Many people in the Isle of Man left wills and they provide a major source for family historians. Abstracts of wills have survived for a substantial proportion of the Manx population back to 1570 or earlier and often contain valuable genealogical information. Inventories of the deceased's goods are also often attached. Additionally the later wills are sometimes updated (perhaps many years later) with confirmations that a beneficiary (who might have been underage at the time of the decease) received their legacy. Documentation relating to disputes over the will is also occasionally included.


Before about 1700 wills of married women were usually written and filed under their maiden name. The eldest son of the deceased may not be explicitly named. (As the heir he would automatically inherit any land.) The church would typically step in and issue a decree (to ensue the children were provided for) if a relatively prosperous person died intestate.


Organisation of the Wills


Wills were administered (by the church) at the spiritual court (commonly known as the Chapter Court). This court was run under the authority of the Bishop for six months of the year (25 April to 28 October) and under the authority of the Archdeacon for the remaining half year. As a consequence the wills are typically recorded in two different series namely Episcopal and Archdiaconal, which correspond respectively to the authority of the Bishop and Archdeacon. The court made revolved around (five) small groupings of parishes, usually making two or three circuits a year. Wills from nearby parishes are therefore usually grouped together.


Wills from circa 1600 are held under reference MS10216 at the Manx National Heritage Library. They have been indexed and many transcriptions and summaries are available online. (See the links section.) Both series have been microfilmed and form part of Manx National Heritage's digitisation project. Generally speaking the seventeenth century wills are harder to read and the current indexes and transcriptions have less coverage of this period.


In the early 17th century the wills described above are interspersed with other Chapter Court records (ie summaries of the officials of the court and presentments for offences against the spiritual laws). By the late seventeenth century each will or abstract of will is commonly held as an individual document. It appears likely to me that a conscious change of practice was made to improve the record keeping and organisation around this time. Although some of the original wills have survived it is more common to see either true copies of the original (containing the same wording but not the actual signatures or marks of testator and witnesses) or abstracts (recording the testator's wishes, but referred to in the third person and written out after their death). Administrations of people who died intestate are interspersed with the wills. The formats of these various records are described more fully below.


Sixteenth century wills


The genealogical effort to index and transcribe or summarise wills has focussed on those documents which were microfilmed. The principal academic reference for the Manx Spiritual Courts (Anne Ashely 1957) was aware only of manuscript court records surviving from circa 1600. Since this time an archive of 16th century episcopal court records has been discovered, and these contain around 1000 wills or (much more commonly) abstracts of wills for the period 1560-1600. The archive is not complete (for this period) and it is possible that significantly more records have survived. I have produced a rough index to the testators which is given in the transcription section.


Unfortunately these early records typically don't give the parish of the deceased. The records are usually grouped by year so this is generally clear, although it is rarely explictly given either.


The Format of Testamentory Records


An original will is written in the first person. It commonly begins with a phrase of the form In the name of God Amen I [name inserted] being sick of body but by the Grace of God of sound and disposing mind and memory, do make this my last will and Testament in manner following. There then follows a list of items or bequests (of which the first is often to commit my soul to God and my body to Christian burial, and the last is typically the names of the people to be appointed executors). Such a will concludes the date and signature (or mark) of the testator, followed by the signatures (or marks) of the witnesses. (The witnesses are sometimes referred to as Jurati or Testes).


A true copy of a will is similar, but the marks and signatures of those present are merely copied and not the original.


More common are abstracts of wills which focus on just the body of the will. A typical beginning is The last will and Testament of [name inserted] who departed the life on [date inserted] of good and perfect memory in manner and form following. The abstract is written in the third person (ie he bequeathed rather than I bequeath) and gives the names of the witnesses at the end. The date of the original will is not given (although the date of decease is) and nor is any indication about whether the testator signed or marked the original.


The 16th century abstracts are terser and typically begin with something of the form The Testament of [name inserted] which dyed [date inserted] bequeathed or the same in abbreviated latin Tests [name inserted] qui obiit [roman number inserted] die [latin month inserted]. Many abstracts begin with this a latin header of this form but continue in English. [I speculate without hard evidence that the use of latin may be specific to certain parishes.]


Administrations (also known as Decrees) occured only when an individual died without leaving a will. A typical beginning (from circa 1580) is The disposition and granting of the testament of [name inserted] which departed [date inserted] intestate whereof the church having intelligence haith ordered. An example from 1852 is not greatly different: [name inserted] of the parish of [parish inserted] having departed this life on [date inserted] intestate; and this court having received intelligence thereof, hath (for the preservation of the rights of all persons concerned) Decreed.


Following the will a latin phrase Probatum est et solvit followed by a sum of money is generally added. (I believe that this indicates that a probate fee has been paid to church officials.) An inventory of the deceased's goods may be added, in which case this is witnessed by four (presumably local) men appointed by the sumner. Additional later updates (usually of the receipt of bequests by underage beneficaries) can also be included, although this is rare in wills which precede the improved record-keeping of the late 17th century.


Laws affecting wills


There were various customary, spiritual and statutory laws affecting the allocation of the deceased's estate. Certain of these changed during the seventeenth century. Below is a summary of some relevant entries.


The original spiritual and customary laws declare that if a person should die intestate then his executors are to be his unmarried children. A married child is deemed to have been looked after by the dowry they received and this exempts them from a share of the goods.


The same laws state that if the deceased person does leave a will, but does not leave the equivalent of at least a 6 pence legacy to an unmarried child, then it is lawful to make that child an executor (together with the other children). This law and that above applies only to legitimate children. Illegitimate offspring appeared to have no legal rights.


The same laws state that a man and wife are considered to have equal shares in their goods (provided that their marriage has lasted over a year). The one exception is on the North Side of the Island when the couple have children, in which case a deceased's widow gets only one third of the moveable goods which the couple owned.


The same laws state that the age of discretion for children is 14 years. Below this age supervisors need to be appointed. Note however that (by a statute of 1629) whilst children could inherit at this age, they were not free to dispose of them until the age of 21 years. (An exemption was granted when necessity required such disposal, but the Lord's officers were to be made aware of such).


Up until a statute 1643 the clergy would typically scribe wills (for which service they charged 12 pence) and the Church might refuse to accept a will written by a layman. After this time the person for whom the will was written might choose anyone (including themselves) to scribe the will and (where appropriate) could negotiate a fee with them.


Another measure of the same 1643 statute was to clarify that when a man died intestate that all of his goods should be divided equally amongst his children unmarried. The Church (who would make a decree in such cases) were reportedly sometimes assigning the whole team of Oxen and Crop of Corn to the eldest son, despite their value often exceeding all of the other goods.


Another measure of the same 1643 statute was to greatly limit the money which the Church could itself take from a deceased's estate as a corpsepresent.


Quarterland which the deceased had inherited would automatically all pass to his heir (eg eldest son). A statute of 1662 determined that purchased quarterland would likewise all pass to the deceased's heir (who would have to have to compensate any other children fir their share of its value) unless a will or suitably witnessed oral declaration to the contrary could be proved.


A statute of 1777 modified some of the above laws. It tightened the rules relating to noncupative (verbal) wills. It also prevented a wife from willing her share of her and her husbands goods to anyone but her husband or children. Finally it modified the law to give the parents of a person who died intestate the same rights as the siblings of the deceased. (Previously the practice was to grant administration to the siblings.)