Annotated Edition of the Will of John Edsaw, 20 April 1707


   [This version of the will has additional editing for readability, and explanatory comments inserted at various points. In this version, I have modernized punctuation and spelling, and kept much less of the original style.]   


In the name of God, Amen.


   Wills from this era are as much religious documents as legal ones. They were often prepared by a local clergyman or church scribe, sometimes by a lawyer if the testator could afford it. These typically were the most educated people in a town, and sometimes the only literate ones. A good deal of the language is "boilerplate," inserted routinely rather than being dictated by the testator. I visualize it as a person telling the scribe how he wanted his property disposed of, the scribe going away and preparing the document as he thought best, then returning for signature, often merely a "mark" depending on the testator's degree of literacy. As to this, see below.   


I, John Edsaw of the parish of Tillington in the County of Sussex, yeoman,


   Tillington is a small village about 40 miles south of London and 12 miles from the Southern coast of England. Use of the term "yeoman" gives us a clue to his social and economic standing. He held land (see below) under the Lord of the Manor, and probably was a farmer of considerable standing and repute, perhaps even a small merchant as well. He would have been towards the upper end of the common folk, almost on a par with the minor landed gentry. The Edsaws were significant landholders in the area at an earlier time, so "yeoman" is consistent with that background, but at a somewhat reduced level, as the land gradually came under the control of a smaller and more elite group. There is evidence that the Kentfield/Canfield families (assuming those names are related, as I believe) underwent a similar decline.


   being sick in body but of a sound and disposing mind and memory, thanks be given to Almighty God for the same, Do first revoke and make void all wills by me formerly made, and do make and ordain this to be my last will and testament in manner following.


   Revoking prior wills is standard in any will, but probably would not have been dictated by the testator, who very likely had no prior will. This is simple boilerplate, as is the standard declaration of "sound mind."


    And first and principally I give and bequeath my soul into the hands of Almighty God my maker, hoping to have free pardon of all my sins, and my body I remit and commend to the Earth to be buried in a Christian and decent burial at the Discretion of my Executor hereinafter named.


   This is standard boilerplate. Language such as this was routinely inserted into most wills by whoever prepared them.


   And as touching what worldly estate Almighty God of his bounty hath blessed me with, I give and dispose thereof as follows:    Item    I give and bequeath unto my sister Mary Nash, the wife of Mathew Nash, and unto my sister Elizabeth Kentfeild, the wife of James Kentfeild, unto each of them the sums of Ten Shillings apiece to be paid unto them respectively within three months next after my decease by my Executor hereinafter named.


   This is our first genealogical information. He had a sister named Mary, still living at the time, as was her husband, Matthew Nash. He had another sister Elizabeth, who married James Kentfield (the will uses "Kentfeild" in most places, "Kentfield" once, which is quite typical), both still living. Spellings can be problematic, and I have not yet located records of this Matthew Nash. (See comments below re Mersh.) I think Mary was six years younger than John, and that both were christened in Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey, but it is uncertain whether these are the same people. I have not yet located any record of Elizabeth's birth. There was a Jane Edsaw christened in Stoke D'Abernon two years before that John. Could she and Elizabeth be the same person? The father of the Surrey John, Mary and Jane was named John, but their mothers name is not given in the sources I have checked so far, so I could not match it to the testators mother, Mary (see below). Stoke D'Abernon is about 15 miles from Tillington.


   Item    I give and devise    [a]    unto my mother Mary Edsaw widow and unto my loving wife Elizabeth Edsaw for and during the terms of their natural lives and the life of the longest liver of them      [b]    All that my barns and lands thereunto belonging with the appurtenances, called Willetts or by any other name or names whatsoever, situate lying and being in Tillington aforesaid, on the South side of the highway leading from Petworth toward Midhurst,     [c]    and from and after the decease of them, the said Mary Edsaw and Elizabeth Edsaw my said wife, And of the survivor of them, then I hereby give and devise the said barns lands and premises with the appurtenances unto my nephew William Kentfeild, eldest son of my said sister Elizabeth Kentfeild, and to his heirs forever.  


   There is a lot of information here. From [a], we know his mother was named Mary and she was still alive, that his father had already died, and that his wife Elizabeth was still living. He is giving what is called a "life estate" to them: they could occupy and use the property for as long as either of them lived, but they did not get full ownership. (There are subtleties about what "ownership" meant in those times, that I will not delve into here.) This technique is still used today in estate planning. In [b] he describes the property involved, which as we will see was only a portion of his property in Tillington. It was typical (and still is) in the British Isles for property to have names. Alas, the location is not very specific; it is five miles from Petworth to Midhurst. Locating the exact property today might be possible, but probably would be very difficult. The language suggests there was no dwelling there, only barns or other outbuildings. In [c], the "reversion,"  full ownership forever, after both of the women have died, is given to his nephew William Kentfield. This does not necessarily mean that William was still in England, but it does point that way, since no provision is made in the event that William cannot be found. Since William was the "oldest" son, there must be another.   


   Item       [a]    I give and devise unto my nephew James Kentfeild, youngest son of my said sister Elizabeth Kentfeild, and his heirs forever    [b]    All that my reversion estate right title and interest whatsoever of in and unto    [c]    All that messuage or tenement barns gaterooms buildings garden orchard and close of land thereunto belonging, situate lying and being in Deane Street in the said parish of Tillington in the said County of Sussex with the appurtenances, expectant from and after the decease of my said mother Mary Edsaw,    To hold    unto my said nephew James Kentfeild and his heirs forever.


   In [a] we meet James, the younger son we expected from above. In [b], there is a clue that could lead to more information about John or his wife. John held a reversion (see above) which he would receive only after his mother died. He is leaving that reversion to James. But who left the reversion to him? Very likely it was in the will of his father, or possibly his wife's father. John's father almost certainly would have provided a life estate to his widow, and the reversion to the oldest (or only) son, telling us more about John's family. In addition, if it was his father-in-law, it would suggest Elizabeth had no brother, and was either the only or the oldest daughter. We can search for such a will, executed before this one. Unfortunately, it may no longer exist, or may not be findable. It is also possible there was no will; the same result (life estate to widow, reversion to son) probably would have occurred if John's father died without a will, especially if John was an only child.


Further: John left the reversion to a nephew. That strongly suggests he had no surviving children, in addition to the obvious fact that none is mentioned. This is a bit surprising, since I believe they had been married 30 years. Not to mention living children in a will would be very unusual, and would leave the will subject to challenge. (If you want to disinherit a child, you must say so, not just omit them.) These events followed a very violent 50 years in English history, and child mortality from disease and other causes was extremely high, so the lack of any living children is plausible.


There is a possible child of John and Elizabeth, also named Elizabeth, christened in Stoke D'Abernon, Surrey (where I suspect John himself was born) four years after their marriage. I have not yet found a death record for her, but there is a marriage record that may be hers in 1719 in Lyminster, Sussex, about 10 miles from Tillington. But if Elizabeth was his daughter and she was living in 1707, her absence from the will is hard to understand. Another record in Lyminster suggests the possibility that Elizabeth may have had a child there prior to her marriage, but that was still 12 years after Johns will. If the marriage record is hers, then she married at age 39, quite old for those days. I suspect that the Surrey christening record is indeed a child of John, that she died, and that the later Lyminster records are of someone else, but this is not yet proven. There are very many Edsall/Edsaw entries in the records in this area. In my view, the will shows a level of sophistication making it very unlikely that John would have simply left out a living heir (called a "pretermitted heir").


 In [c] the archaic term "messuage" essentially means "dwelling," as does "tenement." In modern maps, Dean Street is perpendicular to but north of the road from Petworth to Midhurst, so this property could have been "across the street" or "up the street" from the first. Mary already held a life estate in the dwelling and adjacent land and buildings, so the fact that the property in the first bequest had no dwelling is insignificant. It is possible that Mary (and her deceased husband) lived at the Dean Street premises, but probably John and Elizabeth did not (see below).   


   And whereas       [a]    I have surrendered into the hands of the Lord of the Manor of River in the said County of Sussex    [b]    All that my customary close or parcel of land with the appurtenances called the westfend [??] situate lying and being in Tillington aforesaid    [c]    and held by Copy of Court Roll of the said manor, to such uses intents and purposes as I the said John Edsaw in and by my last Will and Testament shall direct, limit or appoint,    [d]    Now I the said John Edsaw by this my last Will and Testament give and devise the said Customary close or parcel of land with the appurtenances unto my said wife Elizabeth Edsaw, during and so long time as she shall keep herself a widow for her better support and maintenance, And from and after the decease of my said wife or other determination of her estate in the said customary premises then I give and devise the said customary close or parcel of land and premises with the appurtenances unto my said nephew James Kentfeild and to his heirs forever,    [e]    according to the customs of the said manor.


   This curious clause started me on a fascinating line of historical research. The Manor of River goes back to William the Conqueror (1066 and all that), and by this time included a large portion of Sussex and Surrey. The Lord of the Manor in 1707 was Francis Browne, the 3rd Viscount Montague. Clauses [a], [c] and [e] tell us that John Edsaw was a "copyholder" of this property, an archaic form of limited "ownership" under the Lord of the Manor and confirmed by the manorial court (hence "Court Roll," the records of that court). Understand that traditionally no one truly "owned" the land, except the King; others only "held" it in various forms as allowed by the King. Over the centuries these forms evolved until by this time, it could be fairly said that the large manors were "owned" by their Lords, who controlled subsidiary holdings of "freeholders," "copyholders," tenants, and others. By the 19th Century one could say that most of the land in England was "owned" by the relatively small number of nobility and landed gentry.  This clause suggests that John inherited the property, although he could have purchased it; either would necessarily have been confirmed by the manorial court, and would be subject to certain rights of the Lord.


The "surrendered" language is a legal formality that was part of the process when John initially obtained the property. The property was figuratively "surrendered" to the Lord, along with the will, contract or other document under which John claimed the property, and the Lord permitted John to occupy the property. John did not receive a deed, as we know the term, but rather a copy of the action of the manorial court confirming his entitlement (hence the term "copyholder"). As a practical matter, the Lord typically had little to do with it, as the manorial courts were administered on his behalf by his Land-Steward. Some court rolls from this era exist, but I do not know if this one does. If so, it probably would be in either the National Archives in London or the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester (which is where I obtained the will). Copyhold as a form of ownership in England was abolished by statute in 1922. Until then, manorial courts continued to approve copyholders just as they did in 1707.


Clause [b] identifies the property only by name (possibly "West End," a very common property name in many places, although the original will looks more like "westfend"). I believe the term "customary close" suggests a dwelling, but I am not certain; this is supported by the fact that Elizabeth receives no other dwelling place. Probably this is where John and Elizabeth lived; his mother Mary might have lived with them, but more likely in the Dean Street premises above. Note that Elizabeth does not receive a life estate, but a much more limited interest that a lawyer would describe as being "defeasible on a condition subsequent." If she remarries, she loses the property. This probably is not meant to prevent her remarrying (although some people would argue so), but rather to ensure that she has the property only so long as she needs it; if she remarries (the assumption is she would do so only to a man who could adequately support her), then she no longer needs it, and James receives his inheritance sooner. This approach shows considerable knowledge and sophistication. Either John Edsaw was smart and well-educated, or he had significant help in preparing his will. I suspect a combination of both.    


   Item    I give unto the said Elizabeth my said wife for the term of her life the use of my best bed and furniture suitable to it, and after her decease I give the said bed and furniture unto my Executor hereinafter named.


   People sometimes chortle at the fact that Shakespeare left his "second-best bed" to his widow, Anne Hathaway. But it is typical; in those times, good beds and other furniture had real value. (And in Shakespeare's time -- he died 91 years before this will -- the second-best bed would have been theirs. The best bed would have been used by guests and bequeathed to a child.) Most common folk had little beyond a rough bench or table, a few stools and a pile of straw. A cupboard would be a major investment. This provision is consistent with John Edsaw being a substantial farmer with considerable landholdings and personal property. The Edsaw-Kentfield marriage suggests that the Kentfields were similarly well off; most marriages were of people of similar social and economic standing.   


   Item    I give unto my niece Elizabeth Kentfield the sums of Twenty shillings.


   John Edsaw was not rich, but the presence of several cash legacies (in addition to other aspects of the will) suggests that he was a man of some means, not dependent on his executor selling off property in order to have cash available.


   Item    I also give unto my Godson John Mersh the sums of five shillings to be paid by my Executor hereinafter named.


   I first thought that this was a son of his sister Mary. The names seem clearly different in the will -- Nash and Mersh -- but different spellings in the same document are routine in genealogical research. However, after more research on the various names, I concluded that they are different. He identifies this person only as a godson, not as a nephew. The name "Mersh" in England would have been (and perhaps still would be) pronounced "Marsh,"and the LDS indexes the two as synonymous. Both Mersh and Marsh show up frequently in Sussex and Surrey records, while Nash is less common there. I have not yet identified records of either the Nash or Mersh people mentioned in the will.


   All the rest and residue of my Goods, Stock, Che--s, ready moneys and moneys at use after my debts legacies and funeral expenses shall be paid and satisfied, I hereby give and bequeath unto my said nephew William Kentfeild, hereby desiring willing and requiring him to augment my said neice Elizabeth Kentfeilds legacy, provided my livestock shall rise and be a sufficient over___ to do the same.


   I am frustrated that this clause contains the only two words I have been unable to decipher. The first could be a short form of "chattels," a legal term for personal property, but it does not look like it. The second word looks to be in an archaic formulation ("rise" looks odd in this context) meaning "if my livestock is worth enough." This suggests that John expected William to sell the livestock, although he is under no obligation to do so. The provision for Elizabeth is intriguing and suggested to me that she might be a minor. I later found her christening record, and she was almost 11 years old when the will was written. His nephew William was 25 and James was 22. Probably James was childless, since the will makes no mention of a child of his, and perhaps he was not yet married; he had a daughter in Tillington in 1714, but I have not yet found a marriage record.   


And I do hereby will and appoint my said nephew William Kentfeild to be sole Executor of this my last Will and Testament.


   This is the most important clause of the entire will, for our purposes. I could quite easily imagine that John might have left property to William even if William had not been seen or heard from in some time, knowing that, if he could not be found, the property left to him would be otherwise disposed of. I would have expected such an alternative disposition to be in the will, but I could live with its absence.

However, it is all but inconceivable that John would have named as executor a person who had not been seen or heard from in seven years, which would be the case if his nephew had gone to America in 1700. (Indeed, "our" William died in Massachusetts just five months after John signed his will.) Administration of an estate from America would have been all but impossible in those days, when getting a single letter delivered took months. I have therefore concluded that the William Kentfield mentioned in this will, who was born in Hurst, Berkshire in 1682, is not the William Kentfield who arrived in New York City as a soldier in 1700 and is our ancestor.   


   In witness    whereof I, the said John Edsaw, have to this my last Will and Testament set my hand and seal this Twentieth day of April in the year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Seven.    [signed]    John Edsaw his mark.  Signed, Sealed, published and declared to be the last will and Testament of the said John Edsaw, in the presence of us who have hereunto set our hands as witnesses in the said John Edsaws presence.    [signed]    John Alcock John Legatt Henry King


   I believe that John Edsaw actually signed his will, rather than merely making a mark. The image shows a clearly-written signature, not a scrawl or an "X." Comparing it with the "John Edsaw" in the next line shows clear differences, especially in the shape of the letters "n" and "d" (which are consistent throughout the rest of the will). This implies that he was literate, accustomed to signing his name, and probably quite well educated, further supporting his relatively high economic and social standing.