Intro to the project

Introduction to The Northamptonshire Early Wills Project

The Early Wills Collection at Northamptonshire Archive consists of 28 volumes of Tudor and Stuart wills dating from 1510-1636. According to Northamptonshire Family History Index, this represents 13,235 individual wills. The wills provide invaluable insights into the lives, possessions and occupations of Northamptonshire people of the 16th and 17th centuries. Apparently mundane lists of pots and pans, flocks of geese, clothing, linen, tools and equipment, plots and cottages now offer a unique and intriguing view of a world which might otherwise be lost to us, of people wealthy enough to leave a will but otherwise not to have left much of an historical imprint. The remarkable survival of these fascinating documents makes an understanding of ordinary Tudor and Stuart lifestyles, occupations, customs, farming and society more accessible to us.

Written in English, the wills give valuable insights into the lives of ordinary Tudors and Stuarts. Image shows Volume G (1542) AFTER CONSERVATION

Due to their very fragile state, it is not currently possible to make the will volumes available. The intention of this conservation project is to make the collection accessible and to prepare it for digitisation, planned for the near future.

In their current fragile state, the wills cannot be handled

In their current fragile state, the wills cannot be handled. Image shows Volume D BEFORE CONSERVATION The initial survey revealed Vol D to be the most fragile volume in the Early Wills collection

Outline History of The Early Wills Collection

Before The Probate Act of 1857, wills were proved by an ecclesiastical court rather than at a probate registry. Wills would be presented to the court to be proved, then copied by the court clerk into a register (“registered”) In the case of Northamptonshire’s ‘ordinary’ classes, wills would be presented to The Archdeaconry Court of Northampton (Diocese of Lincoln) to be copied into registers. It is these registers that are kept at Northamptonshire Archives. The Northamptonshire Early Wills Collection appears to have been relocated several times over the centuries, and suffered several rebindings, much handling, plus occasional disasters – notably water and mould damage – before coming into the care of Northamptonshire Archives. They are currently housed in The Repository at Northamptonshire’s purpose built County Archive, opened in 1991.

The 1874 rebinding
The Northamptonshire Early Wills collection was repaired and rebound in 1874 into the format we now see – 28 volumes of Springback style stationery bindings.

Each of the 28 volumes is sturdily half bound with brown cloth sides and parchment spine and corners. They vary greatly in size and weight. The smallest about A4 size, though many are much larger than A3.


When the book is opened, the mechanism of the Springback spine pops upwards, allowing the folios inside to lie flat, unstressed and fully visible

Although stylistically inappropriate to the 16thc material inside, the classic Victorian Springback style of stationery binding allows the book to be opened flat, ideal both for viewing the manuscript and for the planned digitisation. The sturdy bindings are functioning and intact in all but three volumes. The manuscripts are indexed and foliated in accordance with the present volume structure.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the 16th and 17th century paper inside has been severely weakened by water and mould damage, making it completely unsafe to handle. A considerable amount of paper repair work was carried out in the past, much of it probably at the time of the 1870s rebind, using Glassine, a common book repair material at that time. Unfortunately the Glassine has not aged well, becoming deeply discoloured and brittle, and obscuring much of the text beneath. It is clear that the Glassine repairs, heavily adhered to both sides of each already weakened page, are causing both chemical and mechanical damage to the 16thc paper underneath.

Glassine repairs carried out in 1870s obscure large areas of text. Glassine is adhered recto and verso. It has not aged well, becoming brittle and discoloured.

Glassine repairs – probably carried out in the 1870s -obscure large areas of text and pose both chemical and mechanical threat to the Tudor paper beneath

Glassine removed, leaving dramatic evidence of its effect on the Tudor paper underneath

Glassine removed, leaving dramatic evidence of its chemical effect on the Tudor paper beneath.

Mechanical and Chemical threat to the paper

The Glassine repair paper has aged very badly, discolouring and becoming brittle and hard, it’s weight and inflexibility causing mechanical stresses, tearing and damage to the Tudor paper beneath. Moreover, acid deterioration within the glassine is transferring to the Tudor paper, this is clearly evident once the Glassine has been removed.  Where the Tudor paper has been in such close proximity to Glassine it is itself becoming brown and seriously embrittled

Challenge for the conservator:

To devise and carry out a treatment plan, with all respect for the character and integrity of the Tudor and Stuart wills, which will extend the life the manuscripts,  make the manuscripts available for presentation and  prepare them for digitisation.


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