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Transcribing and Interpreting English Wills

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This is a help page for Transcribing and Interpreting English Wills. The masculine pronoun has been used throughout for the Testator for convenience and brevity, but all points apply equally to female Testators (Testatrices).
If you have any suggestions for additions, please leave a comment below.

Examples of transcribed wills and letters can be found on this page with links to the original documents for comparison.

Contents


What are you looking at?

  • Original Will: the document written by the testator or a scrivenor (a hired scribe). These are usually single pages, with non standard spellings, crossings out and ink blots. The signature (or mark) will be that of the testator and may often have a wax seal.
  • Nuncupative will: uncommon. These are the spoken wishes of the dying person written down, either at the time in the presence of two or more witnesses, or at a later date with the witnesses declaring this was a true record. It was written in the third person.
  • Copy Will: once the will was presented at the church court and proved, a copy was made in the court's register and the original will may have been returned to the Executor or disposed of. There was a "Probate" sentence (usually in legal Latin) of who administration of the estate was granted to, the relationship to the Testator and the date. These copy wills were transcriptions of the original, with the original spelling and punctuation but like any transcription there can be errors and omissions - you will often see these as inserted words or margin additions.
  • Will Abstract: an extract of the bare facts, usually a list of people and their main bequests. Abstracts are often seen in old genealogy and history books. An abstract may be found within a collection of family papers. The spelling and punctuation is the choice of the writer. It is better than nothing but you lose the nuance of the person's own voice, and small but potentially significant bequests may be left out.

How old is the will?

  • Late 19th and 20th century - usually typewritten
  • Post 1858 - will be a register copy in standard "secretary hand"
  • Before 1858 - the further back you go, the writing gets less recognisable as English. Letters have different shapes, spelling is non-standard, and punctuation is very rarely used. It is worth learning the nuances of the "squiggly writing". Some paleography (old writing) resources are listed below. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

What do you plan to do with it?

  • Transcription: a transcription is a faithful reproduction (as far as possible) of old handwriting into modern typewritten text. Spelling, punctuation, insertions and margin notes are all as they are in the original document. It can take several hours to type out, but gives you an accurate and faithful source to present as your evidence.
  • Abstract: you may not have the time or inclination to do a full transcription. An abstract can provide the salient facts as evidence for your profile person.

Reading the Will

  • Dates: When was it written? When was it proved? Was there a delay between the Testator's death and the will being proved? Is there evidence that the will was challenged?
  • Which court was it proved in? Before 1858 (when all Wills came under the auspices of the Government's Principal Probate Registry) wills were proved in Church courts. [6]
    • The estates of a Testator contained entirely with one archdeaconry was proved in the Archdeaconry Court.
    • If the estate spanned two or more Archdeaconries, but was in one diocese. the will was proved in the Diocesan court.
    • The Archbishop's Court of York (for the North of England) and Canterbury (for the South of England) were the superior courts for estates in more than one diocese.
    • If the estate was contained in both the North or the South of England or was of more than a certain value (originally £10 in London and £5 elsewhere), it was administered by Canterbury, which was said to have the prerogative to administer it (hence the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, or PCC) Wills of people dying abroad (sailors, merchants) and wills which were challenged were also administered by the PCC.

Opening Clause

  • Wills (especially older wills) were written to a set formula:
    • Opening: "In the name of God Amen" - this was not only a legal document but the Testator was making oath that this was a true and correct record of his wishes
    • Identification of the Testator and where he lived
    • The date it was written - often given as the Regnal year of the Monarch - see here for a Regnal Year calculator [7]
    • The Testator gave the state of his health, but always declared that he was of sound and perfect memory - a Will could be challenged if the person was thought not to be so. Persons considered insane were not allowed to make wills.
    • The older wills often have a declaration of the Testator's faith in the resurrection. This is a good section to get your eye in with the writing, as the wording is formulaic. Pre-Reformation wills have instructions for the prayers and masses to be said for the soul of the Testator.
    • If a will has no declaration of faith, consider whether this is the will of a Quaker. Quakers did not swear on the Bible or add religious phrases to their wills. [8]
    • The Testator would often nominate a parish to be buried in. If he asked to be buried within the church (usually in the Chancel) this indicates someone of standing in that parish, as it was costly and disruptive to dig up the floor. If he nominated a parish which was not the one he currently lived in, this shows an important and strong family tie to that parish.
  • Look for the word IMPRIMIS ("Firstly") as this is the start of the bequests. Imprimis is often written in larger lettering.
  • The word Item means this is a new bequest, and used as a full stop or paragraph break (which were very rarely used)

Relationships

Relationships often had other meanings than the obvious ones, especially in older wills

  • Brother can mean "husband of my sister" or it may be a honorary title such as a respected member of a Company or Guild
  • Sister can mean " wife of my brother"
  • Son can also mean "husband of my daughter" or step-son
  • Daughter can also mean "wife of my son" or step-daughter
  • Son-in-law / daughter-in-law may indicate step children
  • Belchild was an old term for grandchild. Belsire and Beldame are grandfather and grandmother respectively
  • Cousin can mean any close relative including nephew and niece
  • Gosshop / Godsib / Gossip, a person sharing a god-parent.
  • Servant: as well as the domestic servants (who were often rewarded for loyal service), servant can also mean a younger relation acting as an assistant to the Testator and learning the business.

Don't assume that if someone is not mentioned they are dead or have been "cut out" of the will. Older sons and married daughters may have already had their share of the estate.
A bequest of a trifling sum does not mean that the child was not loved, again it may mean they have already had their portion.
The exception is the omission of the name of a minor child which probably does indicate that the said child had died.

Titles

  • Sir most commonly refers to a knight or a Baronet, but was also a title given to a cleric who had not taken a university degree
  • "The Elder" and "The Younger" does not necessarily imply a father/son relationship. This can be used to identify older and younger holders of the same name in a parish. The person holding such title may change over time. The Elder is sometimes contracted to Thelder when written. Very rarely two children may hold the same name in a family and be identified as the Eldest and the Youngest.

Money

  • English money before 1972 was in Pounds (£ which is an L with a line through it) shillings (s) and pence (d)
  • There were 12 pence to a shilling
  • There were 20 shillings to the pound (one pound equalled 240 pence)
  • A mark was two thirds of a pound (13 shillings and 4d)
  • An Angel or Angel-Noble was a gold coin of variable value. In 1544 it was worth 8 shillings, in 1550 it was worth 10 shillings. It was abolished in 1663 and replaced by the Guinea. [9]
  • The Guinea was a gold coin worth one pound and one shilling (21 shillings) [10]

More about old English money and how it was written is here. [11]
This currency converter 1270-2017 from the National Archives shows how much a bequest was worth. [12]

Dates

  • Before 1752, the new year was on 25 March, so the number of the year turns over then.
  • This date (25 March) was also known as Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, sometimes written as Thannunciation. Other variations are the Feast of the Blessed Lady Mary, or the Feast of Saint Mary. Lady Day is the main day when bequests were often paid.
  • The other main payment day was the Feast of St Michael the Archangel (or Tharchangel, again running The into a word starting with a vowel) or St Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas on 29 September. [13]
  • The minor feast days for payments were the Feast of the Nativity (25 December) and the Feast of St John the Baptist (24 June)
  • Together all four feasts are known as the Quarter Days

The grant of probate or administration at the end of the will was written in Latin up to the mid 1700s. It starts with the word "Probatum" ("it was proved") and the date that probate was granted (usually written longhand) and who it was granted to. Look for the words Anno Domini - the day and month is written before Anno Domini, the year is written after Anno Domini. A very good crib sheet for dates in Latin is on the Nottingham University website. [14]

If you don't have a date of death or burial for your Testator, the date range is bookended by the date the will was written and when it was proved. This is most useful when the Testator declares that they are sick or dying and the date range is very narrow

Numerals

Roman numerals were often used for monetary values.

  • i is one
  • ij is two - note the long tail on the second i. It was common for the last i in a sequence to have a long tail
  • Similarly iij for 3, and iiij for 4 (note iiij often used for 4 rather that the classic iv)
  • v is five - often looks like a u
  • x is ten - often has a curly tail making it look like a p
  • l (small L) is fifty
  • c is one hundred.

Obsolete characters

  • Capital F was often written as ff
  • The old letter Thorn was the th sound and looked like a y
  • A fancy looking P was shorthand for the per, par, pur and pre syllable - used here in the word "parishe"
"the parishe church"
  • This is the character for the syllable for sur or ser, often seen in the word servant
Breviograph for the sound sur or ser
  • A wavy line over the top of a word meant that it had one or letters omitted - with practice you will come to recognise which ones. It is the equivalent of putting a full stop after modern abbreviations (we recognise Ltd. and Co. as Limited and Company)
  • Superscripts at the end of words also indicate omitted letters before the superscript.
  • A version of & was used - see here for several variations of this.

Closing clause

The Testator nominated one or more people to administer his will (the Executors) and may also have appointed an Overseer to ensure that the will was administered properly and as a source of advice for the Executor (especially if the executor was a woman).
He would sign the will and often added his seal. In copy wills this is indicated by the word "Seal" after the Testator's name.
A valid will was supposed to have two or more credible witnesses. These were often friends, family or servants, sometimes even the servant (assistant) of the scrivenor (indicated by the post nominal letters Scr - this can be mistaken for Snr or senior)

The practicalities of will transcription or abstraction

Read the will through first at least once to get your eye in with that person's handwriting and to note the beneficiaries.

If the will is very short (fewer than ten lines) it can be transcribed directly onto the person's profile page. Longer than this, make a dedicated Free Space Profile (FSP) for it.

Put a full source for the will, and links to the images if they exist online.
(Don't forget to add the ==Sources== and <references /> tags to the FSP to get the source to show)

Put the Terms and Conditions of your transcription at the beginning before the body of the text.
These will include the use of line breaks, paragraph breaks, punctuation, bold text, and handing of abbreviations and obsolete characters.
Once you have worked out your own T&Cs, you can copy them across from one will to another.
Sample T&Cs:
Spelling, punctuation and line breaks as per the original.
Paragraph breaks (at start of new bequest) and bold text are my own for ease of reading.
ff has been rendered as F, and ligatures and abbreviations have been expanded in [square brackets].

Everyone has their own techniques for transcription. It's best done on a large screen (or two screens).
One way is to have the image of the document open in the browser with the window occupying the upper half of the screen and to transcribe into Notepad (or equivalent text editor for Mac) in the lower half of the screen.
Transcribing programmes are also available. Transcript is one such free programme.

Replicate the line breaks of the original document in your transcription.
This will make it easier to see when you have missed a line, or when you need to go back to complete a word which you couldn't make out on the first pass.
Line breaks in edit view in Wikitree don't translate as line breaks in profile view.
To achieve this you will need to add <br/> at the end of each line - this can easily be done with copy and paste when you have completed the transcription.

Other useful WikiTree permitted text markup:
<sup> </sup> for superscript letters
<strike> </strike> for text crossed though

Bold text for names makes them stand out in a long will.

If you are going to expand abbreviations, use [square brackets]

Turn off any spell-check programme and predictive text.

An archaic spelling for a place name, or a word not used in modern English may need an explanation. Use the <ref> </ref> tags to make this a footnote.

Ask for help with any words you can't make out. Post a screenshot of the word with as much text as possible around it, or a link to the image itself.

Think you have finished? Read it through again in Preview view. Make sure that all formatting is working correctly.

Link the will to the person's profile and visa versa.

Long wills with lots of beneficiaries - make a list of persons and relationship to the Testator at the top of the page before the transcription. This example has over 60 people mentioned! Will of Mrs Jane Field 1640

Some wills have such arcane uses of words, abbreviations and spellings that you may considered making a separate translation into modern English after the transcription for ease of reading. Will of John Pethowse 1558

Ask someone for their feedback, especially if you found the transcription challenging or there were words you just couldn't make out.

Glossary of words used in wills

  • Testator (female=Testatrix) the person making the will
  • Will the document ordering the disposal of the Testator's real estate or property
  • Testament the document ordering the disposal of the Testator's personal property. Now used in conjunction, and synonymously, with the word Will.
  • Executor / Executrix male and female terms for the person who sorts out the disposal of the property after the Testator's death. Often, but not always a family member.
  • Letters of Administration: if a person died intestate (with no legally valid will) a person would be appointed the Administrator of the estate by the Court with Letters of Administration (or Admons).
  • Legatee a person who receives a legacy or bequest. A Residuary Legatee is the person who receives the residue of the estate after all the other legacies have been paid.
  • Messuage a property containing buildings and land
  • Appurtenances the things that are indivisible from the said land such as hedges, walls, rivers
  • Hereditament something which can be inherited. A corporeal hereditament would be something with substance such as land, an incorporeal hereditament would be something like a title.

An extensive glossary of archaic words used in old wills (especially household items) can be found at:

Sources

  1. A most excellent Paleography Tutorial from the National Archives, Kew, England Accessed 15 January 2022
  2. Cambridge University Paleography Course Letter forms Accessed 15 January 2022
  3. Brigham Young University Script Tutorial - comprehensive resource 1500-1899 - see the side bar on the left 16th Century writing Accessed 23 January 2022
  4. A very good primer for Secretary Hand written in the early 17th century. This is an instructional text of the time William Hill's notebook, Beinecke Library at Yale Accessed 27 March 2022
  5. A very good primer for Elizabethan lettering and styles Interpreting the Symbols and Abbreviations in Seventeenth Century English and American Documents; Ronald A. Hill (2013) pdf download
  6. Wills and Inheritance & Letters of Administration (Admons), pre-1858 Genguide.co.uk Accessed 18 January 2022
  7. Regnal Year calculator Accessed 15 January 2022
  8. If this was the will of a Quaker, this is a useful resource about the dates which may be contained in it. The Quaker Calendar which was different to the Julian and Gregorian calendars used in England and its Colonies. Quaker Calendar Guide published by The Society of Friends, London, England. Accessed 15 January 2022
  9. Wikipedia contributors, "Angel (coin)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Angel_(coin)&oldid=1048500212 (accessed January 18, 2022).
  10. Wikipedia contributors, "Guinea (coin)," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Guinea_(coin)&oldid=1057970404 (accessed January 18, 2022).
  11. Money University of Nottingham Manuscripts and Special Collections University of Nottingham Accessed 18 January 2022
  12. Currency Converter 1270-2017 The National Archive, Kew, England Accessed 19 January 2022
  13. Wikipedia contributors, "Michaelmas," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Michaelmas&oldid=1069519823 (accessed February 5, 2022).
  14. University of Nottingham, Manuscripts and Special Collections Latin numbers, words and phrases used for dates Accessed 24 January 2024




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The link to Transcription Services no longer works, there's a list of words here https://transcriptionservicesltd.com/old-words/
posted by Gill Whitehouse
Wonderful Stuff!

Perhaps a section on finding the wills.

posted by Lois (Hacker) Tilton
looks good - perhaps add the example for the numeral iiij (4: some might read it as 3, expecting iv ...)
posted by Jeremy Stroud