Wills: Introduction

Pages 98-101

Cardiff Records: Volume 3. Originally published by Cardiff Records Committee, Cardiff, 1901.

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In this section

Chapter V.


SOLEMN and religious was the act of making a testamentary disposition in ancient times. "First and principally," began the Testator, "I recommend my soul into the hands of Almighty God, my Creator and Preserver, and my body to the dust from whence it came." It was only after this pious expression of Christian resignation had been followed by bequests to the cathedral of his diocese and to the church and poor of his parish, that the Testator proceeded to formulate his wishes with regard to the rest of his property. It was therefore only natural that the business of proving Wills and granting Administrations was from time immemorial an affair of the Church, conducted usually by the Bishop, through his Chancellor and Surrogate. Not until 1857 was this power transferred from the ecclesiastical to the secular Courts.

The Wills and Administrations of persons dying within the Diocese of Llandaff (comprising the greater part of Glamorgan, the whole of Monmouthshire, and a few parishes in the adjacent counties) before 1857 were proved and granted at Llandaff city, and the records kept in the Probate Registry there. There they still remain, in a fireproof room, under the admirable care of Clement Waldron, Esq., the Registrar, and his chief Probate clerk, Mr. A. B. Thomas, to both of whom I am indebted for their unfailing courtesy and constant kindness in facilitating my prolonged researches among the Llandaff Wills. The earliest records were destroyed in a disastrous fire, many years ago. The present series goes back to the beginning of the 16th century, but is meagre in Wills of earlier date than the latter part of that century. The original Wills are arranged in bundles, according to the years. From 1695 onwards, the Wills and Administrations are copied in folio paper volumes, strongly bound in calf.

The Will or Administration of a person dying in any English or Welsh diocese might be proved and granted in the Principal Registry in London; so that many Cardiff Wills are to be found at Somerset House. I am only able to give a few of these.

There is no need for me to insist upon the importance of Wills to everyone interested in the history and antiquities of his country. Of all classes of records they are the most important for genealogists, and their value is hardly less to persons desirous of studying details of the daily life and domestic surroundings of our ancestors.

The materials for this chapter, though forming only a selection, are so voluminous that it would be impossible in my dissertation to call the reader's attention to even a tithe of the matter of peculiar interest which they contain. I therefore take a few points almost at random, by way of illustrating the character of the information to be derived from the Wills.

One thing which will at once strike the reader as a marked difference between Wills ancient and modern, is the minuteness with which the old ones dispose of personal effects. Lands were not originally disposable by Will, but passed to the heir. Hence the old Wills (unlike modern ones) deal largely with the disposition of such specific personalty as household furniture, beasts and agricultural implements.

Another characteristic of ancient Wills is the long preamble, setting forth the Testator's state of health, his sensibility of the certainty of death, his desire to dispose his temporal affairs while still physically able to attend to them, &c. The following may be taken as a sample of a preamble of this kind:—" I, A. B. of C., "being weak in body but of sound and disposing mind and memory (thanks be therefor given unto Almighty God), and mindful of the uncertainty of this transitory life and that I must soon appear before my just Judge to render an account of the deeds done in the body, do hereby make and formulate my Last Will and Testament in manner and form following, that is to say." Then follows the pious commendation of soul and body before referred to, and the bequests to religious purposes, and finally the disposition of the rest of the personal estate.

It will be found that these Wills are rich in interesting Welsh field-names, in references to obsolete articles of domestic use, and to long-forgotten habits, customs and modes of thought. "Beasts of the plough," for instance, were in those days only bullocks, and they were frequent objects of bequest. Very usual, also, was the practice of bequeathing a ewe and lamb to a female grandchild, or a measure of corn to a servant. The great cauldron which perpetually hung in the chimney of hall or kitchen, and was known in Welsh as crochan mawr, is often bequeathed as a sort of heirloom, under the designation of "my greatest iron crock," "my big cauldron," &c. The days of cawl or pottage having long since given place to the era of stewed tea, the crochan has been ousted by the spouted kettle. The last time I saw the venerable crock, it was rusting ignominiously in a farmyard in South Monmouthshire. Another ancient piece of furniture frequently met with in the Wills, is the great chest, hollowed out of a solid block of oak, commonly designated by its Welsh name prennol, or, more correctly, prenfol—literally "wooden bowl." Such a "trunk" is to be seen in the tower of Penallt church, near Monmouth.

Very interesting are the ancient Welsh names of persons, especially of women, to be met with in the Wills. I hope to refer to these more fully in connection with the Parish Registers; but I must not forget to call the reader's attention to the pet names of cows and horses—particularly of the former—which occur in some Wills. They are usually Welsh, even in East Monmouthshire, and contain allusion to some striking feature in the animal's appearance. One of the commonest of the cow-names is "Nebwen," i.e, gwyneb wen, white face.

Bequests of Welsh books are not so commonly met with as one could wish, but they do occur. Unfortunately they seldom refer to a book's title.

The best method of setting out the matter for this chapter presented some difficulty. After mature deliberation, I decided to marshal my extracts in strict chronological order, following the dates at which the wills were executed. In many cases the entire Will is given just as it stands but in many more I give only extracts—often one brief extract. It will be easily understood that it has not been possible to print more than a representative selection of the matter to be found, relating to Cardiff and the neighbourhood, among the local Wills. No attempt was made to supply a complete series, nor to give even an abstract of every Will.

I will stand no longer between the reader and the documents, and hope he will derive both pleasure and profit from this portion of the Cardiff Records.