Not so Silent Witnesses: hearing voices in early modern wills

It’s our pleasure to introduce the next post in the Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover, by Sarah-Jayne Ainsworth. Sarah-Jayne is an independent researcher working on early-modern death and women’s wills. Having completed her PhD in 2019, she has been working in professional services whilst trying to pursue her research interests. Find her on twitter @S_J_Ainsworth.

The portrait of Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside Making His Will (1607) depicts the subject writing his will in preparation for a good death. The date of his demise appears in the epitaph above his head; his acceptance of death is written in Latin on the paper beneath his pen. Beside him sits his friend, George Preston, who is there to witness the autographed document. There is an intimacy and silence to the scene. Thomas writes; George witnesses. In this picture, there is no discussion, no exchange: indeed, the word ‘witness’, with its connotations of seeing, excludes voices.

Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside Making His Will. Unknown Artist, Abbot Hall Art Gallery. Photo: Lakeland Arts Trust.

But will-writing scenes were not silent. Most of the population couldn’t write and so employed a scribe to produce the will, putting down their wishes in writing; witnesses would confirm that what was read back to them was what the testator had said. Often, we do not know who the scribe was; even when we do, the legal language and the finality of the document mean that the exchanges, conversations and negotiations which have taken place as part of its composition are hidden.

However, there are examples of wills in which these voices are foregrounded, illustrating the extent to which the scene depicted in Braithwaite’s portrait was far from typical. The presence of not only scribes but also other actors at the deathbed complicates the idea of a straightforward testator/scribe transaction.

Edward Restall of Bristol died of the plague in 1645.[1] His will was ‘made & playnelie declared in the tyme of his last sickness’ and written down later by an unnamed scribe. The act of ‘declaring’ the will is emphasised: Edward ‘spake and uttered’ and the scribe reproduced it apparently verbatim.  However, not content with mere reportage, the scribe also inserted himself into the will, offering clarification of Edward’s meaning:

I shall leave thee (speaking and meaning Marie Braugnell als Restall his daughter the wife of Richard Braugnell) in a good deale of trouble and pray god blesse thee, and enable the to get throw it, for God’s sake use a good conscience and let everie man have his owne due & god blesse the

Edward’s direct address to Marie suggests that she was at his deathbed, but she does not appear as a witness to it. Instead, that role falls to Margaret Holbrooke, Elizabeth Dickson and Elizabeth Prothorah whose signs appear at the bottom of the document.

The same women, plus Katherine Thomas, witnessed the will of Marie less than a month later when she too succumbed to the plague. Here, it is not just the scribe who is present in the text:

Being asked by Elizabeth Protheroh what she would doe with or how she would dispose of her fathers goods (meaning the said Edward Restalls goods) to whome the said Marie Braugnell answered I leave it to Richard Allen my father (meaning Richard Allen of the parishe of Temple aforesaid shorman, whome Manie tymes the said Marie would call father) to be my executor in trust to see my fathers will fulfilled & his creditors to have their due

The similarity of the parenthetical explanations suggests that the wills were written by the same man; the nature of the information implies a degree of intimacy with the family.

The inclusion of the different voices renders these wills polyvocal – Edward speaks directly to Marie; the scribe clarifies; Elizabeth Prothorah’s interrogation is reported; the scribe narrates; Marie’s words are quoted; the scribe interjects once more – resulting in wills which are dialogic and interactive, and more complex than a binary testator/scribe model. It reconstructs the exchanges which took place around the action of will-writing and (re)creates the scripts which the participants produced in the preparation of the document.

The process of making a ‘written’ rather than nuncupative, or oral, will is visible in that of Ellenor Woodward of Bristol.[2] This is a long and complex document, which ends with the usual statement ‘in witness whereof I the said Ellenor Woodward have […] put my hand and seal.’ However, at this point, the scribe – Robert Dean – has to enter the will. He acknowledges that he had taken instruction from Ellenor and had written her will from the notes that he’d made but that, before she could sign it, Ellenor had died.  As a result:

the said will was not read unto her nor did she put her hand or seal thereto but because we know that the said will was made and put in writing as aforesaid according to the said instructions and notes given by the said Ellenor and taken by the said Robert Deane in our presence as afroresaid we testify the same to be the last will and testament of the said Ellenor Woodward

Dean is forced to make an appearance to explain the process of writing in order to confirm its legitimacy. He draws the witnesses in with him, segueing from the third-person singular, to the first-person plural as ‘Robert Dean notary public’ becomes the ‘we who had signed the will’. The witnesses’ engagement in the process is foregrounded by the scribe, describing the steps that had been taken in order to render the document legally binding, making transparent the role which was more generally hidden behind the witness’ name, or mark, at the end of the page.

The choice of witnesses might give us information about the testator’s social and kinship circles, but the signs, signatures and names which appear at the end of wills mask the extent to which other actors present at the will-making were involved in the process. Rare though these examples might be, they do give a tantalising hint of the exchanges that are lost in the legalese and help reanimate a silent scene.


[1] Bristol Archive FCW1645/3/23. Marie Restall’s will is on the same page.

[2] The National Archives, PROB11/167/506

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