good judgement leads them to think will be most pleasing to God and most profitable for the salvation of my soul and the other souls mentioned.

I appoint as executors of my testament John Lorchyn grocer, John Broddesworth mercer, John Wyverton fishmonger, and Styfford the draper, citizens of the city of London.

In testimony to which matters I have put my seal to this testament. Drawn up at London, on the day and year indicated above. "

[From Lambeth Palace Library, Reg. Chichele, I, ff.450-52, 467-69, 484-85

Transcription in: E.F. Jacob, ed. The Register of Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury 1414-1443, vol.2, Canterbury and York Society, no.42 (1937), 519-26, 564-68, 615-20

Original language: Latin]

For more on the subject see Florilegium Urbanum


The medieval church of St. James Garlickhithe (dedicated to St James of Compostela) was destroyed in the Great Fire of London and replaced by a Sir Christopher Wren designed church in 1674-87.

The earliest international company in the world was set up by the Hanseatic League in the 13th century, on the site now occupied by Cannon Street rail station within the parish of St James Garlickhythe. Old records describe the building as the principal factory in Dowgate Ward, provided with handsome spacious quays for the import and export of goods throughout the League. This area was soon extended with additional warehouse space and housing for the traders and their agents from Germany.