Inventories in the Probate Records of the Diocese of Durham

(continued)

3. The assembly & function of the inventories

According to the words of the probate bonds, and of the commissions sent out to see them signed or sworn to, the Bishop wished the executors and administrators to 'perform or administer the deceased's will or estate, pay debts according to law and exhibit a full and perfect inventory of all his goods and chattels and thereof make a true and just account when you shall be thereunto called', and also to 'keep harmless' the Bishop and his officials. The latter stipulation probably refers to the litigious propensities of earlier generations, harassment by taking an opponent to court having partly replaced the appeal to arms.5 The Durham Consistory Court records abound in probate cases between administrators and possible beneficiaries which were begun but not pursued; the Bishop and his officers wished no involvement, uninitiated by themselves, in any court.
In addition to these general requirements some probate bonds are more specific: minors are to be brought up in the religion of the established church and given 'meat, drink and raiment sufficient for such a man's child'; a minor's 'child's portion' is to be husbanded till the minor is of age or married. Adequate inventories were needed to perform such duties in a manner acceptable to the Bishop and his officials.
The various parties involved in inventory-making would have different interests. A clear inventory of identifiable goods would be needed to facilitate the work of the executors or administrators, and prevent claims for items not present. If, however, the executors were privacy-loving family members to whom everything had been left (rather than being parties to a division among friends and business partners), a public list of their house contents and other assets might not be desirable; they would prefer a general valuation without minutiae. Non-family beneficiaries, by contrast, would want a detailed list, as would those owed money by the deceased, such as business associates, landlords, tradesmen and servants. In these circumstances a creditor might succeed in having the administration of an estate transferred from the family to himself, and an inventory might therefore come distressingly, into the hands of someone not anticipated by the family or by the inventory makers. In 1675, for example, William Sherewood's landlord wrote to the Consistory Court, sending an inventory and requesting authority to collect Sherewood's debts. Similarly, in 1663, Edward Smith's landlord took his goods in lieu of rent and in 1690 John Lindsley's oxen were distrained for rent. As today, bureaucracy was too slow for some: Archibald Wright's executrix in 1680 was imprisoned for selling goods before obtaining probate of the will whilst in 1690 some goods had already been distrained by virtue of a judgement, when Richard Nicholson's inventory was prepared.6
The ideal procedure in inventory-making was that the list was drawn up soon after the death and carried (with the will if present) to the Consistory Court. Here Letters of Administration (or probate) were granted after the signing of a bond for the good administration (or execution) of the deceased's estates. This bond was secured by the possible forfeiture, in the case of improper performance, of an amount of cash of about double the assets in the inventory. This surety money was put up by the administrator (or executor) and one or more other bondsmen. In practice this ideal procedure varied and one finds strange juxtapositions of dates. Administration was often granted, for example, before the inventory was presented. In the 1660s, a period of between three and six months was specified as the time within which to produce an inventory, as the Probate Act Book 1660-65 shows.7 Yet in examining original bonds and inventories one finds that, in 1697, Thomas Brian's bond was signed on 1 December 1697, the inventory having been made the day before, whereas Isaac Blackett's bond was signed on 31 December 1697 and the inventory made afterwards on 3 January 1697/ 8. More trouble might be taken with estates of the rich, or in cases where complications were foreseen. In such instances two inventories might be assembled, an interim one made soon after death and a later one when less obvious assets could be included. After Jeffray Proctor died in 1632, for example, a bond was signed on 6 January 1632/3 which stated that an inventory was to be produced by the following Easter (1633); yet the inventory which survives with the will had already been made on 26 August 1632 and a second was made on 18 January 1632/3, and deposited with the account of administration in 1634. Similarly when Francis Bowes died in 1697 a bond, with an unusually large surety of 2000, was signed and dated 21 October 1697, stipulating that an inventory should be made before 15 October. In fact the surviving inventory is dated 5 October 1697, before the bond. In addition to the problems posed by interim and final inventories, there also survive draft-like inventories, probably duplicates not prepared for the Consistory Court, the valuations in which have not been totalled.8 The conclusion from all this duplication and amplification must be that, even if an inventory for an individual does survive, it may not be the most complete one the authorities were able to obtain.
The stage at which the Consistory Court officials, led in Probate matters by the Bishop's 'Official Principal', had an opportunity to exert authority, was in setting the number of bondsmen they would require before issuing the necessary letters of administration or probate; without these letters the administrators or executors could not legally take possession of the assets to possess or distribute them. The officials could require few or many bondsmen and thereby impress on the administrator the depth of official interest in the business being performed in proper manner. When, for example, probate was given for William Atkin's will in 1715, six bondsmen, an unusually large number, were required for 600 surety and for the production of an inventory. None of these six bondsmen could sign even his name, and this might explain why so many were made responsible for having the inventory made. In 1680 a meagre inventory of 20s., without a date, was submitted for Jeffrey Welsh, on which is written the request that the letters of administration be (back-)dated to 20 April last; obviously in this case the inventory came before the administration. The bond is dated 24 June 1680 and is set at 10, an unusual sum which is ten times the value of the surviving inventory. In it is set out a requirement for the production of (another) inventory, and an account, within 12 months of the letters of administration being granted; in this case it would seem that the first and surviving inventory was not trusted. Another instance of unusual procedure occurred in 1674 for Stephen Jackson, when a commission for the swearing-in of a guardian and the making of an administration bond was carried out before an inventory had been exhibited. Neither is an inventory required by the bond, but the endorsement does suggest it was expected and was to be put with the commission 'when brought in'. It is not there. Later, in 1686, died Samuel Hodgekin, timber merchant and keelboat owner in Sunderland whose inventory was made that September. His widow Jane, who could not write, was granted letters of administration on 14 December 1686 on her own surety alone, of 250. She put her mark to the bond but, strangely, did not take away her letters of administration, dated the same day, which remain with the inventory.9
The probate bonds were normally kept in chronological order of business and so numbered. Thus one sees in the Durham Probate Alphabet Book 1660-1786, that an administration bond is usually signed after a relevant tuition bond - a term used to describe the undertaking given by an administrator to bring up and provide for minor children; this was usually required before signing the bond to produce an inventory and administer the estate. This procedure ensured that the estate could not legally be touched till the children were safeguarded. This would prevent the unscrupulous from obtaining access to the estate and then declining responsibility for the children.

Notes

5 In the 1650s Sir Arthur Hesilrige, who had bought confiscated Durham episcopal estates, pursued his recalcitrant tenantry in seven courts. J.L. Drury 'Sir Arthur Hesilrige and the Weardale Chest'. Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham & Northumberland, 5 (1980), 125-37.
6 DPR, 1674, William Sherewood, inventory and bond A322.
DPR, 1663, Edward Smith, inventory and bond A196.
DPR, 1690, John Lindsley, inventory and bond 207.
DPR, 1680, Archibald Wright, inventory, commission and bond 6.
DPR, 1690, Richard Nicholson, inventory and bond 179.
7 DPR, Probate Act Book 1660-1665.
8 DPR, 1697, Thomas Brian, inventory and bond A214.
DPR, 1697, Isaac Blackett, inventory and bond A240.
DPR, 1632, Jeffray Proctor, will, inventory, commission and bond 233. Also in 1634 account of administration and inventory.
DPR, 1697, Francis Bowes, inventory and bond A163.
In DPR 1619 there are two inventories each for Jane Pott, Edward Smyth and Thomas Wray. Before photographic copies, no two copies were exactly the same and spellings of personal names could vary within the same document.
9 DPR, 1715, William Atkin, will and bond 12.
DPR, 1680, Jeffrey Welsh, inventory and bond 82.
DPR, 1674, Stephen Jackson, bonds 176 A & B.
DPR, 1686, Samuel Hodgekin, inventory with letters of administration and bond A265.
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