The Intriguing Details of Wills

Most seventeenth-century wills are dull and formulaic. Couched in dry legal prose, reflecting the standard religious commonplaces of the day, and primarily concerned with often fairly conventional transfers of land and goods, they tend to reveal little of the personality and beliefs of their author or the precise nature of the kinship and friendship connections that they sketch out. Nevertheless, there are occasionally puzzles, and intriguing details, and some are to be found in the Harrington family wills, notably those of Harrington’s sister Elizabeth Ashton and her husband the parliamentarian politician Ralph Ashton.

 Extract from the will of Sir Sapcoates Harrington. TNA: PROB 11/157/654. Reproduced with permission from The National Archives.

Extract from the will of Sir Sapcoates Harrington. TNA: PROB 11/157/654. Reproduced with permission from The National Archives.

Jewellery often figures prominently in wills, and one such item that appeared in Elizabeth Ashton’s will, dated 6 August 1684, was her ‘single Pearle Necklace’ which she left to her niece Elizabeth, the daughter of her brother William Harrington. This was by no means the only item of jewellery bequeathed by Elizabeth Ashton to a relative in her will and so it might not be thought worthy of any greater note, except for the fact that it is possible to trace its journey back through several family bequests. Elizabeth Ashton received this necklace from her sister Anne Evelyn. In Anne’s will, which was signed in November 1674 and proved on 2 February 1677, she bequeathed 'to my sister Ashton my Pearle Necklace forever’. The reason why the childless Anne chose to pass this particular item on to her sister, and indeed why Elizabeth - who also had no surviving children, her young son having died in infancy - then bequeathed it to her brother’s daughter, becomes apparent by examining Sir Sapcotes Harrington’s reference to the necklace in his will, in which he bequeathed it to Anne, his daughter. Sir Sapcotes’s will was written on 12 August 1629 and proved following his death in June 1630. By the time he died, Sir Sapcotes had seven children in total, four from his first marriage and a further three surviving children from his second. In his will he made clear that he expected his second wife to take good care of her own children and while he trusted that she would also behave in a motherly fashion towards his older children, he felt obliged to make some specific provisions and bequests to the children of his first marriage. These included passing on to them some of the treasured possessions of his first wife Jane Harrington (née Samwell) who had died in 1619. Consequently, he left to his eldest daughter Anne ‘one hart diamond rings and a necklace of Pearle, which was her mothers, as also the choice of one of the petticoats which was her mothers’. It is clear from these various wills that, whether for financial or sentimental reasons, it was important to Jane Harrington’s husband and children that that particular necklace remained within the family.

 Extract from the will of Dame Elizabeth Ashton. TNA: PROB 11/383/402. Reproduced with permission from The National Archives.

Extract from the will of Dame Elizabeth Ashton. TNA: PROB 11/383/402. Reproduced with permission from The National Archives.

Of course, in passing on family jewellery from one family member to another - even across several generations - the Harringtons were not particularly unusual. However, some of the other heirlooms that Elizabeth bequeathed to her relations were more unusual, and therefore provide a fascinating insight into the Ashton household and the interests and possessions of Elizabeth and her late husband. Alongside portraits of various aristocratic figures and family members, some alabaster Caesar's heads and a hanging candlestick, Elizabeth also explicitly referred to several items in the gallery of her house, the Rectory at Whalley in Lancashire. These included: ‘the great Elephants tooth the Whales tooth and all the other rarities in the said room’. Evidently she and her husband had collected quite a "cabinet of curiosities". Such phenomena were popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and would display a wide range of objects including natural curiosities, scientific instruments and works of art. [See O. Impey and A. MacGregor, eds, The Origins of Museums: The Cabinet of Curiosities in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Europe, London, 2001.] Moreover, Elizabeth was keen to preserve not just the collection of objects themselves, but also their particular setting and layout, which was itself part of her husband’s legacy. As she explained, it was important that her brother-in-law ‘the said Sir Edmund Ashton’, to whom she left the objects, ‘will carefully endeavour that they may be preserved as ornaments and Heir loomes to the said house in memory of his Brother that placed them there’.

 Codicil to Sir Raphe Assheton's will. TNA: PROB 11/362/546. Reproduced with permission from The National Archives.

Codicil to Sir Raphe Assheton's will. TNA: PROB 11/362/546. Reproduced with permission from The National Archives.

Interestingly, given Elizabeth’s evident concern for these objects, they are not mentioned at all in her husband Ralph’s will, which was written in August 1679, a year before his death. Rather, his concerns regarding his legacy were of a somewhat different character. Ralph’s brother Sir Edmond Ashton, who was to inherit the cabinet of curiosities, was also the recipient of Ralph’s entire library. Yet, having written his will, Ralph subsequently appears to have decided that additional provisions needed to be made, since the final version of his will was accompanied by a codicil. In that codicil Ralph referred to various notes and manuscripts that were kept in his library. Regarding the notes on divinity that he had made from various books and manuscripts during his lifetime, he expressed his desire that ‘some knowing and diligent Scholar’ might be employed to peruse these manuscripts and to arrange publication of anything ‘found in them worthy of Printing’. He also referred to: ‘my other Manuscript Books, or loose Papers of morality or any other subject’ which he wanted his brother to take into his custody to ‘carefully preserve and make use of them to his owne use’. Again these items were to be perused by the scholar, but this time Ralph’s concern was not with publication, but censorship. He continued: ‘whatever he finds in them light or scurrulous (as I doubt there is but too much,) for which the good Lord in his Mercie forgive mee for enterteyning such idle and sinfull things into my Librarie, I desire (I say) without more adoe, hee may doe mee that right as to burne them without imparting them to any whomsoever’. Of course, it is impossible for us to know what it was that Ralph Ashton was so concerned to suppress, but these comments provide us with a tantalising glimpse of the attitude of mind and pre-mortem concerns of a scholarly, but ultimately pious, seventeenth-century man. [I am grateful to my colleague Professor Jeremy Bolton for assistance in reading and interpreting the text of these wills.]