This study investigates the rather complex historical evolution
that produced the last will or testament of English law. It follows
the development of this institution from the time when the
Anglo-Saxons first came under the influence of Christian
missionaries until the second decade of the reign of Edward I (the
1280s), by which time the basic legal procedures for the
enforcement of the will had been established. The last will is an
interesting example of a legal instrument born of the meeting of
the three main cultural streams of medieval Europe.
Christians of the Mediterranean basin had developed the practice
of bequeathing part of their property in alms, but this practice,
when applied in England, collided with Germanic family customs and
rules regulating ownership of property and with ancient beliefs
about the afterlife. However, the desire to give alms at death,
supported by legal notions derived from Roman law, was strong
enough to modify Germanic customs of succession among the
Anglo-Saxons and their Norman conquerors. These Germanic customs
did not entirely disappear, however; they survived and, molding the
influences brought to bear on them, made their proper contribution
to the English will of the thirteenth century.
Interest is not limited to a considereation of the theory of the
will, nor even to a consideration of the processus of execution,
administration and enforcement. These matters are studied, of
course, but an effort is made to interpret the developments of this
institution in terms of the desires and needs of society, to show
the motives which caused it to appear and its effects on the law of
succession and on the accumulation of family fortunes.
Included is a list of the published wills of the thirteenth
century and editions of a selection of documents concerned with the
bequest of property and the procedure of execution.