WEARSIDE landowner Henry Hilton claimed to be of “able memory” when he left Hylton Castle to the Lord Mayor of London for 99 years in 1640.
Generations of historians have, however, described his will as “such as a madman only could make” – as it ruined his family and bankrupted the estate.
“Wills are absolutely fascinating. You can learn so much about the past from them,” said Douglas Smith, president of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
“They allow you a glimpse of the houses and possessions our ancestors once prized, from cattle and crops to humble chamber pots and feather beds.”
A full account of Henry’s “mad” will has been published in a new book by the Surtees Society, featuring dozens of 17th-century Wearside wills.
The last bequests of yeomen, soldiers, landowners, butchers and ferryboat men are also included, together with those of rectors, blacksmiths and labourers.
“With a detailed will, it is possible to almost furnish a house room by room in your imagination,” said Douglas. “Wills give you a real feeling for the period.
“One of the main possessions was a bed and these would be passed down to sons and daughters on the death of a parent. Feather beds were particularly prized.
“Pewter was the poor man’s silver. A family was actually well off if it had a couple of pewter candlesticks, some plates and a few silver spoons.
“But, as Sunderland was an agricultural society in the 17th century, possessions were not always in the home. They were in livestock and crops still growing in the ground.”
The new book, Sunderland Wills and Inventories 1601-1650, reveals there was “good money” to be made from farming – if you owned the land.
Indeed, Burdon farmer Thomas Burdon left the equivalent of tens of thousands of pounds for the education and care his eight children in his will of 1626.
His six sons and two daughters each received £10, worth £16,000 today, and his oldest son was left the family farm and bulk of the £200,000 estate.
The young man had, however, to agree to one condition before benefiting from the will – to care for his siblings “with meat and cloth” until they grew up.
“Wills are marvellous documents for those tracing their family history, as it is surprising how many people of fairly modest means left one,” said Douglas.
“The beauty of wills is that they give you such a personal glimpse into the past. The family links and ties – and the family arguments and disagreements.”
One such disagreement must have taken place between wealthy Silksworth yeoman William Reade and his daughter, Jane, in the mid-17th century.
The farmer left his land at Shotton and Easington to son Thomas, together with £10 each to Thomas’s children William, Elizabeth, Sarah and Barbarie.
Jane, however, was cut out of William’s will after tying the knot with Anthony Wilson – a man who was “not to my likeinge,” he revealed in 1642.
“The original wills detailed in the book are kept at the Palace Green Library, part of Durham University, along with many hundreds of others,” said Douglas.
“It is possible to handle the wills and see the creases, blots and signatures made by your forebears. It is the closest you can get to an ancestor really.
“You almost feel the vibes of your ancestors when you touch these wills. It is quite an extraordinary feeling.”
Some people sadly had little to leave their families, except debts. A 1612 inventory of the estate of butcher Richard Bartram reveals life in the meat trade was obviously tough.
His worldly goods, including six pewter plates, a sword, linen sheets and a feather bed, were valued at just over £20 and he was also owed more than £11 – a combined total of £60,000 today.
Richard owed more than he owned, however, with debts adding up to £47 – £92,000 today. Thomas Arras of Seaham and Widow Fell of Ryhope were among those awaiting payment.
But money didn’t always buy happiness, as a look at the story behind one of the most poignant wills documented in the book reveals.
Soldier William Bowes – part of the Bowes family with links to the Queen Mother – was “perfect in health and memorie”” when he drew-up his last will and testament in 1649.
Faced with fighting in the Civil War, the Wearside landowner wanted to ensure his beloved young son was well looked after should he die in battle.
“Unto my dear wife I give all my goods, my moveables, all and every part of my personal estate and totally whatever I possess or am owner of,” he wrote.
“For a further legacy, I charge her with the breeding and education of my only son, William, requiring her to use all possible diligence.”
Sadly, within just a few years, both William and his son were dead.
William junior was just 20 at the time of his death in 1662 and, having no descendents, his land in the manor of Barnes passed on to a cousin.
“More than 200 years later, and following a succession of owners, part of the land was opened to the public as Barnes Park in 1909,” said Douglas.
“This is just one of the fascinating insights into the past that can be gleaned from old wills. Sadly, many, many thousands have been destroyed over the years.
“There is a rumour that a barrow full of wills was once left to rot at Durham. Others, according to another story, were used by a registrar to light his pipe!
“We are still lucky, though, that so many others have survived. They are a priceless insight into our past.”
l A copy of Sunderland Wills and Inventories 1601-1650 can be viewed at Sunderland Antiquarian Society, which is based at Sunderland Minster. The book is also available to buy at £50.