9. Research value

While probate inventories are an excellent means for historians to gain a view of the lifestyle and possessions of individuals whose living conditions and commercial and cultural connections would often otherwise be inaccessible to us, such inventories are sometimes biased, incomplete and inaccurate in their valuations. Accounts have the advantage of tallying an estate at the point when it has been gathered in, when certain goods have been sold rather than merely appraised, when certain debts owing to the deceased listed in the inventory have either been recovered or determined as 'desperate' and unrecoverable, and when other debts owed by the deceased - and often not listed in the inventory - have been settled: in this respect collections of accounts have been used to research long-term rural credit networks, and the extent of borrowing among within family, religious and ethnic groups.16 Additionally, unlike inventories which list goods at second-hand resale prices, items appearing in the account's list of expenses are usually priced as new. Accounts, therefore, can add provide an important qualification and addition to information recorded in the inventory.17

It is not just as a balance sheet of property transmission that the probate account is so useful to historians. As already alluded to, accounts can be particularly valuable as narratives of certain events occurring around the time of the death of the individual and over the succeeding months. Indeed, as accounts were also returned by the tutors and guardians of minors, they can therefore record detailed payments over a period of many years after the death of the children's father for their continued education and maintenance.

Image of excerpt from the 1690 account of William Hume, keeper of Durham gaol [Ref: DPRI/1/1690/H19/1-2].
Excerpt from the 1690 account of William Hume, keeper of Durham gaol [Ref: DPRI/1/1690/H19/1-2].

It[e]m these accomptants crave allowance
of the sev[er]all sum[m]es following w[hi]ch they
p[ai]d to and for the use of Catherine
Humes (a minor) and sist[e]r to the dec[ease]d vi[delice]t
to Mrs Hixon her Aunt for her table or
dyet 14 s for Cloath for her shiftes 10 s 6 d
to her M[ist]r[es]s for teaching her to sowe 5 s 6 d
p[ai]d more for Cloaths for her 10 s 8 d in all
02 li : 00 s : 08 d
It[e]m p[ai]d more by these Accomptants to & for
the said Catherines use to one Mary Bonns
for her dyet and lodgeing 6 s 6 d & for Cloaths
& other necessaryes for & towards her maine-
-tenance xxv s in all
01 li : 11 s : 6 d

Catherine Hume's tuition and maintenance costs appear in the account of her father, William Hume, who had been the keeper of Durham gaol. Among the items in the discharge is a 5 item for keeping the gaol for thirty weeks, the administrators being compelled to do so by a bond Hume had signed as a form of contract for his position.

A tutor's account can not only record such educational and maintenance expenses, but also, if there is a substantial estate to be managed by the guardian, can feature day to day outgoings of a working business. In this case the busy estate inherited by Anne Cowling from her father Roger Cowling is drained not only by Anne's pocket money and the odd christening and wedding present for her neighbours and tenants, but also by assessments and billeting costs for both the royalist and Scottish armies occupying the area between 1643 and 1645.18

Image of an extract from the 1645 account of Roger Cowling of Sedgefield [Ref: DPRI/1/1645/C8/1-10].
Extract from the 1645 account of Roger Cowling of Sedgefield [Ref: DPRI/1/1645/C8/1-10].

Ite[m] Nov[ember] 9. of Col[one]l Stewards Regiment A minister 8 meales
ij s their quartermaster 8 meales - ij s a boy 14 meales 2 s 4 d
2 horses 5 dayes & nights their hay 3 s 4 d their oates one
pecke p[er] day ij s 6 d besides other 2 soldiers one night &
2 baggage horses j s
0 li 13 s 2 d

Image of further extract from the 1645 account of Roger Cowling of Sedgefield [Ref: DPRI/1/1645/C8/1-10].
Further extract from the 1645 account of Roger Cowling of Sedgefield [Ref: DPRI/1/1645/C8/1-10].

Ite[m] payed at sev[er]all times more coles for court du guard19 1 bush[ell]
& candles ij d
0 li 0 s 6 d
Ite[m] January 24 to Anne Cowling to buy flax & for a god
barne gift at the baptizing of William Wilkinsons child
0 li 15 s 0 d
Ite[m] January 24 ij d p[er] oxg[ang] Hay for Hartlepoole 0 li 0 s 5 d
Ite[m] Febr[uary] 2. 2 li 7 s 8 d p[er] 1 li being iiij s 1 d p[er] oxgang
for officers pay
0 li 10 s 6 d


16 Peter Spufford, 'Long-Term Rural Credit in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century England: the Evidence of Probate Accounts' in When Death Do Us Part, edited by Arkell, Evans and Goose (2000); Holderness, 'Widows in pre-industrial society: an essay upon their economic function' in Land, kinship and lifecycle edited by Smith (1984); C. Marsh, The family of love in English Society, 1550-1630 (1994).
17 The NEI probate catalogue will allow accounts to be quickly linked to wills, inventories and other related documents. All but a handful of Durham probate accounts are filed in the same probate series (DPRI/1) as the wills and inventories.
18 The account records assessments to provision Sir Marmaduke Langdale's royalist brigade, the Northern Horse, at the time of his victory at Corbridge over the Scots covenanters on 19 Feb 1644, with a further assessment on 27 Feb for carriages, perhaps for the wounded. Langdale's brigade was still being provisioned in April, at the same time the Scots constables are recorded in the account as having received a bushel of wheat for their army when they were encamped at Quarrington Hill.
19 Court du guard [corps de garde]: this can refer both to a small body of soldiers stationed on guard or as sentinels, and their guard post itself.

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