Introduction to Hexhamshire Wills

  • See the Glossary of Terms for explanations of obscure words
  • Follow this link for a list of the Wills and Inventories included

The background

The bound volume of Hexhamshire Wills, dating from between 1676 and 1706, part of Newcastle Antiquaries’ archives, is held in the Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn, Northumberland, reference number SANT/GEN/NOR/1/4. The wills and inventories included were probably copied from the diocesan records in York (see below) by George Ritschell, the curate of Hexham between 1683 and his death in 1717. (Follow this link for an extract from the Northumberland County History).

Research needs to be done into how the volume came to be in the hands of the Antiquaries, though it may have been via Durham antiquary Canon James Raine. Raine’s notebooks at Woodhorn include a volume of copies and summaries of Durham and Northumberland wills lodged at York, from 1558 to 1783, called Testamenta Ebor. An article in the Journal of the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society (vol 6, no 2, Jan 1981) gives more details of this.

In her book Hexham in the Seventeenth Century (available from Hexham Local History Society), local historian Anna Rossiter explains that the area comprised three distinct entities. There was the town of Hexham, the rather wider parish of Hexham,  and the larger area anciently known as Regality of Hexhamshire, including the town, Allendale & St John Lee. It has been suggested that the Regality probably corresponded with the original royal grant to Bishop (later Saint) Wilfrid in 674. The boundaries were defined in a number of surveys, most recently in 1608. The Regality belonged to the archdiocese of York, and not the diocese of Durham, for ecclesiastical matters till 1837. The civil power, however, was annexed to the crown in 1536 and later granted to the lay lord of the manor. For most of the seventeenth century, the Fenwick family were lords of the manor, but in 1689 Sir William Blackett bought all the Fenwicks’ Northumberland properties. The manorial court retained real power over the lives of the inhabitants until much later than in many places, finally being abolished in 1839. It always referred to itself as the ‘borough court’, and to the area covered as the ‘borough’, though there was no legal basis for the title. Follow this link for a map of the Boundaries of Hexhamshire

The map is reproduced, by kind permission, from A Pack of Idle Sparks, by Greg Finch, available from Hexham Local History Society

What are the documents?

The documents included date from between 1676 and 1706. Though the later wills are further through the volume than the earlier ones, they are not arranged in strict chronological order. It is likely that when the individual died and their estate had to be dealt with, their will and the inventory of their possessions were copied into the volume. (It was common practice to make a will, and have it witnessed, only when one was warned that death was imminent, so the earlier wills might have been made when the individual was seriously ill, but not altered or destroyed when he recovered).

Some of the wills have inventories attached. These list the possessions, income and debts of the deceased, and will have been drawn up by a group (usually three) of neighbours or relatives of the deceased, called the apprizers.

Anna Rossiter has analysed many of the wills and inventories included for what they can tell us about the occupations, the standard of living, and the lending and debts of those represented. The major local gentry and the very poor, she notes, are largely unrepresented; these are mostly middling farmers, merchants and tradesmen. The originals of the documents are mostly held in York, in the York Diocesan Archive at the Borthwick Institute. However, there does not appear to be an exact match;  Rossiter comments that some of the originals have disappeared since copying, while she analyses others which do not appear in our volume.

The dates; calendar years and regnal years

  • For many years up until 1750, Britain retained the use of the old Julian calendar while continental countries moved over time to the Gregorian calendar. The Julian year (Old Style) started on Lady Day, 25th March, while the Gregorian one (New Style) started on 1 January. So ‘to reduce misunderstandings about the date, it was normal in parish registers to place a new year heading after 24 March (for example “1661”) and another heading at the end of the following December, “1661/62”, to indicate that in the following few weeks the year was 1661 Old Style but 1662 New Style.’ and some of the wills in this volume follow this pattern also. See the Wikipedia article Old Style and New Style dates for more information on this. This can cause confusion; for example on Page 46, Thomas Jefferson would appear to have made his will in December 1699 and had his goods apprized after his death in February 1699! Under Gregorian style, the apprizal took place in February 1700.
  • Most of the wills include the regnal year of the sovereign, such as ‘the eleventh year of King William the Third’. In a few cases this is in Latin, in a much abbreviated form. For example in John Bell’s will, (9 March 1694), the date is given as ‘Ao Regni Gulielmi Tertii Angliae ec Septimo Ao Dm 1694’ In full, this is ‘Anno Regni Gulielmi Tertii Angliae er: Septimo Anno Domini 1694’ which is the Latin for ‘Seventh Year of the Reign of William the Third of England etc Year of Our Lord 1694’.
  • In the will on page 60, ‘September’ is abbreviated as 7br. This again relates to the change from the Julian Old Style calendar, explained above; September was indeed the seventh month in the Old Style, although it is now the ninth.


Henry Fenwick of Hexham left £80 to his son William in 1703. But how much is that worth in today’s terms? Putting the sums of the 1700s into today’s value has many difficulties and involves much guesswork, and various calculators are available on the internet, each giving different answers. The National Archive’s version, which only goes up to 2005, gives a figure of around £6,000, while another one that goes up to 2017 but only starts in 1751 gives £16,000! A rough rule of thumb might be to multiply the figures in the wills by around 75.