I’ve always been a history geek, and recently, I’ve started digging into my family’s history. The Ashkenazi side is incredibly difficult to trace, but the English side left a paper trail that stretches back to Tudor-era England. I studied Tudor-Stuart history at Cambridge University, so combing through the records gave me a chance to flex some long-neglected intellectual muscles, and geek out on delightfully arcane old paperwork. Best of all was discovering the will of my 13-times great-grandmother, Joan Robyns, nee Palmer, of Northamptonshire.
It’s unclear when Joan died, but she was hole of mind and memory when she wrote a will in 1535, not long after the death of her husband Richard, with whom she had five sons and two daughters. They were described as a “yeoman” family—gentrified farmers but not nobility.
The fact that Joan Robyns had enough property to make it necessary for her to write a will is fairly remarkable for a woman of her time. Women in 16th century England could own property under common law, but a married woman’s husband had life interest in her real property and any income from it belonged to him (He could not sell it or will it away without her consent but I suspect that withholding consent was not an viable option for most women of that time.). As a widow, Joan Robyns held property and land leases in her own name.
Joan’s one-page will is brief compared to that of her husband, son and grandson (I also found those on file and they are long, wordy and quite entertaining). But it’s absolutely full of juicy tidbits that tell us how she lived, and describes a woman who was not only prosperous, but almost certainly literate, a capable landlord, administrator, and pillar of her community. Also, her non-standardized 16th century spelling delights the word nerd in me.
In the will, it becomes clear that most of Joan’s wealth is in farmland, stock and crops:
I guyf and bequethe onto Henry Robins my son my croppe that is soweng and that is to be soweng withe all the residue of my grayne boothe within and withoute or ells wheare keeps (i.e. planted crops and stores of grain). I will that my executours shall suffer the said Henry my son peaseably to occupie and Injoie my farm duryng the tyme of my Leasse thereof made and further bequethe to the said Henrye all my hole teme [of horses] withe collars and gerres to them belogyng and my carts plowes and harrows and other necessaries to them belongyng (i.e. all the farm equipment).
Joan also left decent sums of cash to her surviving children, and gifts of ewes, lambs and cows to her grandchildren and family friends. Her daughter Joys received my best coote my best beads and my best gerdille. The beads likely refer to rosary beads, which gentlewomen of the time hung from their girdle or belt. Joan apparently had two sets; I guyf to margery Tymcok my second Beads.
A religious woman in good standing with the church, Joan left a sizable cash gift to our mother churche of Lincoln and a pound of wax to her local church to be used for memorial candles, plus money for Reperacen of the bellis att Holdenby (i.e. repair of church bells at her parish). Even when writing her will, Joan’s faith was evident: First I bequeth my soule to allmytie god to our lady sainte mary and to all the saints in heaven.” Joan was one of the last Roman Catholic members of her family; the year before she wrote this will, Henry VIII disestablished the Catholic Church in England, and Joan’s descendants would be members of the Anglican Communion for hundreds of years afterwards.
As delighted as I was to discover Joan’s will, I was a little uneasy with the fact that the professional genealogist who transcribed and catalogued all my ancestors’ records works for the LDS Family History Center in Salt Lake City. Like me, he is a descendant of Joan Robyns. The Mormon Church’s dedication to genealogy has theological roots; they practice baptism for the dead , especially their dead relatives. Was staunchly Catholic Joan drafted by the Latter-Day Saints centuries after her birth? I’d prefer not to know.
Reading the will of a female ancestor affected me far more than the many wills, land leases and church records belonging to my male forbears. History is often completely silent about the role of women. Joan Robyns’s will is proof that despite this silence—and the constant glorification of male thoughts and deeds—women were not only active in society centuries ago, but were property owners with leadership roles in their communities. I’m not sure what Joan Robyns would think of her 13-times great-granddaugther—born in an almost unheard-of far-away land, and to religion her society actively maligned—but I suspect that our personalities would mesh rather well.