Saturday, 23 May 2020

Using the Consistory Database to Understand the Milles Wills

My will be done? (Lynda Pidgeon)
Some bequests in wills are conditional, for example, if his wife or son were to ‘trouble, vex or disturb’ the testator’s wishes, then they would not receive that particular bequest. Terms such as ‘vex’ or ‘disturb’ suggest that litigation of some sort might be contemplated by those who felt deprived of an inheritance. A database of records from the London consistory court (, allows the researcher to investigate this suggestion further.
The consistory court was an ecclesiastical court, in this instance dealing with the city and the rural hinterland of Essex, Middlesex and part of Hertfordshire. It was the bishop’s court that dealt with marriage disputes, defamation, sexual offences, debt, probate of wills and clerical discipline. Judgements made in these cases rarely survive, so we have no idea of the outcome, unless other evidence can be found. On the other hand witnesses on behalf of the plaintiff and defendant were asked specific questions to support their case. Their answers – depositions – were set out in a separate book and these survive for 1467-76 (in the London Metropolitan Archives) and 1487-96 (in the London Guildhall Library). This latter book has been transcribed and translated to create the database.  So we have a jigsaw with no picture and over half the pieces missing.  Amongst the testamentary  cases is one that relates to a will recorded in the Milles Register: the will of John Baker. As this name is almost as common as John Smith, it proved difficult to put the jigsaw together and indeed several of the women concerned were called Agnes.
The testamentary suit heard in consistory court dates to January / February 1493; the plaintiff was John Baker, the defendant Agnes Symson, previously Baker. The suit related to the will of John Baker, made on 13 April 1490 and granted probate on 6 August 1490. The testator was a cooper and citizen of London who lived in the ward of St Michael Bassingshaw, London.  His will is rather long (6 pages) and complex. Amongst other legacies he gave money and silverware to John Baker his ‘cousyn’ and Elizabeth Payne, both were under 21 when the will was made. Agnes was to have the ‘guiding’ of both children until they came of age or married. John senior owned two messuages with gardens adjoining in East Greenwich, Kent. This property was to go to his cousin John Baker and his heirs after the death of Agnes. If he died before Agnes, and before reaching the age of 21, then the property would revert to the feoffees (trustees) on her death.  It seems likely that the John Baker who brought the consistory court suit was the cousin mentioned. As he was suing Agnes he must have reached the age of 21 and was claiming the money and goods bequeathed to him. In the three years since Baker’s death Agnes appears to have remarried someone called Symson.
The first witness called by Agnes Symson was Agnes Smyth, presumably the wife of the salter to whom Baker left 20s.  She was 26 years old, had lived in the parish of St Michael for 7 years and was illiterate. She had known the Bakers for 9 or 10 years, so from before she moved into the parish.  She confirmed that she had witnessed the reading of Baker’s testament in a chamber in his house, along with Thomas Lydys and others, about 2 years previously. At the reading she heard that certain goods and lands were bequeathed to John Baker the younger and that administration was committed to Agnes. She agreed with a previous witness but that it was ‘8 years or more’.  (We do not have the previous witness’s statement and do not know what the ‘8 years’ relates to.)
The next witness, also called by Agnes, was Alice Waren. She was not a beneficiary in Baker’s will, but claimed to have known Agnes Symson alias Baker for 9 years and the late John for 14 years. Alice had lived in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster for 7 years, was 50 years old and was illiterate. She said that the administration of goods was committed to Agnes and that she had heard that Baker had bequeathed to John Baker the younger certain lands to the value of 40s p.a.. Agnes the mother of John Baker had told her this. She confirmed that John the younger was born around the feast of St Michael 9 years ago in her house in Whitechapel parish outside Aldgate; he was baptised in the said church; and on the third day, in the middle of the night, ‘the said John Baker’ died and was buried in the cemetery of the same church. This she knew from her own sight and hearing.
What are we to make of Alice’s testimony? There are no other depositions from witnesses for either Agnes Symson or John Baker. If John Baker junior had been born 9 years earlier and died shortly afterwards, then when Baker senior made his will he would surely have been aware that his young cousin was dead? Also, if Alice Waren knew John senior as well as she claimed then she would surely have told him this?  Alternativley if the plaintiff was the child referred to by Alice, and he was alive then, he was only 9; not only would he have been too young to bring the suit, also he would not be entitled to his legacy until he was 21. The lack of detail regarding the case being brought by John Baker, the missing testimonies of some of the witnesses and the missing outcome mean that we can only surmise what had happened.  What seems most likely is that the plaintiff was the cousin John Baker, that he had reached the age of 21 and that Agnes Symson had failed to give him his bequests: he was therefore suing her for the money and silverware.
The testimony of Alice Waren is a problem; she claimed that Agnes the mother of John Baker told her about the bequest of land to John. Presumably this was the mother of John Baker junior, not the testator, but this child was dead, so why would the mother be referring to a bequest to a child who was dead? The death of the child, if this was the cousin, made the bequest void. So who was Alice referring to?  A major problem with this testimony is that Agnes, John Baker senior’s widow, was given the guiding of the cousin and the young girl Elizabeth Payne – which suggests that both lived in Baker’s household.
Was it Agnes, the widow, who was producing a red herring by suggesting, through the testimony of Alice, that John Baker was an imposter so that she could deprive him of his inheritance? Or was Agnes suggesting that the plaintiff was not the John Baker meant by her husband? Swinburne’s Treatise on testaments and wills has a section on how wills might become void. One means was uncertainty over the legatee, i.e. if no-one could be found of that name or where there was more than one person with the same name. Alice Waren certainly provided uncertainty.
The consistory court record has added a confusing, though interesting dimension to Baker’s will and also provides glimpses of the lives of people in London, where they lived, their age, if they were literate and something of their social circle.
The original reference of the suit is: London Metropolitan Archives, MS DL/C/A/001/MS09065: 136r-137r