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Helmdon Historical Articles


1603 - 1760
an article by Edward Parry
In this essay I shall examine the variety of information that can be derived from the wills made by the inhabitants of one Northamptonshire village over a period of approximately one hundred and sixty years. I hope to demonstrate the wide range of subjects which can be illuminated by a close study of the wills and also to show how these documents can contribute to our understanding of general historical problems.

The village of Helmdon is in South Northamptonshire, just over four miles from Brackley and eight from Banbury. It was thus within relatively easy reach of two market towns but not so close that its economy was subordinated to either. No turnpike road came through the village and until the railways provided Helmdon with two stations in the nineteenth century the main route which influenced the village was the drovers' road known as the Welsh Lane. However this road passed through the southern part of the parish, keeping to the higher ground and so avoided the centre of the community.

In 1700 the population of Helmdon was approximately four hundred.1 The composition of this society can be indicated by noting the pattern of land ownership. Bridges refers to three manors existing in the sixteenth century 2 and subsequently no one landowner emerged as dominant. There were forty-one freeholders in 1730 of whom thirty-one were resident in the village.3 The Inclosure Award of 1759 shows that five proprietors owned over a hundred acres each, three held between fifty and a hundred acres, while more than a third of the land enclosed was in the hands of thirty-five people. These figures reveal a society where wealth was spread more evenly than may have been the case in other rural communities. The economy of the village and surrounding area was based primarily on agriculture. The most important non-agricultural activity was stone quarrying though the quarries appear to have declined in importance during the eighteenth century. By modern standards the village provided a wide range of skills and services.

The period chosen for this study covers the century and a half before the Inclosure Act of 1758. How representative of this society are the wills under consideration? The number used for this article is ninety-three.4 When one considers how many people lived and died in Helmdon during the years 1603 to 1760 then ninety-three may seem too small a quantity on which to build a convincing picture of the village. However, I think that the diversity of testators and their bequests do provide an important, if incomplete, source of evidence and that their analysis can contribute much to our understanding of the community.

The wills can be classified first according to the rank or occupation of the testators. The largest category are the twenty-four made by yeomen. Six or more were left by the following groups: husbandmen (11), widows (11), masons (6), and labourers (6). Apart from four gentlemen the remaining wills reflect the typical village society of the time including tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, bakers, a butcher, blacksmith and maltster. Six wills contain no mention of the occupation of the testator, but as in the case of widows, it is sometimes possible to deduce the source of their income either from the contents of the will or by using other documents, particularly inventories.

Arguably, the high proportion of wills made by husbandmen and their superiors means that we are dealing with the more affluent members of the society and so are in danger of creating a distorted picture of seventeenth century Helmdon. Two points can be made to counter this criticism. The number of people entirely dependent on farm labouring was not as large as it became towards the end of the eighteenth century. Second, one should not necessarily take people on their own estimation; the distinctions between labourer, husbandman and yeoman appear less rigid when the evidence of their testaments is examined. The one social group who are not represented by the wills are servants, although in two cases they are legatees.

Before commenting further on the nature of this rural society a few examples of the contents of wills should be considered. When examining the bequests and how far they reflect the wealth of the testator one problem immediately arises. Many people left land, freehold or leasehold, but did not always specify the area or the value of this land. For this reason the following examples concentrate on monetary bequests.

In 1652 George Browne, gentleman, left his only daughter Elizabeth 450 as well as property in Helmdon. John Fairbrother made his will in January 1727 and after leaving his property to his eldest son gave his four daughters 200 each. The three daughters of Edward Harriott were to receive 600 between them under the terms of their father's will made in 1701. At the other end of the social scale, we find that the tailor Adkins Green left 24/- between his five children. Even so they were better off than the children of the husbandman Nicholas Sanders who received only 12d. each. In 1696 the widow Bull could leave her two sons only a shilling each. These examples indicate the enormous variation in disposable money available to the testators and thus seem to reinforce the model of a very unequal society. However, there are many wills which show that social status and wealth were not so rigidly linked.

Yeomen ranged in affluence from George Harriatts who in 1665 left his six children 105, to Edward Hill whose children were promised 12d. each in 1648. Some husbandmen could afford to be much more generous than Edward Hill. For instance, in 1609 Robert Denny bequeathed freehold property and over 20 in cash; he also made provision for two servants, though admittedly both were his relatives. Over 60 was left by Edward Elkinton in 1666. The case of John Rookes who died in 1634 deserves comment. In 1621 he was a beneficiary by the will of Joyce Emeley who described him as "my old servant" and in consideration of his long service he was given two of her best "milch kyne", six sheep and various agricultural and household implements. When John made his will he describes himself as a husbandman and left most of his property to his wife Catherine. She died five years later and her will detailed household possessions which reveal a standard of living comparable with that of many yeomen.

The use of the terms yeoman and husbandman over the whole period is revealing. In the seventeenth century an equal number of people - eleven - describe themselves as yeomen or husbandmen. After 1700 no wills of husbandmen survive yet thirteen testators refer to themselves as yeomen. This evidence of social improvement is supported by comparing wills made by members of the same family in different generations. Edward Elkinton, the husbandman referred to earlier, had three sons, the youngest of whom made his will in 1687 when he described himself as a yeoman. In 1672 Richard Pullen, husbandman, divided his property between his sons Joseph and Benjamin. The latter died fifty years later a yeoman. Moving a rung up the social ladder the same tendency is apparent. George Browne, the prosperous gentleman who died in 1652 was the eldest son of John Brown, a yeoman whose will is dated 1619. Do these instances represent real social mobility or merely the aspirations of socially conscious testators? One further example poses the same question in another form. In 1658 John Pratt, yeoman, shared his property between his sons John and William. The eldest son died in 1699 making a nuncupative will in which he is described as a husbandman. Did the exigency of his sudden death prevent him claiming the status of yeoman and result in him being downgraded by his more hard-headed contemporaries?

Farm labourers whom one would suppose had very little money or property to dispose of provide some interesting examples. Of the six labourers whose wills have survived, five left monetary legacies. In 1627 Leonard Tue left his three sons 50 between them and even his executor was to receive ten shillings. Six years later William Hawten bequeathed over 60 in cash. Two other labourers in the 1690s left 24 and 20 and the lowest sum among the five was the 6.5s.0d. of Richard Haynes in 1656. Where did this money come from? According to Gregory King the yearly income of labouring persons in 1688 was 4.10s.0d. and he calculated that they were a drain on the country's resources.5 The figures given in the Northamptonshire Wage Assessments of 1667 6 can be used as a basis for comparison and they seem to agree with King's results. For a man from this class to leave his children a sum five or even ten times his annual income seems unlikely if not impossible. The whole question of the resources and living standards of the labouring populations needs considerably more investigation before reliable generalisations can be made.

Fig I. Helmdon Rectory (now demolished). Drawn in 1844 by J. Livesey
Fig I. Helmdon Rectory (now demolished). Drawn in 1844 by J. Livesey

Another fact which suggests that the bulk of the population were better off than is sometimes supposed is the number of people who had more than one source of income. Frequently testators bequeath legacies which are not directly related to the occupation they claim. The shoemaker Marke Hilton in 1631 left "land in the Fields" and "one cowe and a common for the said cowe". In 1641 John Bull, a blacksmith, left his son half a yard land in the open fields. More surprising is that in 1718 Paul Peers, a tinker, disposed of a close and half yard land that he had recently purchased. A shepherd in 1696 left a quartern of land to his wife in trust for their eldest son.

The same diversity of resources is illustrated by the masons who often owned land, thus supporting the comments made by Sir William Coventry in about 1670. He wrote that few building craftsmen "rely entirely on their Trade as not to have a small Farm, the Rent of which they are more able to pay by the gains of their trade".7 The farm know today in Helmdon as Wigson's was originally part of the property of a prosperous stonemason, Joshua Wigson, who died in 1740.

Helmdon provided stone for many famous houses in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Easton Neston, Blenheim and Stowe all drew on the local quarries. It is not surprising therefore to find that masons come next to gentlemen and yeomen in the richness of their bequests. John Stockley's legacies amounted to 120 in 1714, in 1735 Joshua Wigson left 95. A direct link with work on a great house is provided by Francis Blincowe's will of 1741. Part of the 100 worth of monetary gifts he made was, "20 out of ye Lord Cobhams money which is to be paid when the work is accomplished". This 20 went to his son Nathaniel, also a mason, who presumably carried on his father's work. The Lord Cobham referred to was the builder of Stowe.

Apart from providing for their immediate family and relatives a number of Helmdon people did make some charitable bequests. Fifteen of the ninety-three testaments made such provision. The gifts range in generosity from the 3/- which William Barzey left in 1625 (a shilling of which was to be spent on repairing the church and the remainder was to go to the poor of the parish) to William Wigson's gift of 5 to the village poor. When these charitable donations are analysed further two interesting points emerge. All except two date from before 1701 and ten of the fifteen occur between 1603 and 1640; this is the period of which Professor Jordan remarks "the curve of charitable giving lifts with a really incredible steepness".8 A second feature of these gifts is the noticeable change in the aims of the donors during the seventeenth century. The church was the beneficiary of nine legacies but they all date from before 1630. After this it is the poor whose welfare is the concern of the testators. This pattern agrees with the nationwide trends described by Professor Jordan.9 The shift in the objects of charity occurred when it is clear that the church was greatly in need of financial assistance. The Diocesan Survey of 1637 includes a depressing account of the state of Helmdon Church. "The chancell is very defective in the roofe and lyeth open and two windows on the north side of the chancell stopped up for the most pt "

The lamentable condition of the church might have been remedied if there had been a wealthy, dominant family in the village. The absence of such a prominent landowner has been noted earlier and though this may have resulted in a more homogeneous society, the village did not benefit from the lavish charities that did so much to improve the amenities of many seventeenth century towns and villages. Abthorpe, five miles to the east was fortunate because Jane Leeson who left 1 p.a. to the Helmdon Poor, endowed a free school in her native village.*
*She died in 1648, luckily too soon to appreciate the irony of the inscription on the datestone of her Free School: "Feare God and Honour ye King 1642".

The accounts of the Overseers of the Poor 10 for the early eighteenth century provide lists of the recipients of the Leeson charity. In 1722 nine of the twenty beneficiaries were widows and five of the remainder were women. The poor widow must have been a common problem for both relatives and village authorities. The wills reinforce this impression when one counts the number of instances where wives survived their husbands. Seventy-seven testators out of the total ninety-three were or had been married, in only thirteen cases did the husband survive his wife.

So far I have concentrated on monetary bequests but of course many wills contain references to a wide variety of goods and chattels. Some give as detailed a list of household possessions as many inventories and so provide much information about furniture, cooking utensils, farm implements and stock. Few people were rich enough to leave their son "my grete gilded silver salt seller" as Joyce Emeley did in 1621. However this was an appropriate gift from the widow of the lord of one of the village's three manors and a daughter of the late Thomas Godwin, Bishop of Bath and Wells. More common are references to "pewter platters", "ye great cettle", "one brasse pott". Particular items of furniture are often specified. Vincent Shortland in 1639 bequeathed to his wife "household stuff" including "one red chest standing at my beds foot". In the early eighteenth century Vincent's descendant Elizabeth Shortland inherited "the chest called Bragby's chest". Perhaps the original owner of this chest was the Henry Bragby who made his will in 1666 when he left "halfe my cheese" to be divided between his wife and daughter. Fortunately for his heirs, Henry died just over a month after making this unusual bequest. The same man left his wife "my little pide cow" which with the "colly ewe" and the "red cow" of Richard Shortland evokes a countryside more colourful than today's.

Among the rarest household possessions mentioned are books. Katherine Haynes left a Bible to her kinsman Thomas Pomfrett in 1700. Ten years later Henry Haynes bequeathed "my great bible and one shilling" to his daughter Susannah. However, there is no proof that these two testators were related and that the Bible in question was the same one. The only other literary bequest was made by Martha Richards. It was appropriate that as the Rector's widow she left her daughter Dorothy three volumes including, "Enlarged the grounds of Religion". Martha's legacy to her grang-daughter Sara Crofts, "The Returning Backslider" by Doctor Gibbs, was probably received with less than wholehearted enthusiasm.

Fig II. Priory Farm, Helmdon; the home of the Emilys.
Fig II. Priory Farm, Helmdon; the home of the Emilys.

The rarity of books among the legacies leads to a consideration of the question of literacy. One of the advantages of wills as an historical source is the number of people involved with each document. Apart from the principal there are the witnesses whose signatures or marks were required to make the will legal. An analysis of the proportion of persons who signed their names to those who made a mark can be a useful guide to the standards of literacy at the time.

Obviously, the fact that a man signs his name is not conclusive proof of his ability to write or read, it only proves that he was capable of writing his own name on that particular occasion. Some signatures look like the result of much anxious and not always successful practice. A few testators were too weak to manage their signature and their mark can give a misleading impression of their ability to write. Nicholas Sanders made two wills, the first in 1662 which ends with his signature, the second of 1664 includes his mark. Bearing in mind this precautionary example we can examine the wills for evidence of literacy. Of the ninety-three wills, ten give no evidence of signatures or marks, fifty-three were completed with the testator's mark and the remaining thirty were signed. It is not surprising to discover that all four gentlemen were able to sign their names. By this criterion five of the six masons were literate, probably because their jobs involved communicating and negotiating with people beyond the village. The only real surprise is that whereas only one of the eleven husbandmen avoided using his mark, two of the six labourers signed their wills. This evidence can be presented another way to see if there is any change in the rate of illiteracy over the period.

Total wills with evidence of literacy
Marks as % of total
1603 - 1652
1653 - 1704
1705 - 1760

The improvement in literacy in the eighteenth century is also borne out by an analysis of marriage certificates in Helmdon. Between 1760 - 1770 only 35.5% of marriage partners used a mark. Investigations in other parts of England support the idea of a general decrease in illiteracy at this time but as yet the evidence available is fragmentary.11 The endowment of a school in Helmdon, the result of a donation from a former rector in 1723, should have helped to raise the standard of literacy by the middle of the century. Only one Helmdon testator made any provision for the education of his children. In 1672 the husbandman Richard Pullen arranged that his fifteen year old son Benjamin was to receive a year's "diet and scooleing". Whether or not as a result of this tuition, Benjamin was capable of signing his name on his will fifty years later.

Moving from the ends to the beginnings of the documents we find that the preambles provide clues about the changing attitudes of testators. A typical seventeenth century introduction can be taken from the will of Henry Bragby made in 1666. "In the Name of God Amen .. I Henry Bragby .. being sick and weak but of sound and pfect memory God be praised for ye same and calling to minde the uncertainty of this present transitory life .. do make this my last will and testament in maner and forme as followeth that is to say first and principally I comend my soule into the handes of God my Creator Beeleiveing that I shall receive full pardon and free remission of all my sins by ye precious death and merrits of Christ my redeemer ...". Sometimes the testators belief in their redemption was expressed even more clearly. Marie Burrowes in 1614 referred to, " .. the electe of God of which number I doo steadfastly believe myself to be one". By 1697 the opening formula was considerably reduced as William Gilkes' testament shows, ".. I William Gilkes the elder .. Being Weake of Body but of Sound Memory God be praised for the same, doe make Constitute and Ordaine this my last Will and Testament in maner and forme following, that is to say, first comend my soul into the hands of Almighty God my Creator my body to the earth decently to be buryed " The increasingly secular tone of the documents continues into the eighteenth century and by 1760 the brevity of Josiah Bonham's introduction provides a striking contrast with those used a hundred years earlier. "In the name of God Amen I Josiah Bonham weaver do make publish and declare this my last Will and Testament in Manner following ".

Another change in the organisation of wills involves the appointment of Overseers whose principal duty was to adjudicate on any disputes between the legatees. In some cases they acted as trustees. Overseers are nominated in twenty of the ninety-three wills and all but two of these occur before 1700.

Finally these documents can help the local historian by providing evidence, sometimes disconcertingly allusive, about the topography of the area. The "Carpenders Close" which John Stockley bequeathed to his son Robert in 1714 can be identified on the Inclosure Map. In 1619 John Browne authorised one of his sons to take "twenty spires" of wood out of "Westerne Hills" to be used for repairing some farm buildings. The whereabouts of "Westerne Hills" is made clear in another will. Browne's property later came into the possession of Thomas Tyte, a London merchant, a copy of whose will survives at Worcester College, Oxford.12 Tyte refers to, "my coppice called Westerne Hills at Syresham". An interesting piece of information about a nearby village is contained in Christopher Smith's will of 1658.

Fig III. Helmdon Churchyard: Edward Harriot's Gravestone
Fig III. Helmdon Churchyard: Edward Harriot's Gravestone.

He left his son a recently purchased messuage in Charelton (Charlton), "called by the name of a chappell". These examples incidentally illustrate two other points, first a considerable amount of property was changing hands during the 1603-1760 period. At least thirteen of the wills refer to purchases of land or houses bought by the testator and in some cases there are two or more transactions. Sometimes the property concerned was not in Helmdon and this often results in the sort of topographical information about another parish noted above. If Helmdon Wills provide useful information about Charlton or Syresham then the reverse will be true. Obviously a great deal of undiscovered or uncollated information is contained in the thousands of wills relating to this or any other locality.

It is possible to connect certain features of the present day village to the wills and their makers. Very few of the same families survived into the middle of the twentieth century but some of the same names appear as field or house names today. It is tempting, but difficult, to identify some of the buildings mentioned in the wills. The Emilys who were the most important family in Helmdon during the seventeenth century occupied what is now called Priory Farm. The house must have been larger three hundred years ago when it possessed twelve hearths. 13

One obvious place to search for tangible evidence of our testators is among the tombstones in Helmdon Churchyard. Unfortunately the practice of erecting permanent memorials seems to have been uncommon before 1700. However, the gravestone to Edward Harriott is a fitting memorial to a prosperous yeoman and also to the skilled carving of a mason working in the local stone.

This article has covered diverse topics and more questions than answers have been offered. This is both deliberate and unavoidable. Much further research into the records of village communities needs to be done before satisfactory solutions can be offered to the major problems especially those involving relative wealth and poverty. I hope that the points I have raised will stimulate others to undertake similar investigations when they realise that wills provide much more than a tedious recitation of bequests and legacies.

1. This figure is based on calculations made from the following sources:
(a) The Compton Census 1676
(b) Hearth Tax Returns 1669/70
(c) J Bridges' History of Northamptonshire, 1791, Vol. I, P 172.
(d) Levies made by the Churchwardens in the early eighteenth century.

2. Bridges op. cit. Vol. I. P 172

3. Northants Poll Book. 1730

4. With one exception all the wills referred to are at the N.R.O. 1603 is an arbitrary starting date but it is convenient since W P W Phillimore's index to Northants Wills begins a new series at this point, it also meant that the period covered and the documents involved were of manageable proportions. In all cases the dates given for wills refer to the making not the probate of the testament.

5. Printed in P. Laslett. The World we have Lost. (1965). Pp 32-3

6. Northampton Wage Assessments of 1560 and and 1667 by B.H.Putnam in Economic History Review. Vol. I. No.1

7. Brit. Mus. Sloane Mss. 3828, f208. I owe this reference to Dr. M.R Airs

8. W.K. Jordan. Philanthropy in England. 1480- 1660. (1959)

9. W.K. Jordan. The Charities of Rural England. 1480-1660. (1961) especially pp. 33-71 where he deals with the neighbouring county of Buckingham.

10. Bodleian Library, Oxford. Mss. Top. Northants d.10

11. On the problem of assessing literacy, see P.Laslett, op.cit. pp. 194-199

12 . Worcester Coll. Box 13 Helmdon. Copy of the will of Thos. Tyte. 20 Jan. 1691

13 Hearth Tax Returns. Michaelmas 1662. - Microfilm at N.R.O.
Taken from Northamptonshire Past And Present Vol. VII, No.3, 1975, p. 235-241
Kindly typed by Judy Cairns.


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