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Families, Will Witnesses, and Economic Structure in the Fens and on the Chalk: Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Willingham and Chippenham*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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The debate on whether or not seventeenth-century village society was increasingly polarized between parish notables and prosperous households, who tended both to appropriate Protestant virtues of “order and godliness” to themselves and impose them on the indifferent or even hostile laboring poor, is not yet over. On one side is Tessa Watt, who has summarized the arguments against polarization that do not fit with the distribution of her “godly” woodcuts, broadsides, and chapbooks, and Martin Ingram, who says “the evidence from Wiltshire and elsewhere suggest it is a mistake to overemphasize either the presence of ‘godly’ groups, or the existence of people largely indifferent to religion.” In the village of Keevil, he found the relatively few pious villagers “quite widely scattered in the social scale, and as a group, not particularly literate…. They did not form a close-knit nexus in village society, and…did not dominate the structure of local office-holding.” He concludes that “both ecclesiastical and religious issues were of sufficient significance in parish life to serve as a focus for parish rivalries and in so far as religious and moral issues were socially divisive, the splits were as much vertical as horizontal.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 28 , Issue 3 , Fall 1996 , pp. 379 - 414
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1996

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Professor Spufford would like to point out that although she has written this paper, the work on the kinship networks, the will-witnessing and the credit for it, are all Dr. Takahashi's. The work is entirely his own, and only the introduction is hers. She is responsible for any errors of interpretation, expression, and deductions in the summary, and he is responsible for the figures, tables, and maps. The introduction to the paper is drawn together from the work of a group of former research students, Dr. Christopher Marsh, Dr. Derek Plumb, and Dr. Bill Stevenson who, with Mrs. Nesta Evans, cooperated as a team with Professor Spufford in doing the research for her The World of Rural Dissenters, 1520-1725 (Cambridge, 1995), where interpretations of relative economic status will be found more fully set out. References to this group are subsumed under “the team” and “they,” whereas for Dr. Takahashi's work and her own, she has used the pronoun “we.” Professor Spufford is grateful to her husband, Dr. Peter Spufford, to Dr. Eric Carlson and Dr. Helen Robinshaw for reading and commenting on this paper in draft.


1 Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 71-73 and 326-28Google Scholar.

2 Ingram, Martin, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, 1570-1640 (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 80-81, 93-94, 116, 118Google Scholar.

3 Fletcher, A. J. and Stevenson, J., “A polarized society?” in Fletcher, and Stevenson, , eds., Order and Disorder in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1985), p. 3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Wrightson, Keith and Levine, David, Poverty and Piety in an English Village, Terling, 1525-1700 (New York and London, 1979), pp. 17-18, 176Google Scholar.

5 Marsh, Christopher, “In the name of God? Will-making and faith in early modern England,” in Martin, G. H. and Spufford, Peter, eds., The Records of the Nation (Woodbridge, 1990), pp. 232, 233Google Scholar.

6 Plumb, Derek, “John Foxe and the later Lollards of the mid-Thames valley” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1987), pp. 341428Google Scholar. Marsh, Christopher, “The Family of Love in English society, 1550-1630” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1993)Google Scholar, and The Family of Love, 1550-1630 (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 190-96Google Scholar. Again, the appendix (pp. 267-87) lists witnesses, along with other important evidence of involvement with the Family. It demonstrates the importance of will-witnessing among co-religionists. See also Marsh, Christopher, “The gravestone of Thomas Lawrence revisited,” in Spufford, , The World of Rural Dissenters, p. 216Google Scholar. Keith Wrightson, without discussing witnessing as such, incidentally provides a similar picture of the group of people round death-beds, and their function in Whickham: The Making of an Industrial Society (Oxford, 1991), pp. 288-94Google Scholar.

7 Storey, Matthew, “The Diary of Isaac Archer,” chapter on “Nonconformity” (Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1994)Google Scholar. As he points out, Stevenson, Bill, “The Economic and Social Status of Protestant sectaries in Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, 1650-1725” (Ph. D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 1990) pp. 280 ffGoogle Scholar, especially case cited on p. 320, found that those divided on religious grounds could also act as witnesses, or even scribes, for their opponents. A witness list can therefore be taken as a possible pointer for religious affiliation, fit for further investigation, no more. But it is because adherents of the same sect so often acted as witnesses for each other, that the converse, their acceptance as desirable witnesses by non-sectarians, can also be used as evidence of community tolerance of these sects.

8 Marsh, Christopher, “In the name of God,” Roger Hopper missed his game, p. 253Google Scholar.

9 W. Stevenson, “The economic status,” and chs. 8 and 9 in Spufford, The World of Rural Dissenters.

10 Spufford, The World of Rural Dissenters, esp. Nesta Evans, ch. 7 and appendices.

11 This is not a suitable place to discuss the validity of using the tax-bands of the 1524–25 Great Subsidy, and the numbers of hearths on which householders were taxed in the Hearth Taxes 150 years later in a comparative way, as Wrightson and Levine did throughout Poverty and Piety. Such a discussion forms an article in itself. I first attempted to justify, the procedure in my M.A. thesis, Rural Cambridgeshire, 1520–1680” (M.A. with Distinction, University of Leicester, 1962), pp. 6367Google Scholar, in which I connected individual taxation bands in 1524-25 with standard landholdings of a yardland or half a yardland, and also connected 100 probate inventories of the relevant Hearth Tax entries. This discussion mainly appeared in my Contrasting Communities: English Villagers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Cambridge, 1974), pp. 3445Google Scholar. Parts of the latter work also appear in The significance of the Cambridgeshire Hearth Tax,” Proceedings of the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society 55 (1962): 5364Google Scholar. W. Stevenson, “The economic status,” has greatly expanded our knowledge of the accuracy of the Hearth Taxes and has an article in preparation. But there is now a whole literature accumulating on the subject. The best guide to it is in Schürer, Kevin and Arkell, Tom, eds., Surveying the People: The Interpretation and Use of Document Sources for the Study of Population in the Late Seventeenth Century (Oxford, 1993)Google Scholar. The work of Arkell and Christopher Husbands is especially relevant. Keith Wrightson has recently used the Hearth Tax as a guide to the comparative wealth and poverty of communities in his superb Whickham, p. 157. However, possibly the best check on such a system is that Gregory King, in his work as a herald, used these contemporary records as a fast rule-of-thumb guide to possible gentility. Anyone with five hearths or more was a possible candidate. See Margaret Spufford. Poverty Portrayed: Gregory King and the Parish of Eccleshall, Staffordshire (Staffordshire Studies, 1995), and Styles, Philip, “The heralds' visitation of Warwickshire, 1682-3,” Transactions of the Birmingham Archaeological Society 71 (1953): 98103Google Scholar. No one has done the further work connecting and refining the amounts assessed and acreage farmed in 1524-25, which my initial work in my M.A. thesis demanded. I hope that Dr. Richard Hoyle of the University of Central Lancashire has it under way.

12 The proportion of Stevenson's dissenters compared with the distribution of hearths in society at large awaits a full analysis of the Hearth Tax. This is a major enterprise, currently being explored by the Department of History at The Roehampton Institute. For the purposes of this argument, the “very” poor have been taken to be those either exempt from the tax or paying on only one hearth. Stevenson, , “Economic and Social Status,” pp. 513Google Scholar. See, however, Arkell, Tom, “The incidence of poverty in England in the later seventeenth century,” Social History 12 (1987)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See “Introduction” to Spufford, The World of Rural Dissenters, p. 21. See also chs. 1, 2, 5, 8, and 9 by their respective authors.

14 Ibid., esp. Mrs. Nesta Evans, ch. 7 and appendices.

15 Henry French (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Cambridge, 1993) did not find the terminology “the middling sort” used in contemporary society in Essex and Suffolk.

16 For one example, take Chippenham, where the engrosser had done his village worst by 1700, and society was split into “coqs de village” and landless village laborers (Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 64-76 and 9092Google Scholar)

17 Spufford, Margaret, Small Books and Pleasant Histories (London, 1981), pp. 50, 177Google Scholar.

18 Spufford, Contrasting Communities, appendix I, “The Butlers of Orwell,” pp. 354-55, and 179-80, 197, 323-24, and illustration of Neville Butler witnessing his villager second-cousin's will, p. 198.

19 Watt, Tessa, Cheap Print, pp. 315-17Google Scholar.

20 Spufford, Margaret, “Peasant inheritance customs and land distribution in Cambridgeshire from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries,” in Family and Inheritance: Rural Society in Western Europe, 1200-1800, eds. Goody, Jack, Thirsk, Joan, and Thompson, E. P. (Cambridge, 1976), pp. 169-72, esp. table 3Google Scholar.

21 Cressy, David, Coming Over: Migration and Communication between England and New England in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, 1987), pp. 287, 267-68, 270, 273Google Scholar.

22 Cressy, David, “Kinship and kin interaction in early modern England,” Past and Present 113 (1986): pp. 41, 42-43, 46-47, 50, 61, 6365CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Wrightson, , Whickham, pp. 329-39Google Scholar.

24 Ibid., p. 330 and n. 122.

25 The reconstitution was carried out by Miss Glynis Reynolds.

26 For this spread, see Takahashi, Motoyasu, “The number of wills proved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Graphs, with tables and commentary,” in Martin, G. H. and Spufford, Peter, eds., The Records of the Nation (Woodbridge, 1990), pp. 209-11Google Scholar. The diocese of Ely was possibly unusual in having such a high proportion of wills made by the lower social groups, but this was to our advantage. Chippenham, unfortunately, lies in the Diocese of Norwich. The low proportion of wills made there may reflect either different diocesan habits or community tradition. It is most likely to reflect a lesser need to provide for underage heirs, however, since life expectancy there was more normal for the seventeenth century among adult males than in the Fens.

27 See below, pp. 395-99.

28 Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 245-48, 293, 302-04Google Scholar. Marsh, The Family of Love.

29 Wrightson, Keith, “Kinship in an English village: Terling, Essex, 1500-1700,” in Smith, Richard M., ed., Land, Kinship and Life-cycle (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 313-32Google Scholar, and Wrightson, , Whickham, pp 153-65Google Scholar.

30 See n. 12 above for a brief discussion of the methodology here.

31 Wrightson, , Whickham, p. 157Google Scholar.

32 The number of taxpayers in houses with three to five hearths argues there were householders who had lost land in the engrossing process living on in houses that had once reflected yeoman status. In the same way, the number of “husbandmen” with two hearths reflects the earlier number of half yardlanders and yardlanders with 15-40 acres who had been forced off the land between 1598 and 1636. They had obviously been able to build before the poor harvests and engrossing boom hit them (Spufford, Contrasting Communities, pp. 82-84, 90-92).

33 Ibid., pp. 134-51, where these surveys are fully described and analyzed.

34 The only rural community with a higher proportion of exempt householders than any other on Wrightson's table so far known is Eccleshall in Staffordshire, which had 53% (Spufford, , Poverty Portrayed: Gregory King and the Parish of Eccleshall, Staffordshire (1995), Table 1)Google Scholar.

35 Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 1622 and map 5, p. 17Google Scholar.

36 For the rationale of this passage, see n. 12 above.

37 Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 143-44Google Scholar.

38 Spelled out in detail in ibid., ch. 5.

39 Ibid, pp. 140-43.

40 No other son, in all the thousands of wills I have read, was left food for life from his inheriting brother, rather than a sum to establish himself independently. It seems reasonable to assume that independence was impossible for him. The only other case I know from this social level is of a girl with cerebral palsy in the 1690s, who was left the income from £20 as provision, in a complex set of arrangements (Spufford, , Poverty Portrayed, pp. 6667Google Scholar).

41 See Table 1. For details of economic polarization at Chippenham, see Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, ch. 3, pp. 65 ffGoogle Scholar.

42 Whiteman, Anne, ed., The Compton Census of 1676: A Critical Edition (Records of Social and Economic History, ns 10 [Oxford, 1986], p. 231)Google Scholar.

43 Storey, Matthew, ed., The Diaries of Isaac Archer and William Coe (Suffolk Record Society, 36 [1994])Google Scholar, and idem, “The Diary,” chapter on Nonconformity.

44 See above, p. 385.

45 See above, p 394. Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 43-44, 139-42, 144Google Scholar.

46 Ibid., pp. 66-70.

47 We have actual surveyors' acreages for 1575 and the 1720s in Willingham, 1544 and 1712 in Chippenham. We have chosen to use customary acreages of the earlier/later dates, because error is always possible adjusting from customary to statutory acres on a large scale. Furthermore, I have used the acreages for Chippenham in my earlier publication, A Cambridgeshire Community, Chippenham from Settlement to Enclosure, Dept. of English Local History, Occasional Papers, First Series, no. 20 (Leicester, 1965)Google Scholar, Tables IV and VI, pp. 40 and 48, because they are more clearly set out in terms of acreages rather than yardlands. Dr. Takahashi unfortunately analysed the kinship links of the householders appearing in the 1712 map as if the same landed categories could be applied in Chippenham as in Willingham.

48 Spufford, , A Cambridgeshire Community, pp. 4648Google Scholar.

49 Ibid., ch. 3, pp. 76, 81, 84 (Thomas Dillamore), and pp. 81-87.

50 See above, pp. 383-84.

51 Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 72, 74-75, 80, 8990Google Scholar, for the Tebbutts, including the powerful Phillippa, née Kent.

52 Bury St. Edmunds R.O., IC500/1/136/82.

53 Spufford, , Contrasting Communities, pp. 69, 84Google Scholar (Table 3) for John Kent. Inventory of Mary Kent, widow, 1680, p. 65.

54 Bury St. Edmunds R.O., IC500/1/120/54.

55 Bury St. Edmunds R.O., IC500/1/133/29.

56 Bury St. Edmunds R.O., IC500/1/139/78.

57 In 1967 my husband wrote a powerful plea for the importance of lateral genealogy (Spufford, Peter, “Genealogy and the historian,” Genealogists' Magazine 15 [1967]: 431-47Google Scholar.) It is unfortunate that the family reconstitution forms used in parish reconstitutions by the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure do not allow for any lateral relationships, and therefore do not encourage awareness of them.

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