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Hope Historical Society


HHS stories cont p2

Number 1 - Introduction

It has been a great privilege in the last year to have been able to examine the wills and inventories from the Lichfield Cathedral archives, and some from the National Archive, as part of the Lottery funded study of mediaeval life in Hope and Castleton. Although the documents begin only in 1547 in Castleton and as late as 1620 in Hope, and are therefore from an early modern period, they are revealing about rural life at a time of great political, economic and social change. I hope it will be interesting to read some of the insights and stories that have emerged.

The wills were written in a standard format, always making a pious dedication at the outset and then the most important bequest of all: the testator’s soul to Almighty God. It is only after this that they dealt with the nitty-gritty of their possessions. Wills and inventories were required by canon, that is church, law. The were concerned only with goods, chattels and “cattels”, or animals. Houses and land were a matter for the civil law and were governed by the rules of primogeniture so that the eldest son inherited all this property.

By and large, testators left their property to family members, usually following the same rules of primogeniture. Nevertheless, there are some insights into family relationships from the Hope documents.

Henry Bocking, who died in 1608, had no children but had many nieces, nephews, in-laws and godchildren, as well as other beneficiaries. Plainly he was most fond of his nephew Ralph, even though he was an unruly youth. He left him £20 on condition that he gave up gaming within four years after which “my Executors shalbe discharged of that payment.”

Testators went to great lengths to ensure their remaining relatives were housed safely after their death. Usually this was a simple matter of settling their wives and children but Nicholas Hadfield , who died in 1636, declared that his wife Margret and nephew John should live together. One hopes this was a happy outcome.

Ottiwell Smith , who died in 1638, mentioned neither a wife nor children in his will, but left £30 to Marie Gibson his servant and a sheep each to unnamed “servantmen”. The implication seems clear.

These glimpses into history stimulate lively speculation about the lives of our ancestors.


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Number 2 -Why did they die?

In the popular imagination the streets of sixteenth and seventeenth century villages and towns were littered with people dying horribly from plague. The archives from Hope and Castleton do not tell us a great deal to counter this impression, but there is some information to throw light on the issue.

The wills from 1547-1650 show that, not surprisingly, more people died in February and March than at other times of the year. Why was this? Most people lived at or below subsistence level. Nationally, in the Tudor period, there was starvation roughly every four years with the worst famine in 1594 after four years of poor crop yields. Late winter and spring were notoriously the leanest times of year, the so-called hungry gap. Added to this, winter temperatures were particularly low in the early seventeenth century. There is no doubt that many died every year from starvation and cold.

Examination of the Hope Parish register of deaths shows there were several years when there were spikes in the death rate. In most years there were 30-40 deaths but in 1624 the rate doubled. This coincided with a similar rise in death rates around the north-west of the country, known to be caused by a drop in the price of wool together with a steep rise in the price of grain over the previous two years. Starvation was again the likely cause.

The next terrible year was 1636 when, again, the death rate nearly doubled. The Parish Records noted that there “…beganne the great death of many children & others by a contagious disease called the childrens pocke: & Purple Pocke: & whyt hives with blysters”. This probably describes smallpox but an epidemic of meningococcal meningitis cannot be excluded, particularly as children were prominently affected.

There were no records of plague in these villages. It predominantly affected towns: Chesterfield in 1586 and Derby in 1646, despite the appalling experience in Eyam in 1665. However, everyone was affected by these epidemics as the access to markets and employment was severely affected.

Other more mysterious causes included the sweating sickness, probably influenza, and gastroenteritis. There was another spike in the death rate in 1617, perhaps from one of these causes.

Many records are missing. We have little understanding of people’s age when they died. It emphasises how important it is to preserve our archives.


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Number 3 - Women

In historical research it is important not to judge the past by the standards of today. However, from the Wills and Inventories of 1547-1650 women did not seem to have a good time of it.

Under the Law of Coverture a married woman was treated as essentially the same person as her husband, without separate rights to earn a wage or enter into a contract. She had no goods and chattels and so there was no need for an inventory should she die. If she had a dowry, this became her husband’s property and, should he die before her, was not usually bequeathed back to her. She was entitled to a third of her husband’s estate on his death, for her use during her lifetime, provided she did not remarry. She did retain any property and leases she brought to the marriage and joint ownership of land or property sometimes formed the basis of a Jointure, or prenuptial agreement, to protect her in the event of her husband’s death.

The woman in the husbandman’s household, nevertheless, had a huge workload. She was responsible for a wide range of farming, garden, domestic and marketing activities.

 In this study seven women had inventories and one further left only a will. All, except one whose status was unknown, were widows. Jane Savage from Castleton, who died in 1604, had the wealthiest inventory of all, mostly by virtue of a valuable lease. The most interesting, however, was Elizabeth Saunderson from Hope, who died in 1636.

This remarkable woman may have been the widow of Thomas Saunderson, from an Edale family. She had a son, two daughters and five grandchildren. Her goods and chattels were modest, with a value of £19 8s 8d. Her chattels were unexceptional, although she did own six silver spoons, but only a “chaff bed”, and a single heifer. Her will makes clear however, that she bought a house that she valued at forty pounds and the total cash disbursement in her will was £83 2s 0d. The source of her money was her activity as a lender. The maximum interest rate at the time of her death was 8%. Her inventory shows her estate was owed £129 17s 11d from 46 borrowers, many of them borrowing in pairs. She owed no money herself.  It is clear that she was Hope’s most important banker.


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Number 4 -Poverty and wealth

The Lottery funded project in the Hope Valley was intended to throw light on ordinary people. Studies of the wills and inventories from 1547-1650 illuminate something of ordinary lives but often in a negative way.

 Inventories were required if the estate was worth £5 or more, and did not deal with houses and land holdings but goods, chattels and animals. Although there were 6 inventories whose worth was less than £5, the owners formed only a tiny proportion of the numbers known to have died in the period. The Parish Records in Hope from 1620-1650 recorded that 687 people died, and this despite the fact that in this period 19 years are missing from the record. Yet we have documents from only 28 people during this time. Who were the rest?

 We must conclude that they were too poor to have personal records. The High Peak was one of the poorest areas in the country. A tourist would have seen an industrial landscape, with evidence of lead mining and smelting wherever he looked. Although the inventories show that farming was a universal occupation for the testators, with only the Castleton schoolmaster having no livestock, this was presumably not the case for the majority. Miners made and possessed very little, even though the district was a magnet for impoverished men seeking to make a living underground.

 Of the 105 people of Hope and Castleton that left documents, there was only one recorded miner and another 5 that possessed lead or lead ore at his death. The division between those mining lead and the rest seems clear.

 Nevertheless, it is interesting to read those inventories that are available. Edward Spencer, who died in Hope in 1629, had an inventory valued at only £4 6s 0d and owned a mare, furniture with chairs and cushions and 2 “boards” or table tops, a cart, saddle and yoke, and various bits of iron ware with pewter and brass. In contrast, Roger Harrison was valued in 1614 at £300 15s 2d, including his debts. He owned sheep, horses, oxen with other cattle and a large quantity or oats and barley, as well as wool and yarn. In his house, he had luxuries such as an hour glass, a mirror and a “venice” glass. Imagination lets us speculate what a local miner would think about either of these two men.

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Number 5 - Livestock

As has been noted already, the wills and inventories of people from 1547-1650 give surprisingly little insight into the prominent industry of the region: lead mining. But the documents do demonstrate a thriving agricultural environment.

90% of those that had enough goods and chattels to be recorded in an inventory owned livestock, and a few more had poultry. All classes of people had animals: gentry, yeomen and husbandmen, together with those whose status was not declared and who were presumably labourers. The vicar of Castleton, Edmund Goldsmyth who died in1547, owned 4 oxen, 13 cattle, 43 sheep and 5 horses and his successor, Thomas Savage, dying in 1590, had 12 cattle, 2 horses and 2 pigs. Richard Slack, the Castleton schoolmaster who died in 1581, had 2 oxen and 14 sheep. The Hallams or Halloms, the Castleton blacksmiths, owned sufficient cattle, sheep and horses to require both agricultural skills and time away from their smithy.

Single women, mostly widows, usually had a cow and some poultry, although two owned small flocks of sheep. These two were Jane Savage, who died in 1604 and had the wealthiest inventory of all, and Catherine Hallam, possibly from the blacksmith family, who died in 1610.

Husbandry at the time relied a good deal on common rights. Husbandmen would have rented land for grazing or arable production. In the latter case, they would have had common grazing rights on the stubble after harvesting, which had the additional benefit of fertilising the land. Further to that, there were rights of common grazing in the uplands. These rights became highly contentious during the enclosure movement prevalent at this period. In the High Peak there were such extensive common lands that it was not generally as much a source of grievance as elsewhere, but landlords at this time were tending to enclose land so that they could exert more control over it, particularly to increase the land available for sheep and the immensely valuable wool crop.

In the High Peak, the conditions were insufficient for large scale animal husbandry from birth to slaughter. The trend was to produce store sheep and cattle that were bred to a point that they could be sold for fattening on better land.

Nevertheless, despite these strictures, as will be seen in future articles, cattle were kept for milk, butter and cheese, and there were several inventories listing wool.


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Number 6 - Cattle

We have seen, in a previous article, that most people with wills and inventories recorded between 1547 and 1650 owned livestock. Perhaps surprisingly, the most frequently held animals were cattle. 88% had cows or calves and 30% had oxen or bullocks.

These animals were not described in the documents but it is known that the common type in this region was black with large horns, and much admired by contemporary writers. Gervase Markham, in the 17th century, noted that a good milker should have “a crumpled horn, a thin neck, a hairy dewlap” and a large white udder.

Predictably, more cattle were owned by those with relatively wealthy inventories. Usually the herd was small, with a maximum of 16. Only 10 had more than 10 cattle, whereas 16 had only one or two and the numbers held were steady throughout the period. These figures were consistent with national surveys. Their value rose through the hundred years in line with general inflation from around £0.16.0 in 1547 to £2.10.0 in 1650.

Oxen were castrated bulls, notable for their great strength and docility. By the time of this survey, oxen were beginning to be supplanted by horses for ploughing and as draught animals. Contemporary roads were very poor and wagons required great pulling power. Often, in the winter, they were impassable. In this area, there is minor evidence of old ridge-and-furrow ploughing on the landscape, as the ground is relatively light. This old technique was particularly valuable in heavy, wet ground where deep ploughing allowed better water drainage.

Oxen were owned by the relatively wealthy testators. They were probably shared within the community and it is notable that two Castleton vicars had them in their inventories; it might be imagined they felt it was their duty to provide this service to their parishioners. They were the most valuable of all animals, ranging from £1.0.6 to £5.0.0 from the beginning to the end of the period. However, even though they kept their worth in line with inflation, the numbers dropped sharply, with 40% fewer in the 17th compared to the second half of the 16th century.

Milking and the manufacture of butter and cheese was women’s work. Only 8 “milke basens” were recorded although milking must have been a universal task. Butter and cheese were always found together in inventories, but were listed only 3 times.

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