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The Collation

My True Meaning: emotions in seventeenth-century wills

Anyone who has read early modern wills, whether in an attempt to confirm the names of family members or out of interest in material history, knows that they are full of emotion. Dying men and women describe their family members as “dear” or “loving,” or sometimes, more sadly, as “undutiful” or “ungrateful.”  Friends are characterized as “trusty” and “well-beloved.” People express their religious fervor, attempt to have the last word in old quarrels, make appeals for raising children, and pass on specific items to specific people.

The last will and testament of Joane Blake of Minehead, Somerst, a widow who died in January of 1696, is fairly simple. Like most wills from this period, it opens with an expression of the dying woman’s faith. Joan bequeaths her soul “to Almighty God and to his Sone Jesus Christ my Saviour…” She requests that her body be buried in the Parish Church of Dunster, and that her Executor use his discretion to plan her funeral. Joan leaves specific bequests of household goods and money to different family members, and closes by appointing her son, William, as her Executor.

The Folger purchased this will in May of this year from Samuel Gedge, an antiquarian dealer in rare books, manuscripts, prints, and drawings. It is an administrative copy of Joan’s original will, and is tacked together with an inventory of her goods and a certificate of probate, which shows that her will was successfully “proved,” or certified as authentic by an ecclesiastical judge, who then allowed her next-of-kin to execute her final wishes. The copies of the will and inventory are on paper, while the certificate is a form printed on vellum bearing both a blue paper seal in the upper lefthand corner, and a large wafer seal attached at the foot.

These documents arrived as they have probably been stored for hundreds of years; folded up into a small packet, with the seal tucked safely inside:


Inheritance in early modern England usually worked one of two ways. A person either died without a will, or intestate, with their land and movable goods distributed equally among their widow and children (or among their siblings if they died single); or they made a will, in which they laid out their final wishes for who of their surviving friends and family was to receive what. Historians of legal practice are quick to note that most people did not make a will (estimates range from around 5-45% of the population, depending on location), and not everyone could make a will, even if they wanted to. Coverture, the legal state in which women found themselves after marriage, meant that married women had virtually no legal identity of their own—they were entirely absorbed into the legal personhood of their husband. Yet, married women did make wills (if their husbands allowed it), as did single women and widows.

In my work on seventeenth-century wills, historians have tended to characterize them as frustrating documents: simultaneously information-rich, but untrustworthy, filtered as they were through multiple layers of family, friends, scribes, and civil servants. Their formulaic nature, where much of the phrasing used in their creation is similar between one individual document and the next, means that many scholars view them as relatively interchangeable; varying only in terms of the items left and names. Emotional expressions have been viewed skeptically, and often dismissed as unlikely to be authentically reflective of the individual (nominally) writing the will. Researchers of writing in early modern England have unequivocally shown that much writing (whether letters, legal documents, or creative works) was usually collaborative and represents multiple creators, even behind a “single” author’s name. As literary historian Fran Dolan notes, “the “I” who speaks is often someone else.”

Wills are nevertheless fundamentally unique items, usually created during a time of intense pressure in a person’s life. We need to balance their formulaic phrasing against the way that early modern legal advice manuals continually underline one single criterion as most important in their creation: that the true meaning of the testator (the will-writer) was faithfully represented. Although formulaic phrases made it easier for professional scribes to write wills, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century authors such as William West, William Assheton, John Godolphin, and Henry Swinburne stress that “no man is tied to observe this or any other set form in the making of his will, for it [matters] not how it be drawn…” instead writing that “the Will and the Intent of the Testator is preferred before Formal or Prescript words.” Since there was so much choice within formulaic literature, small alterations therefore take on a new significance.

While we cannot read wills as an entirely faithful reproduction of what a testator or testatrix truly believed or felt, we can examine them, and their emotions, for what they tell us about which emotions and sentiments were important to people to perform at the time. We must remember that wills were public documents—likely read aloud at different points to different audiences during their creation and proving, and then in some jurisdictions, kept publicly available for consultation in probate offices. Words “written” by a testatrix thus echoed among her friends and family for years, as did her actions—how a will-maker was remembered could be compounded by the generosity, querulousness, or love they expressed.

Historians of emotion rightly point out that emotions are both physiological and internal—humans feel a bodily sensation internally, and translate it to others through facial expressions, bodily actions, and verbal statements. Historian of emotion William Reddy points out that stating an emotion often solidifies and compounds it for the person expressing it. Yet, what a physical sensation or state of mind means is highly situational: emotions, therefore, are both biological and socially contextual. Barbara Rosenwein, another historian of emotion, cites a study performed by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the 1980s, which showed that “faking it” really was, in some sense, “making it:” flight attendants, told to act pleasant and smile for their customers (regardless of their true emotional state) reported that they began to actually feel pleasant and happy after some time pretending.

Along with other historians of emotion, I take all of this to mean that we can interpret emotion in historical sources such as wills as containing a kind of truth, regardless of their so-called authenticity. It is impossible to know what historical people “really” felt (often even our own emotions are a mystery), but emotional expression has meaning and importance on a larger societal level, and sometimes, even on an individual one.

Joane Blake’s will is not unusually emotional, but half of it is made up of her profession of faith. Compared with other wills from the same period, it goes beyond the bare minimum, and includes phrases referring to “this mutable Life,” “the fruition of the Godhead,” and her sins and offenses. These are not extraordinary expressions for a seventeenth century English woman, but nevertheless, represent personal choice. Although anyone helping her to prepare this will would have had influence on how it was written, ideally, Joane would have been required to approve it as a faithful representation of her last words. Compared to other wills from the same period that open with either no such statement of faith or a very succinct version in one or two lines, we should be cautious in dismissing such formulaic literature as entirely unreflective of the testatrix. Intriguingly, the scribe copying this document has chosen to add an exclamation point after the phrase opening the will, “In the name of God, Amen!” I don’t know whether this exclamation point appeared in Joane’s original document, but it adds a particularly emphatic flavor to an opening that was almost always used with only a period, or no punctuation, in scribal copies.


In moving on to grant her bequests to family members, Joane leaves small gifts of money to her married daughter, Elizabeth, as well as to some of her grandchildren. How did she choose to distribute her property? Clearly she cared for the grandchildren she named, leaving them each specific coins. This is most likely based on her desire to leave some of her more economically valuable items to her kin, based on age and gender, but the presence of the inventory makes it a little more interesting. Although she owned twelve silver spoons, she only names three in her specific bequests—one goes to her granddaughter Susanna, along with a silver porringer (a small bowl), and two to her granddaughter Elizabeth. One of the spoons meant for Elizabeth is marked “N : B : J : Q :”. After a little digging, I uncovered that Joane’s husband was Nicholas Blake, while Joan’s maiden name was “Question.” What did it mean for her to specify that this spoon, in particular, should go to this granddaughter? While this could be simply a convenient method for identifying the spoon, perhaps it also meant something to Joane for this grandchild to have an item marked with her grandparents’ initials. The other unmarked, unidentified silver and gilt spoons Elizabeth and Susanna each received reinforces this interpretation. Joane leaves all her rings, a piece of gold, and clothing to her daughter Elizabeth, while the rest of her estate goes to her son, William. It was common for women to receive household and other moveable goods, while men received real estate, but perhaps we should consider what it meant for Joane to specify that her daughter received her rings and clothing. While she doesn’t describe items in specific detail, other testatrices and testators might single out their “lemon colored petticoat,” “a ring with seven stones,” or other specific items to leave to kin and friends.

Other will-makers close their documents with expressions of love and care, including phrases such as “not doubting of their love and care to see [my will] performed,” or “desiring her as she stands before the throne of Almighty God to be careful, loving, and tender to my son.” Joane lacks any such emotional statements, which is also information–for whatever reason, her will is devoid of these sorts of highly common expressions. Perhaps it wasn’t important to her to leave this sort of emotional inheritance to her family, or perhaps she expressed it to them herself, privately, in whatever manner was most meaningful to them. Joane also doesn’t leave any goods to charity, as many early modern will-makers did–while some seventeenth-century testators left elaborate instructions for money, goods, and food to be delivered to poor widows, children, and other “deserving” poor people, and even go so far as to ask the recipients to attend their funerals, Joane does not. The absence of emotion is also significant.

Even the most seemingly dry of wills can provide a wealth of information—on members of a family, material goods, and which emotions a testator felt it was important to include or not. Will-makers often made bequests (illegally) conditional, such as requiring their children or grandchildren “to marry with the good liking” of a surviving parent or grandparent. Some even, intriguingly, included statements such as one testator who cautions his children, “(as being noe Bastards) to live in love and unity and not to make any strife or difference one with an other and yet to be vigilent and carefull in lookeing after theire owne particular concerns.” Another explains the small bequest he leaves to a particular daughter by reproachfully describing how “shee have bin undutifull to my selfe and alsoe to her Mother before shee dyed.” An elderly wife, concerned for the fate of her husband, writes of her daughter over and over of the “the speciall trust and confidence by mee in her reposed,” repeatedly entreating her daughter to be mindful of her elderly father’s welfare.

In the inventory taken by Joane’s son-in-law, Nicholas Rowe, the last item accounted for really constitutes several items. They are not described individually, but rather, collectively as “things forgotten and out of sight.” He might well have been noting about the emotional inheritance Joane, and other early modern will-writers left to their surviving family; often hidden, veiled behind formulaic phrase and custom, but still present.

Sources Cited and Further Reading

Arkell, Tom, Nesta Evans, and Nigel Goose, eds. When Death Do Us Part: Understanding and Interpreting the Probate Records of Early Modern England. A Local Population Studies Supplement. Oxford: Leopard’s Head Press Limited, 2004.

Assheton, William. A Theological Discourse of Last Wills and Testaments. London: Printed for Brab. Aylmer, at the Three Pigeons against the Royal Exchange in Cornhill [1696]. 

DeBold, Elizabeth. “”According to My True Meaning:” Emotions and Will-makers in southern England during the Seventeenth century.” MA Thesis, UMBC, 2022. Forthcoming.

Dolan, Frances E. True Relations: Reading, Literature, and Evidence in Seventeenth-Century England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Erickson, Amy Louise. Women and Property in Early Modern England. London: Routledge, 1993.

Froide, Amy M. Never Married: Singlewomen in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Formby, Olivia. “The emotional evidence of early modern English plague wills.” Historical Research, Volume 94, Issue 266, November 2021, Pages 782–805,

Godolphin, John. The Orphan’s Legacy: or, a Testamentary Abridgment. London: Printed for Chr. Wilkinson at the Black Boy over against St. Dunstan’s Church in Fleetstreet, 1677.

Reddy, William M. The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511512001.

Rosenwein, Barbara H. Generations of Feeling: A History of Emotions, 600-1700. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Swinburne, Henry. A Treatise of Testaments and Last Wills. London: Printed by George Sawbridge, Thomas Roycroft, and William Rowlins, Assigns of Richard Atkins and Edward Atkins Esquires, 1677.

West, William. Symbolaeographia. 1590, 1592, and 1594.

Wills Referenced

Joane Blake, Folger Shakespeare Library, Fast Acc. 272250
William Boteler, The National Archives, PROB 11/363/547
Thomas Butler, The National Archives, PROB 11/297/250
Dorothy Clifton, The National Archives, PROB 11/336/409
William Hunt, The National Archives, PROB 11/300/150
Elizabeth Lovibond, The National Archives, PROB 11/377/371
John Percevall, The National Archives, PROB 11/352/396
Katherine Wicking, The National Archives, PROB 11/316/556


Excellent information from Elizabeth DeBold (Collation post, “Wills”).
Many thanks, Elizabeth, for close documentation & superb images.
Much useful information here for historians & other researchers.
Best wishes, MEM
Princeton Research Forum, NJ
Submitted 22 July 2022.

Maureen E. Mulvihill, Princeton Research Forum, NJ. — July 22, 2022