Book Series Studies and Texts, vol. 6

The Will in Medieval England

From the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the End of the Thirteenth Century

Michael Sheehan

  • Pages: 359 p.
  • Size:150 x 220 mm
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2007

Out of Print
  • ISBN: 978-0-88844-006-8
  • Paperback
  • Out of Print


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.