12.04.17, Woolgar, Testamentary Records of the English and Welsh Episcopate, 1200-1413

Main Article Content

Paul Martin Remfry

The Medieval Review 12.04.17

Woolgar, C.M.. Testamentary Records of the English and Welsh Episcopate 1200-1413: Wills, Executors' Accounts and Inventories, and the Probate Process. The Canterbury and York Society. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2011. Pp. lvii, 360. ISBN: 978-0-907239-74-1.

Reviewed by:
Paul Martin Remfry
Strategic Castle Studies (SCS Research and Publishing)

This hardback book is excellently bound and typeset. The opening "Editorial Note and Conventions" rapidly explains the purpose and sensible methodology of the work, which is divided into two parts after the introduction. First comes an account of all probate documentation of each bishop arranged by diocese and referenced to published sources. This shows what survives of their testaments and related documentation. The bulk of the book is then devoted to printing the previously unpublished probate material for each bishop in alphabetical order. This consists of the fully transcribed texts of any surviving wills and other related material.

The author sets out by intelligently discussing the real problems of the texts and this, to my mind, opens the question of what a primary source actually is: some of the documents transcribed here are originals, but most are copies and this opens up the hoary old question of how accurate these copies were and when they were made. In transcribing the documents the editor decided to expand all the original contractions and keep the original spellings of place names "so that this volume can serve as a basis for linguistic as well as for historical research" (ix)--a laudable aim.

The introduction expands on the book's purpose--"to tell about how these prelates lived their lives...and customs of medieval life and death" (xvii)--and explains how this is to be done by viewing the probate material as a corpus, as well as collating the published references for each bishop.

The arbitrary commencement date of 1200 was chosen for the start of the book on the grounds that only one will survives before that date, although a handful of references exist to others. To me this cut-off point seemed an omission, and an appendix to list these missing known wills from the earlier period would have been valuable, although several of these were further examined in the introduction (p. xxi ff.) and mention was made of others in the brief résumé of each see. The later cut-off point (1413) was usefully chosen as a time after which most wills have been previously published. The value of the work again comes out in the statistics: of the 285 bishops who died in this period, only 74 have left surviving wills, of which over a quarter were previously unpublished. There are also 21 sets of executors' accounts and inventories, of which (again) over a third are now published for the first time. These factors alone make this book a much welcome addition to the published medieval corpus of original documents.

There is an interesting discussion of when a bishop was allowed to make a will and what he was allowed to distribute. This reveals distinctly different usages in England, Scotland and pura Walia. The difference was apparently due to the kings of Scotland and the princes of North Wales not allowing their bishops the right of will- making. A similar situation may well have existed in England in the first few generations after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The story uncovered, of the changing relationships between the Crown and the executors of the bishops' wills during the reign of Henry III, proves fascinating reading (xxvi). The leeway that the king allowed executors is intriguing and emphasises the very non-static nature of the Middle Ages. The various wills repeatedly reinforce that practices were not standardized and variety was the spice of medieval life. From at least the time of Archbishop Hubert Walter (d. 1205), some bishops regularly updated their wills: according to the unreliable Ralph Coggeshall, Hubert updated his every summer for the last seven years of his life (7). Conversely, other bishops of the thirteenth century made only one will, sometimes years before their deaths. Yet others only made wills on their deathbed and some apparently did not bother at all. The Middle Ages was truly a time of individuals.

An interesting occurrence that should be a warning to all historians concerns the will of Bishop Walter de la Wyle of Salisbury, dated 25 June 1269 (xxx-xxxi). This had a list of witnesses attached and would have been unremarkable apart from the fact that it led to a lawsuit. During the course of this John Middleton, the succentor of Salisbury, stated that he had written the will for the bishop and he affirmed that the bishop had confirmed the will to be his and had it sealed in the presence of many. Master Stephen Grunville, the precentor of Salisbury, claimed that one of the witnesses to this was Master William de la Wyle, a canon of Salisbury. William later came forward, however, and denied having been there, although he agreed with the depositions made out in the will. A clerk, John Bosco, then came forward and stated that the bishop had instructed him to write down the date and the names of the clerks and household members present when the will was sealed. It is a pity that the original will has not survived. Quite likely all document sealings were variations on this theme and this leads me to wonder how many documents that have been challenged as forgeries due to the irregularities in the witness list may have included people who were thought to have been there "in spirit."

The introduction then proceeds through the processes that occurred after the will was made, through the testament being proved by the metropolitan courts, the goods inventoried and the executors allowed to administer the estate. This process could and often did take years, even though Roman and some diocesan law stated that all should be done within a year. The useful introduction concludes with the intelligent warning "that we need to look beyond the text wills to comprehend the full range of proceedings on a bishop's death" (lvii). The text then proceeds to give the scholar the best chance of comprehending the myriad facets that made up the transfer of corporal effects from one bishop to another.

The middle part of the book begins with a "Catalogue of Probate Documentation," listed chronologically by episcopal see (1-72). These consist of a brief potted history of the see followed by the chronological listing of the various bishops from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the early part of the reign of Henry V (1413-22). Obviously this review is too short to look at all the sees in turn, but a few points of comparison are noteworthy. The first of the sees is Bangor, and here it is noted that despite Edward I's claim that "Welsh bishops by ancient custom cannot make wills," Bishop Cadwgan on resigning his see in 1235/6 did just that (1). In South Wales this was apparently untrue, with the bishops of Llandaff (41) and St Davids (54) acting according to English practices. However, both the cathedrals of these sees were set in lands directly controlled by Anglo-Norman magnates. In the North the princes of Gwynedd were generally in control of the lands around the two northern cathedrals in the thirteenth century and this may account for the apparent difference. The ancient Welsh usage may have been comparatively modern and applied only to the rule of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd; after all, he did hold lordship in parts of Wales before Edward was even born in 1239. Again, the study of original documentation allows the vagaries of the foundations of established dogma to be uncovered!

The list of bishops by see appears to be exhaustive; I was a little concerned, however, by the dates attached to some of their episcopates. Although the book is by no means meant as a timeline, I did feel that the dating could have been tighter as the presence of bishops in witness lists are often used to date charters, viz.: "Bishop Giles Braose of Hereford, 24 September 1200-17 November 1215" rather than simply "1200-1215." Perhaps this could be done in a second edition.

The third and final part of the book consists of expanded transcripts of the texts of the wills and associated documents in alphabetical order by bishop. The methodology used to transcribe these documents is simple and logical as well as transparent on the printed page. The section's footnotes are copious and provide a good hunting ground for those interested in the survival of such things as old books and manuscripts. Good examples are the books recorded in the wills of bishops Baldock (74-85), Langham (135-148) and Trefnant (255-264).

The book is concluded with a useful "Word List and Glossary" followed by an index. To sum up, this is an excellent work which certainly achieves its aims of editing all the unpublished probate material and providing a comprehensive overview of the surviving records.

The documents printed in this book emphasize that all these bishops were individuals and although their wills often followed a common form to allow their possessions to stay within the confines of the church rather than being plundered by the Exchequer, they are intensely intimate documents that reflect the temperament and character of these educated men and those around them. To quote the Amazon blurb: "They demonstrate common patterns in terms of goods, styles of living and customary practices, as well as the power of devotion, intellectual interests and relationships between bishop and chapter. At the same time, they illuminate the devices that were employed to keep ecclesiastical property out of the hands of the Crown, and how to manage the business of church, diocese and family from beyond the grave." This aim of the book is admirably fulfilled.

Article Details

Author Biography

Paul Martin Remfry

Strategic Castle Studies (SCS Research and Publishing)