Women and personal possessions: 17th century testamentary evidence from counties Waterford and Kilkenny, Ireland


Thomas Gregory Fewer MA

Note: This article has now been superseded by a much extended version appearing in assemblage 3 (December 1997) (http://www.shef.ac.uk/~assem/3/3fewer.htm).

The purpose of this short article is to highlight an under used category of documentary evidence (wills) in providing contextual information for objects owned by women. It is not a statistical analysis of all known seventeenth century wills relating to Counties Kilkenny and Waterford, but rather a look at some examples of the more readily available or accessible transcripts and abstracts of wills (many ofthem published) that were compiled in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. Sadly, the originals of most of these wills were destroyed when the Irish Public Record Office was consumed by fire during the Irish Civil War in 1922 (amazingly, the building had been commandeered by republican forces as a munitions factory! [Wood, 1938; Anon., 1992]). Therefore, abstracts and transcripts of wills, whether published or unpublished now form a primary source of information on numerous individuals living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many of whom would otherwise be undocumented. Genealogists were primarily responsible for compiling these (in some cases) huge collections of abstracts and transcripts. Consequently, many of the abstracts are quite perfunctory, supplying little more than the details of familial relationships of the people specified in the wills. However, I intend to show that some transcripts and abstracts can be used by archaeologists seeking a documentary insight into objects owned by women in two seventeenth century Irish counties.

All of the seventeenth century will transcripts and abstracts published in the Journal of the Waterford and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society (published 1894-1920) have been examined along with those in the papers of Edmund Walsh Kelly, a Waterford genealogist. In the latter case, unpublished will abstracts relating to Waterford city and county are available at Waterford Municipal Library (Item 30/21), while those for County Kilkenny were edited and published by Julian Walton (1988). A random sample of the 952 abstracts and transcripts of seventeenth and eighteenth century wills of County Kilkenny testators compiled by Canon William Carrigan and available on microfilm in the National Library of Ireland (Pos. 904 [which covers manuscript volumes 44-56]) was also analysed along with the transcript of a seventeenth century will in the Power O'Shee papers - also in the National Library of Ireland - which was presented for publication by myself and and Kenneth Nicholls in the waterford antiquarian journal Decies in 1993 (Fewer and Nicholls, 1993). Published surname indexes to the Carrigan collection were compiled by Hilary Walsh (1970).

A number of the wills refer only to what was called the 'widow's portion' and do not include an itemised list of possessions. This 'widow's portion' was a fixed proportion of the estate - normally one third - that, by law, had to be bequeathed to the widow to hold for the rest of her life. This stipulation was a customary law in the north of England until abolished in 1692, Wales and the English colony in Ireland until 1696, London until 1724 (Nicholls, 1991: 17-18), and in the American colonies until later in the eighteenth century (Depauw, 1987: 93). For example, Paul Fitzpeirse Sherlock of Waterford simple bequeathed 'one third of property to wife Mary' in his will of 1635 (Walsh Kelly, unpublished: 8), and Darby Brenan of Ballilannan, near Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, declared in his will of 1679 that:

It is my will that my married wife shall have ye third part of all my worldly substance as well personal as reall together with all my household stuff (Carrigan, unpublished: [114]).

As Kenneth Nicholls (1991: 18) explains, 'in the Irish colony [as opposed to semi-independent Gaelic areas], the rule of succession entitled the wife (if there were children) to a third of the moveable goods on her husband's death after the payment of debts and his funeral expenses, while the children were entitled to another third, and only the remaining third could be freely bequeathed by the husband. If there were no children, the wife's share rose to half'. An example of a half share is provided by the will of Francis Lumbard of Waterford (dated 1590) in which he declared:

'I give to my wife the half of all my personality [and that] my said brother James assisted by my wife shall distribute the other half of my said goods [in this case, in the form of cash payments]' (Carrigan, 1907: 69).

However, a condition might be made that the widow would only receive her portion if she remarried. This was the situation demanded by John Keating of Richestown, County Tipperary, in 1705; William Wailsh of Licketstown, County Kilkenny, yeoman in 1675; and Edmund Walsh of Great Birtowne, County Kildare, in 1673 (Jennings, 1914: 27; Walton, 1988: 518). (Keating and Edmund Walsh both held property in County Kilenny.) Until their remarriage, these widows would enjoy the rents of certain lands in common with their children, or would receive a yearly maintenance out of the estate.

Women might specifically be left the dwelling house (or family home) as was the case in wills of Richard Madan of Waterford (1602) and Robert Forstall of Kilferagh, County Kilkenny (1645) (Carrigan, 1909: 168; Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 13). James Ronan and William Dobbin, esq., both of waterford, in their wills of 1670and 1639, respectively, left their dwelling houses to their wives but they had to be shared with their children (Jennings, 1914: 18; Carriagn, 1908: 91). As it happens, Dobbin's will was not proved until 1663 when his wife Ellen was recorded as the surviving executrix (the other executor was their eldest son who must have died not long previously - he was recorded as the proprietor of his father's lands in the Cromwellian regime's general land survey of Ireland in the mid-1650s) (Carriagn, 1908: 95; Simington, 1942: 151-2). It is important to bear in mind, then, that widows were property owners for a time after their husband's death and so were responsible for the maintenance of the property as well as for structural changes such as extensions or even demolitions and rebuildings. In order to appreciate the impact that women may have had as property-owners or leaseholders, it is therefore necessary to clarify the succession of ownership, or else certain architectural changes to a building may be mis-attributed to a better documented contemporary, or near contemporary, male relative.

Movable Goods
A particularly important kind of movable property that was bequeathed to women (especially in rural areas) was livestock. Cattle come at the top of the list in this group, but other animals include sheep and horses.

Nieces seem to have done well in such bequests. For example, Thady Brophy of Tullaroan, County Kilkenny, left three heifers to one niece and a further heifer to another niece in 1671; while Derby Ryan of Shortalls Graige in County Kilkenny left a heifer to his niece in 1694 (Carrigan, unpublished: [24-5; 83]). Daughters were similarly bequeathed cattle such as when James Welch of Ballyneale, County Kilkenny, left a cow to his daughter in 1684 (Carrigan, unpublished: [99]), but such bequests might have to be shared with one of more siblings. For example, Richard Wadding of Waterford left '6 cowe calfes' and 50 ewe lambs to his son and daughter in 1626 (Carrigan, 1906: 152). Another example of a shared bequest is the 15 lambs left to to the two grand-daughters and one grandson of James Welch of Ballyneale (just mentioned).

Examples whereby sisters received bequests of livestock include the 1682 will of Lucas Brenan of County Kilkenny who left his sister a horse and the 1699 (Old Style) will of Elinor Kelly of Church Clara, County Kilkenny, who bequeathed two heifers to her sister (Carrigan, unpublished: [104]; Walton, 1988: 513). Note that a woman is making the bequest in the latter case - she also left 'cows etc. that are in her brother Peter Purcell's hands to her brother-in-law George Kelly'.

Livestock bequests to wives are less commonly specified, though these would probably be included as part of the 'widow's portion' under such general terms as 'property', 'goods' or 'worldly substance'. More specific cases include John Keating of Richestown, County Tipperary, who left 'to my beloved wife Margarett Keating an entire third of all stock of cowes, bullocks, sheep & all [...] real & personal Estaes with all household stuff' in 1705, or Robert Forstall of Kilferagh, County Kilkenny, gent, whose widow was to receive two horses (one of which was stated to be hers) and a flock of sheep (Jennings, 1914: 27; Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 14). Keating had bequeathed the remaining two-thirds of his livestock to his daughter once she reached marriageable age. If the daughter died before this, then the two-thirds portion would be equally divided between Keating's widow and other (un-named) relatives.

Women other than relatives were sometimes specified in wills such as the four maids of Thomas Kealy of Kilkenny, gent, who were each left a cow in 1689. Kealy also left a cow to another woman for no stated reason (Walton, 1988: 512). Similarly, Richard Wadding of Waterford left 'tou cowes' to a named woman of unknown relationship to him and 'as many' to his sister in 1626 (Carrigan, 1906: 152). These cows were described as 'all English and yonge[,] reddye the next summer to take the bull'.

Agricultural implements
Moving from livestock to objects associated with their use or maintenance we find two references to branding irons. In his 1645 will, Robert Forstall of Kilferagh bequeathed a brand iron to his wife, while a Waterford woman, Beale Madan (who makes no mention of any livestock in her 1690 will) left 'an iron brand iron [sic]' to her unmarried daughter Margaret and her 'best' brand iron to her married daughter Mary (Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 14; Carrigan, 1910: 26-7). Forstall also left his wife 'my plough of garrans', the only reference to a plough that I have seen in Waterford or Kilkenny wills from this period.

By the early seventeenth century, ploughing by horse had come to replace the use of oxen in the colonised parts of Ireland. Teams of from 4 to 6 horses were used to pull the plough which was attached to their tails on the basis that the animal would respond sooner to an obstruction in the soil (Butlin, 1976: 151; Clarke, 1976: 173). As one Elizabethan commentato put it, 'neither cords, chains nor lines' were needed to pull the plough (Butlin, 1976). From the perspective of the archaeologist, this means that little in the way of tackle would be recovered from an Irish site where horses had been kept for agricultural purposes. In the more stony soils of the west of Ireland or in the mountainous regions, spade cultivation was more usual for carrying out tillage. However, grazing was (and still is) an important part of Irish agriculture which may account for the rarity of references to ploughs in Waterford and Kilkenny testamentary records of the seventeenth century.

Still on the agricultural theme, Robert Forstall left one third of his 'Corne in [the] ground or above ground' to his wife (Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 14). Elsewhere, we find references to processed agricultural products among the wills of three Waterford testators. Beale Madan left 'tenn barrels malt' to her daughter Margaret in 1690; Richard Wadding left a 'dosen barrells of malte made of my English oats' along with 'two barrells of barlye [sic]' to a woman named Catherine (perhaps a daughter) in 1626; and Richard Madan bequeathed eight dickets (i.e., parcels of ten hides) plus one extra hide 'at Mr Comerford's Tann House' and a further fourteen hides then with george Woodlock FitzBaltazar to his wife in 1602 (Carrigan, 1910: 26; 1906: 152; 1909: 169). Richard Madan also listed 'five tonns [of illegible ore] and one tonn bastard [i.e., impure] ore' to his wife. It is clear that some women could have had a significant part to play in the trade and industry of Waterford during the seventeenth century and that, in Beale Madan's case at least, this role could pass from mother to daughter.

Cooking and table ware
Moving from the agricultural and commercial sector to the domestic environment, we come to kitchen and table ware. Of cooking ware, we learn that Beale Madan owned at least three brass pans, the best going to her married daughter, and one of the second best going to her unmarried daughter. However, nothing more is said of the other pan, or pans (Carrigan, 1910: 26-7). Robert Forstall left a 'messing [i.e., cooking] pan' to his wife while Thomas Kealy left his brewing pan to a niece (Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 14; Walton, 1988: 512).

Also of use in cooking would have been 'the playne salte' which Richard Wadding of Waterford left his daughter Mary in 1626 (Carrigan, 1906: 152).

Tableware included the plate of Richard Madan which comprised of '4 cuppes, 2 juggs, 1 salt [-cellar], [and] 6 spoones' bequeathed to his wife, or the 'dishes, plates [... and] pewter' left by Thomas Kealy to his wife (Carrigan, 1909: 170; Walton, 1988: 510). Forstall left his 'smallest bowle of silver [...] for Beere and the cupp of silver [he had] for Wine' to his wife, but this can be contrasted with 'the biggest silver bowle [he had] for Beere and [his] cupp of silver for Aquavitae' which he left his eldest son (Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 14)! Obviously, the sexist expectation that women should drink smaller measures of alcoholic beverages goes back far! It's also interesting that Forstall's wife drank wine as opposed to the whiskey that their son imbibed. As a measure of the wealth of this manorial family, their silver bowls and cups compare well with the wooden drinking vessels and pewter mugs commonly used in seventeenth century Irish inns (MacLysaght, 1979: 254). Richard Madan lists 5 'houete' of 'gascoyne wine' valued at 4 each and 5 'houete' of 'aquavita' worth 8 each amongst the possessions intended for his wife (Carrigan, 1909: 169). It's not, however, clear whether this was trading stock or intended for personal consumption.

I have not yet found any reference to objets d'art or to such mundane items as wig curlers, of which a few were found in the course of archaeological excavations in downtown Waterford and are now displayed in Waterford Heritage Centre. Wig curlers, of course, could have been used by either men or women during the seventeenth century. However, other household goods bequeathed to Waterford and Kilkennywomen include a box left by Elinor Kelly of Church Clara to her sister Mary in 1699/1700; books left by Richard Madan to his wife in 1602 and three items called 'carpletts' left to Robert Forstall's wife in 1645 (Walton, 1988: 513; Carrigan, 1909: 170; Fewer and Nicholls, 1993: 14). Beds or bedclothes appear in wills more frequently. In 1626, Richard Wadding left to his 'goodwife the soft bed, the best two paire of sheets and coverings and blankets yt [sic] she shall like of in my house at Kilbarrye' just outside Waterford City (Carrigan, 1906: 153). It is worth noting that while Forstall decided precisely what items his wife should get on his decease, Wadding allowed his wife to take her pick. Other examples of bed bequests include that of thomas Kealy of Kilkenny, gent, who bequeathed aun unspecified number of beds to his wife in 1689, and that of Lucas Brenan of County Kilkenny who left what he seems to have called a flack bed to his sister in 1682 (Walton, 1988: 510; Carrigan, unpublished: [104]). Flack, or flock, may refer here to a bed stuffed with waste from fabrics. This is rather unusual, for in rural seventeenth century Ireland, nobles and commoners alike typically slept on beds of rushes (in the summer) or straw (during the winter) according to MacLysaght (1979: 105-6).

Clothing and jewellery
Finally, we come to the more intimate area of clothing and jewellery. Clothing bequeathed to women would include their departed husband's own clothes which, supposedly, the widow sold for cash or, alternatively, retained for the use of a subsequent husband, or perhaps a son. Examples include Richard Madan whose entire wardrobe is listed in his 1602 will as a bequest to his wife (as follows):

a scarlett gowne, a gowne guarded with [text missing here,] a silk gowne with lambskin, an old gowne, a payre of velvet hose, jerkin and branchet, a payre playne velvett hose, two satteen doublette, a black cloak, a quotidian [i.e. daily] cloak, [and] two capps... (Carrigan, 1909: 170).

By contrast, John Keating of Richestown left only one set of clothes to a woman in 1705 - what he called a 'Murninge suit' bequeathed to his sister (Jennings, 1914: 27).

Poor or infirm women might also receive clothes as charity from a wealthy benefactor. Alderman Nicholas Ley of Waterford made a bequest of a mantle to be supplied to every female inmate of the Kilkenny Leper House in his will of 1585, while each male inmate was to receive a 'gowne of frize [sic]' (Carrigan, 1906: 214). In this case, of course, the clothing would have been purchased specially for this purpose. Sir William Petty reported in 1672 that the clothing of the Gaelic Irish was 'made from narrow strips of frieze, [and] was far better than that of the French peasantry' (Simms, 1976: 455). Beale Madan, in her will of 1690, left her 'best silk mantles' to her married daughter. Note that these garments were, like some of Richard Madan's, of silk rather than wool, an indication, it would seem, of the testators' respective wealth (Carrigan, 1909: 170; 1910: 27).

While there are a number of general studies about clothing in Ireland (many of them now dated [MacLysaght, 1979: 8-9 n.]), testamentary records can reveal directly what clothes were worn by members of a particular family. Such documentary sources could bolster or inform the archaeological record - for example, whenever textiles are recovered during the excavation of a given property, it might fairly be asked whether the find represents an item intended for sale or a personal belongng of someone resident at the address concerned.

Regarding jewellery, references to rings predominate. John Keating of Richestown left what he called a 'Murning Ring' to his sister, while Thomas Kealy of Kilkenny left an unspecified number of rings to his 'wellbeloved' wife (Jennings, 1914: 27; Walton, 1988: 510). Beale Madan bequeathed to her unmarried daughter 'one goold ring which she [had given her] in custody', and 'two goold rings' to her executors, whom she called 'her Wellbeloved friends' Edward Brown, merchant, and Michael Sherlock of Waterford (Carrigan, 1910: 26-7). It is worth emphasising that men's finger rings could thus be owned by women following the death of their husbands or fathers even if they were too large to be worn by them. In such cases, the rings might have been used as a wedding gift or were sold off for cash. In Beale Madan's case, it seems that the two gold rings she bequeathed to her executors represented a payment to them for executing her will (alternatively, they might have been simply given as a token of their friendship).

One other reference to jewellery had a condition attached to the bequest. When Alderman Nicholas Ley of Waterford wrote his will in 1585, he stated that his wife should receive 'all the jewells she had of her own, or receaved of myselfe, upon condition that all the jewells that she receaved or had of me shall remaine and bee left by her after her death to any children begotten betwixt me and her' (Carrigan, 1906: 215). Although such restrictions legally limited what women could do with their inheritance, there was no guarantee, of course, that jewellery could not be sold, pawned or otherwise dispensed with in practice.

To sum up, I hope that this survey of a class of readily accessible and mainly printed records relating, by way of example, to two Irish counties has indicated their potential value for placing archaeological finds (in this case associated with women) in a historical or documentary context. Although it is not yet possible to relate the documentary references of particular bequests to individual finds recovered from archaeological excavations in Counties Waterford and Kilkenny, this may one day become possible once post-medieval archaeology receives the same attention in Ireland as medieval and prehistoric archaeology do. At this time, post-medieval archaeology is still very much in its infancy in Ireland apart from the extensive work of the various ongoing county and city archaeological surveys.

Although the geographical area chosen for this talk lies in south-eastern Ireland, it is hoped that archaeologists present here today who have not yet considered using testamentary records will now recognise them as a source of information that might yield valuable insights into the nature of the archaeological record.This is particularly pertinent to the study of the historical experience of women when so often it is said that they rarely enter the documentary record. Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach combining archaeological fieldwork with documentary analysis ought to provide a more balanced understanding of the relationships between women and objects.

Finally, a word on locating Irish wills or collections of abstracts and transcripts in general. Over the last few years, a range of publications have appeared to guide genealogical hobbyists to the use of testamentary records. Two (ffolliott and O'Byrne, 1981; Grenham, 1992) are extremely helpful in that they refer the reader to both published and unpublished indexes as well as to the documents themselves, and they also explain the legal background to the creation of the various types of testamentary document available. Walton (19810 also provides a good overview of the testamentary records relating to Waterford and indexes a number of abstract collections relating to the area in a series of articles published in the local antiquarian journal Decies (these articles are indexed in Fewer [1992]).

This is an edited version of a paper presented at the 'Women and Objects' conference held by the Finds Research Group AD 700-1700 at the British Academy, London, on 21 October 1996. I would therefore like to thank the Finds Research Group for giving me the opportunity to speak at their conference. I would especially like to thank Ms Judy Stevenson, the conference organiser, for her generous assistance in enabling me to stay overnight in Britain on the day of the conference. My thanks are also due to Mr Eamonn McEneaney, historian with Waterford City Corporation, for allowing me to take slides of various artefacts recovered from archaeological excavations in downtown Waterford which were used to illustrate the paper at the conference.


JWSEIAS = Journal of the Waterford and South-East of Ireland Archaeological Society

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