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1 Million Wills Made Public

Most wills will never again see the light of day once probate has been issued and the beneficiaries have received their inheritance. Recently, however, family tree sourcing website ancestry.co.uk has gathered together more than one million wills – some that are hundreds of years old, and belong to some of the most famous people in history – so that we can understand them, and the times they lived in, better.

Included in the massive list of wills is Shakespeare’s. The famous playwright, author of Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and many other plays and poems, died in 1616 (on his birthday, no less), and his will states that his wife, Anne Hathaway, should receive his “second best bed”. Although this might seem a little odd – even mean – it does actually make a lot of sense; in Shakespeare’s time, the best bed was reserved for guests, and the second best? Well, that was the marital bed. Ideal for giving to a wife! But it was Shakespeare’s children who did well out of Will’s will; they received the equivalent of almost £500,000!

Jane Austen’s will is also included in those that you can delve into. She left a huge amount of money to her sister, Cassandra (around £50,000 by today’s calculations), but only around £4,000 to her brother, Henry, which was the same amount that she left to the family nurse. What could have happened to make the world famous author of Price and Prejudice share her assets like she did? It’s a fascinating mystery!

It is possible to search through the wills – which range from 1384 up to 1858 – of people who left more than £5 to get a great insight into the sorts of things that people left for friends and loved ones. Whether it was property, money, assets, or instructions on what should happen to their remains (or even, in some cases, what those left behind should do with the rest of their lives), the most interesting fact to come to life is that people haven’t changed very much when it comes to portioning out their estate. This is a great chance to understand more about history, and about how the dreams and ideals of the deceased are written down for posterity.

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