Wednesday, 13 April 2016

‘Till death us do part’?: marriage, love and wills in the Archbishops' Registers

When David Cressy examined aspects of marriage in Tudor and Stuart times, he asked whether or not love played a part in courtship and marriage then (1). Unlike other historians, such as Laurence  Stone, he considered that love was fundamental to marriage in that era and in support of his argument cited one Stuart source which stated that ‘to the end that marriages may be perpetual, loving and delightful betwixt the parties, there must and ought to be knitting of hearts before striking of hands’(2).

So is it possible to discover the affection in which an Elizabethan testator held his wife from the wording of his will? Perhaps, judging from wills being examined in the ‘York’s Archbishops’ Registers Revealed’ project. A project generously supported by the Marc Fitch Fund is currently indexing the Archbishops' Registers for the period 1576-1650, and much of the content for this period consists of probate records, largely for beneficed clergy.

Take, for instance, the will of Charles Daintith (1557-1595), vicar of Kirk Ella, 1591-5, made shortly before his death (3). He mentioned his wife Isabel several times in strikingly loving terms, which do not seem to be merely formulaic, as ‘Isabell Jepson my beloved freind and my true and lawfull wief now by the lawes of this Realme established’ and ‘Isabell Jepson my welbeloved wief’.

'my beloved freind'
He left the residue of his estate to his ‘beloved wief’ and made her his executrix on one condition, which was ‘desiring as there was ever true love betwixt her and me ... that she will not forgett at hir ending if she keep hir so long unmaried my brother Gabriell and his children and my sisters children’.

Was this the same experience for all? Perhaps not, and the will of Barnabie Shepherd (d. 1588) may be a case in point (4) This was a nuncupative will, spoken before witnesses who recalled:
‘Memorandum that the Fyftenthe day of Februarie in the yeare of our Lorde God one thowsande, fyve hundrethe eightie seven, accordinge to the course and computacioun of the churche of Englande Barnabie Shepperde, bachelour of devynytye and parson of Bulmer, of the dyoces of Yorke being of perfecte mynde and memorye, and being asked and desyred to knowe to whome he woulde dispose or gyve his goodes, whether to his Wyfe, (meanynge Brygett Shepperde then his Wyfe) or not Annswered and sayd, yea to his wyfe, or the like wordes in effecte, in the presence of Fraunces Layton and Josias Fawether.’
So was he in pain or just bad-tempered or were relations between him and his wife less than loving?

'yea to his wyfe'
We will never know!

Are these just two examples at either end of the spectrum of marital affection or are there many others waiting to be discovered as work progresses? Watch this space!

Helen Watt
Marc Fitch Project Archivist


(1) David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997), pp. 260-3.

(2) Ibid., p. 262, citing from John Dod and Robert Cleaver, A Godly Forme of Houshold Government (1630).

(3) BIA, Register 31, fol. 132 v, entry 2, Will of Charles Daintith, vicar of Kirk Ella, made 24 June 1595, proved 3  October 1595; Alumni Oxonienses; Clergy of the Church of England database (CCEd), available at

(4) BIA, Register 31, fol. 105 v, entry 1, Will of Barnaby Shepherd, Rector of Bulmer, made 15 February 1588, proved 14 March 1588; Alumni Cantabrigienses; CCEd.