We’ve heard a lot about Will recently – William Shakespeare, that is. The 400th anniversary of his death has been a wonderful opportunity to celebrate his creativity and I very much enjoyed watching the ‘Live from the RSC’ performance (though unfortunately I wasn’t actually able to watch it live!).
Today, however, I was privileged to be able to view his will, as part of the exhibition ‘By me William Shakespeare, a life in writing’ at Somerset House, www.bymewilliamshakespeare.org/. This exhibition, which runs until the end of May, looks at the documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s life in London, from his share in the theatre company The King’s Men, his court testimony regarding some people he lodged with, through to his will which was proved in London in June 1616. His will, with various crossings-out and additions, shows how Shakespeare sought to provide for his two surviving children Susanna and Judith and their families. His sister and nephews and nieces were also included, as were friends and fellow actors and the poor of Stratford. Reading the transcript of the will I was slightly surprised to see wording which I have seen on much later wills from my own family. I suppose it shows that the legal terminology (“lawful English money”, “messuage or tenement with the appurtenances”, “All the rest of my goods, chattel, leases, plate, jewels, and household stuff”) stood the test of time.
The second will that I viewed today was that of Dr Samuel Johnson (who also, of course, has a connection with Shakespeare in that he edited ‘The Plays of William Shakespeare’, published in 1765). This was at his house in London www.drjohnsonshouse.org/ Without any direct heirs, Dr Johnson ensured that his loyal servant Francis Barber was a beneficiary, among other friends.
Having mostly ‘ag lab’ ancestors, I unfortunately have found few wills of my direct ancestors. However, when you do manage to track one down they can be such a blessing to a family historian in terms of working out family relationships, can’t they? I have looked at a number which have been helpful for being able to rule out the family connection in this way. And once you begin to get your eye in with the writing and begin to recognise the familiar legal language, wills can be surprisingly satisfying to read.
I would recommend searching The National Archives http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/wills-1384-1858/ , where wills up to 1858 can be downloaded for a small fee. You can also find wills on The Genealogist site www.thegenealogist.co.uk.
Where there’s a will, there’s a lot more information to add to the family history….