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OF all species of evidence, whether of the kindred or of the possessions of individuals, perhaps the most satisfactory is afforded by their Wills: and in many cases also these interesting documents exhibit traits of character which are more valuable, because more certain, than can possibly be deduced from the actions of their lives.
Suggestions of interest, prejudice, and not unfrequently motives of revenge, may induce a witness either to mistate facts, or to give a colouring to them, which, although it may not violate truth, is nevertheless far from being strictly in accordance with it. But the corporeal suffering under which a man often labours when he makes his last testament; the solemn invocation with which it commences; the associations which it cannot fail to excite; and, above all, the recollection that the important document will not see the light until he is removed from that sphere where alone falsehood can be successful, or vice be triumphant, tend to render the statements in wills of unquestionable veracity. Who, it may be asked, would have the hardihood to stain with those evil passions which actuate mankind in this world,
that deed which cannot take effect until he is before the Supreme Judge, and consequently immediately responsible for his conduct?
It has been sensibly remarked, that in documents of this nature," the real wishes of the heart are suffered to appear, because we shall be indifferent to the consequences of them before they can be divulged*." For all these reasons testaments of celebrated persons possess a claim on the attention of biographers which they have very rarely obtained. But it is to the antiquary, to him who seeks for information on the manners and habits of his ancestors, from sources unpolluted by the erroneous constructions or misrepresentations of others, and who, setting aside the theories of a favourite writer on past times, judges from evidence alone, that early wills are of the greatest importance. Where, but in such instruments, can we possibly obtain an accurate knowledge of the articles which constituted the furniture of the houses, or the wearing apparel of persons who lived several centuries ago; or in what other record can so satisfactory an account of the property of an individual be discovered, as in that in which he bequeaths it to his child, or his friend? The great value of chattels, even down to the period with which this collection closes, caused them to be described with a minuteness in wills, not only by persons of comparative insignificance, but even by the children of the royal family, which cannot fail to
* Preface to the Will of Henry VII. by Thomas Astle, Esq. F. R. S. and F. S. A. 1775.
excite the smile of this " enlightened age." If the value of this sort of information be doubted, the same suspicion must apply to every thing which relates to former times. It is not, however, curiosity only which is gratified by these inquiries: for, by marking the alterations in manners and customs, and tracing the gradual, but certain progress of intellectual improvement the former exhibited by the approach to existing institutions, and the latter by the removal of that superstitious bigotry, which is so fully displayed in this work-we receive ample objects for exercising philosophical reflection. We learn also from these comparisons to correct that general but absurd impression, that our ancestors were wiser than ourselves; that former ages were purer in morals or motives; or that, in a political point of view, England ever knew the freedom which she now enjoys.
The kindness of a literary friend, whose valuable remarks on many parts of these volumes will be found in subsequent pages, supersedes the necessity of doing more to shew the many curious points of history and manners illustrated by this collection than by slightly alluding to a few facts peculiarly corroborative of the preceding observations. Of individual character exhibited by wills an interesting instance is presented in that of Henry VII.; for in that instrument he shews more clearly than is to be found elsewhere the real sentiments he entertained relative to the manner in which he obtained the crown, and of which he ordered a posthumous memorial to be erected *. In the dark character of * P.32.
Edward Duke of York, grandson of King Edward the Third, a character hitherto considered to be without one redeeming trait, we find from his testament, proof that at least he was not destitute of that best of human virtues, gratitude *. Indeed scarcely a will of any length is extant which does not afford some knowledge of the heart of the person by whom it was made.
The moral state of this Country is shewn in many instances by the numerous bequests to natural children, who are described in the most unequivocal manner; and if it be argued that in that sense society has not improved, still there is now a feeling of morality which prevents so bold and unblushing an avowal of the existence of them. It would be an endless task to specify the innumerable points of the deepest interest to the antiquary, in the description of armour, dresses, beds, domestic utensils, customs, &c. which are contained in this Collection; for these it is only necessary to refer him to the able article before alluded to, and to the index at the end of the volume. The philologist, also, will, in a few instances, derive information on the use of words which, it is presumed, are not to be found in any Glossary; each of which is carefully noticed in the Index Rerum. The political state of society at different periods may likewise in many cases be accurately estimated from the wills of contemporary persons; for, independently of the influence which it is manifest the Clergy possessed over the minds of the testators, the extreme and uniform care
* P. 188.
evinced to select the sovereign, or other personages