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From the Archives: Wonderful Wills

By Exeter Cathedral Archivist, Ellie Jones

Although by their nature they are records relating to a death, wills and probate inventories provide fascinating information about the lives of the people who made them: their property and possessions, and their connections to family, friends and communities. 

The Cathedral Archives has wills from five different members of the Collecote family, who lived in and around Exeter in the 13th and 14th centuries. This is the will and probate inventory of Lucy de Collecote, a wealthy widow from the parish of St Mary Steps, Exeter, who died in 1324. It provides hugely detailed information about her house, property, possessions, family members and interests. We learn about her daughter Joan (beneficiary of fine clothes, brassware, textiles and property) and her son Henry. He was to receive brassware and textiles, including “two cloths namely the second best and second worst”. Her sister Mariot was to receive many fine clothes, while her other sister, Christine, would receive a single cameline surcoat. 

Devon wills from before 1858 are actually quite rare. The Devon Probate Registry in Bedford Circus, Exeter – which held the wills and administrations proved in Devon over hundreds of years up to 1857 – was destroyed during the Exeter Blitz of 1942. More than 5000 Devon wills are believed to have been lost, and only those that had stayed in private hands or were preserved in archival collections survive. There are more than 50 wills in the Cathedral Archives. They mostly relate either to clergy closely connected to the Cathedral – including some Deans – or from people whose property passed to the Cathedral. Nearly two thirds of these wills are medieval, from the period 1258-1524. The majority of the rest of the wills are from the 1600s, with just a small number from later centuries. 

This month’s Library & Archives In Focus: Wonderful Wills takes place in the nave, 11am-1pm on Thursday 24 November.