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Online index of wills offers historical goldmine

09 December 2016

Borthwick Institute for Archives

Listing his chattels: the original entry in the Archbishops’ Registers for the Revd Anthony Tophan’s will in 1590

Listing his chattels: the original entry in the Archbishops’ Registers for the Revd Anthony Tophan’s will in 1590

THE stories of a priest who bequeathed his chamber pot to his godson; another who hid the 17th-century equivalent of £300,000 under his bedroom floor; and a bishop’s fear for his life as he hunted an outlawed Roman Catholic priest, have all been posted online.

The historical material is among almost 500 wills from the Archbishops’ Registers that have been made available, free, by the University of York’s Borthwick Institute for Archives. They cover the period from 1570, not long after the Reformation, to 1650, when the English Civil War was nearing its conclusion.

The priest who handed down his pot was the Rector of St Peter’s, Marton, in North Yorkshire, the Revd Anthony Topham, who, in 1590, effectively compiled an inventory of his home. “Basically his whole will is him giving away small household items,” the access archivist at the Borthwick Institute, Gary Brannan, said. “The pot goes to his godson Anthony, as well as some farming equipment, his ‘great sleeping tub’ — a sort of trundle bed which goes underneath a bed — and his ‘better table’.

“You can’t tell if it was meant to be a joke, but, given the other bequests to him, it seems to be a genuine thought. It was usual at the time to go through your household effects and distribute them. Compared with our present-day disposable society, these things were meant to be passed on. Even a chamber pot was something useful.”

The cash under the bedroom floor was left by the Revd Christopher Rogers, the Vicar of Marske, a seaside village in Cleveland, for his daughter Marie. In his will, dated 1623, he told his executors: “Take up a board in the second floor — you shall find an hundred pounds to pay Marie’s portion and other charges.” Mr Brannan calculates that that equates to £300,000 today.

“How a vicar in a place like Marske can accumulate that is a question to look at,” he said. “It could have been an inheritance; he might have sold land; but, for some reason, he has stashed it away. It was at a time when the country was rushing headlong towards Civil War; so he could have been worried. There’s an interesting story there for someone to investigate.”

The nervous prelate was John May, Bishop of Carlisle, who scribbled his bequests in 1597 as he was about to set out for Johnby Hall, near Penrith. “With God’s favour, there to apprehend a notorious Jesuit or seminary lodged there as I am credible advertised. Fearing through the malicious dealing of such traitors I may be wounded to death or slain by a gun.”

Johnby Hall was home to the Musgraves, a notorious Border Reiver family infamous for brigandry in the region. “He thinks he is going to his death on a suicide mission,” Mr Brannan said. “It’s post-Reformation; he’s going to root out this Catholic who is possibly a private priest with a Catholic family.

“It was not unusual for a bishop to deal with something dangerous like this himself, but the will is written in the obvious belief that ‘This is it, I am coming back in a winding sheet.’

“The postscript to this is he doesn’t die, but he does die of plague about a year later, but he never had chance to change his will.”

The indexing was enabled by grants from the Marc Fitch Fund, and can be found at http://archbishopsregisters.york.ac.uk.

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