Skip to main content Accessibility help

Religious Preambles in Early Modern English Wills as Formulae

  • J. D. Alsop (a1)


For the great majority of English men and women in the Reformation the principal indication of individual religious beliefs is the initial clause in their testaments, bequeathing their souls to God. Cast in the form of a personal bequest and frequently composed on the testator's deathbed, the religious statement appears to provide a revealing personal comment upon the individual's beliefs, unlike seemingly more public acts or protestations of faith. Unfortunately for the historian interested in tracing the presence of early Protestantism, Calvinism or religious conservatism within individuals or communities, will-making by the early modern era had become a cultural ritual. With a strong potential for ritualised statements, the pitfalls in using these preambles in isolation as indications of faith are generally well known. It is the intention of this paper to outline evidence for considering testamentary declarations as formulae, in indeterminate relationship with the specific religious convictions of the testators.



Hide All

1 Spufford, M., Contrasting Communities: English villagers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Cambridge 1974, 320–43, and idem, ‘The scribes of villagers’ wills in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their influence’, Local Population Studies vii (1971), 2843; Zell, M. L., ‘The use of religious preambles as a measure of religious belief in the sixteenth century’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 1 (1977), 246–9; Collinson, P., The Religion of Protestants: the Church in English society 1559–1625, Oxford 1982, 196–7.

2 Spufford, op. cit. 335.

3 Ibid. 323–43.

4 Contrast: ibid. 325, 333, and Mayhew, G. J., ‘The progress of the Reformation in East Sussex, 1530–1559: the evidence from wills’, Southern History v (1983), 3867, at p. 42. Dr Spufford also indicates that strong, unusually worded preambles can normally be accepted as evidence of personal conviction, op. cit. 334. It is worthwhile to stress that she earlier implies this is a valid deduction only when the evidence appears within a series by a particular scribe and is ‘unusual’ in the context of that series. Assessed in isolation, a preamble would have to be highly personal before it merited this conclusion.

5 Spufford, op. cit. 320n., 322.

6 Cross, C., ‘The development of Protestantism in Leeds and Hull: the evidence from wills’, Northern History xviii (1982), 230–8, at pp. 231–2; Mayhew, ‘East Sussex, 1530–1559’, 41–2, 45; Whiting, R., ‘“For the health of my soul”: prayers for the dead in the Tudor south-west’, Southern History v (1983), 6894, at p. 87.

7 Capp, B., English Almanacs, 1500–1800, Ithaca 1979, 33, 145–6, 417.

8 Cross, op. cit. 233.

9 A Boke of Presidentes Exactly Written in Mann of a Register. Newelye Corrected…, London 1559, fo. 110. Apart from the preceding, the editions of 1561, 1572, 1576, 1583, 1586 and 1600 have been consulted. While the contents and form of the volume underwent substantial modification, the model will remained the same.

10 West, William, Symbolaeographia. Which may be termed the Art, Description, or Image of Instruments, Couenants, Contracts, etc., London 1590.

11 West, William, The First Part of Symboleography, London 1632, section 644.

12 Capp, B., ‘Will formularies’, Local Population Studies xiv (1975), 4950; Mayhew, ‘East Sussex, 1530–1559’, 43–4.

13 Sheehan, M. M., The Will in Medieval England, from the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the End of the Thirteenth Century, Toronto 1963, 193–4.

14 The limitations for even a moderately sized urban centre such as Manchester are pointed out in R. Richardson, C., ‘Wills and will-makers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: some Lancashire evidence’, Local Population Studies ix (1972), 3342. Dr Richardson’s work is indicative of much of the research into this topic. While recognizing a tendency towards stereotyped preambles, the final conclusion is inconclusive: the value of the preambles consists ‘as much’ in the indication of general trends as in providing evidence on the religion of an individual. A critical reader might also note Attrccd, L. C., ‘Preparation for death in sixteenth century northern England’, Sixteenth Century Journal xiii (1982), 3766, at pp. 37, 39.

15 Zell, ‘Use of religious preambles’, 248–9.

16 Mayhew, op. cit. 41. Note also the case of John Forde of Devonshire in 1538, Whiting, ‘Prayers for the dead’, 87.

17 PRO, Prob. 11/46, fos 16–17.

18 Spufford, Contrasting Communities, 332–3.

19 Ibid. 323–33; Mayhew, ‘East Sussex, 1530–1559’, 41–2, 51; Richardson, ‘Wills and will-makers’, 40.

20 Sheils, W. J., The Puritans in the Diocese of Peterborough 1558–1610, Northampton 1979, 15. A similar, but more equivocal, line of argument is apparent in Clark, P., English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution: religion, politics and society in Kent 1500–1640, Hassocks 1977, 58.

21 Sheils, op. cit. 15; Spufford, op. cit. passim; Wrightson, K. and Levine, D., Poverty and Piety in an English Village: Terling 1525–1700, New York 1979, 158; Cross, ‘Leeds and Hull’, 233.

22 PRO, Prob. 11/37, fo. 52 (1554); Guildhall Library, Commissary Court of London Will Register, MS 9171/15, fo. 232 (1565).

23 Cheshire Record Office, diocesan will, inventory and depositions, Randal Dycus, husbandman, Handbridge, 1604.

24 Reproduced in facsimile in Rycraft, A., Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century Handwriting, Series 1, Borthwick Institute of Historical Research, York 1972, no. xii.

25 PRO, Prob. 11/42A, fo. 255. The other wills for this voyage are: ibid, fos 254V-5; Guildhall Library, MS 9171/14, fos 75–80V.

26 For example, the 1561 will of Richard Alrington of Lincoln’s Inn, PRO, Prob. 11/45, fo. 46V.

27 PRO, Prob. 11/37, To. 55 (this is the registered probate copy; the original will does not survive). Other cases utilising ‘etc’ are noted in Mayhew, ‘East Sussex, 1530–1559’, 41.

28 Assheton, W., A Theological Discourse of Last Wills and Testaments, London 1696, 1519 (quoted in Richardson, ‘Wills and will-makers’, 38–9). The spiritual bequest was so insignificant for Henry Swinburne, an ecclesiastical official in the archdiocese of York, that he failed even to mention it in his copious A Briefe Treatise of Testaments and Willes, London 1591.

29 Lancashire Record Office, DRCH/11, pp. 15–16.

30 The will is printed from the original in J. P. Earwaker (ed.), Lancashire and Cheshire Wills and Inventories at Chester (Chetham Society, NS iii, 1884), 116–17.

31 Zell, ‘Use of religious preambles’; Mayhew, ‘East Sussex, 1530–1559’.

32 Dr Cross has already noted the difference in reliability between the evidence from preambles and from the main body of the wills, ‘Leeds and Hull’, 237.

Religious Preambles in Early Modern English Wills as Formulae

  • J. D. Alsop (a1)


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed