Monday, 9 July 2012

Before divers witnesses…

July, August and September were the plague months.

The eyewitness accounts of men such as Samuel Pepys; the orders to shut up infected houses; the numbers of deaths, are well known.

Occasionally, a story emerges from the archives that allows us to se into the lives of some of the ordinary people caught up in these great epidemics.

Mary Binge and Christopher Reade were household servants to Peter Waite, a tanner, of the parish of St Mary Northgate, Canterbury. While they lived in Peter Waite’s household, they ‘did beare much love and affection each to other and did promise each other marriage.’

Christopher Reade fell ill and was believed to be in danger of dying. While he was ill he made a will leaving all he had to Mary Binge.

Christopher recovered, but in the summer of 1665 the house of Mary’s father, John Binge, in Longport, just outside the walls of Canterbury, became infected with the plague. Mary was shut up there along with the rest of the household.

Christopher went to the house to see Mary.

‘Mary Binge, coming to a low window next to the street before divers credible witnesses with an intent to make her will speaking unto the said Christopher Reade said that all shee had shee gave unto him and shee told him  that shee would have him goe and gett her said will put into writing which hee accordingly did and afterward repaired unto her and afterward shee did publish the same written will for her last will and testament in the presence of divers witnesses.’

About nine days after making this will Mary Binge died, on or about Saturday the 29th day of September 1665, between the hours of two and three in the morning. Her father John had already died.

After Mary’s death her mother Joan and sisters Anne Ayres and Susan Harris, who had been at her deathbed, said that before her death she had made a verbal, or nuncupative, will, revoking any former wills, ‘in their hearing and that of other credible witnesses.’ 

Mary had £16 in money plus some personal possessions.
She left £10 to her niece Mary Ayres.
Mary’s sister Ann Ayres was to have Mary’s best wearing apparel and a gold ring.
Her mother Joan was to receive twenty shillings and the remainder of her wearing apparel. 
Walter Joanes, whose relationship to Mary is not stated, was given a ten shilling piece of gold ‘and a Phillip and Mary sixpence.’
Twenty shillings were left to the poor of the parish of Northgate.
Christopher Reade was bequeathed a five shilling piece and a silver spoon.
There are several more minor bequests to other people, including Mary’s sister Susan Harris.

Christopher Reade and Mary’s sisters disputed as to which of the wills should stand. The whole matter came before the courts in May 1667.

I don’t know the outcome of this case. These papers were misfiled at some point and turned up among the documents I actually wanted to look at.

Perhaps Mary really had changed her mind. Perhaps, in her illness, she forgot that she had already made a will.

But it’s hard not to suspect Ann and Susan at the very least of coaching her through this new will. It’s unlikely a young woman who was dying would know, or remember,  that she needed to revoke all former wills.  It’s unlikely she would be capable of apportioning so many minor legacies in such detail.

The sisters might have acted with the best intentions. They might not have known that Mary had already made a will. They might have thought that Mary and Christopher’s love affair was not serious and would have come to a natural end if the plague had not intervened, and wanted to keep her money in the family.

The court’s decision might be found among the probate records of the Diocese of Canterbury, but we‘d probably still be none the wiser about the motives of those involved. We are free to speculate.

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