DEATH Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval Southampton testimonials testaments bequests widows death memorial services property transactions feasts Salisbury
Subject: Account of the drafting of a will on death-bed
Original source: Borough archives of Southampton
Transcription in: J.C. Jeaffreson, "The Manuscripts of the Corporation of the Town of Southampton," Historical Manuscripts Commission, Eleventh Report, Appendix, Part III (1887), 88-90.
Original language: Middle English
Location: Southampton
Date: 1478


To all true Christians who see or hear read these letters, John Ingler, mayor of the city of New Salisbury commends you to our Lord God everlasting. Because it is necessary and meritorious for every true Christian man to bear witness to the truth, so that truth is always to be preferred and all that is untrue set aside, let it be known and shown to, and understood by, all who are sober and wise that one Thomas Pyrie, our faithful brother, a fellow citizen of the city mentioned above, who is among us a man of good reputation and standing and well thought of, and is trustworthy, creditable, and well behaved, came in person before me, the mayor, and others – that is, William Roket merchant, William Shirwode mercer, John Gamelyn mercer, and William Wynne notary imperial, fellow citizens of the city – in my residence in the city. At that time and place, this Thomas Pyrie of his own free will before us reported and stated what is related hereafter.

First, that he was a servant of William Nicoll, sometime burgess and merchant of the town of Southampton, at the time of William's death and a long time prior to that. And that this William, while in good health and of sound mind, ordered Thomas to bring to him in his parlour in Southampton blank paper and pen and ink, and to begin to write the formalities of the opening of a testament; which Thomas did. He then instructed him to write down specific legacies, both to churches and other religious institutions and to private individuals, servants and others named by William. And after that to write down the arrangements for disposing of the residue of his possessions, not previously bequeathed: to be divided equally between his wife Juliana and his kinsman Richard Thomas, who was then his factor and purser of his ship named the Marie of Hampton, then at sea. That being done, he instructed Thomas to write his arrangements for disposing of all the lands and tenements etc. that he held at that date within the town and suburbs of Southampton and elsewhere in England. These lands and tenements he intended to be divided, as soon after his death as could reasonably be done, into two equal portions. Of which he left the one half to his wife Juliana, for the term of her life, paying the rents and services due from the same, and also bearing half the annual costs of a priest's wages and an anniversary or obit in the parish church of Holy Rood in Southampton, while she lived. After her death, that half of the lands and tenements were to go forever to Richard and the lawfully begotten heirs of his body, paying the rents and services due from the same, and bearing in perpetuity half the annual costs mentioned above of the priest and the anniversary or obit in the church. The other half of all the lands and tenements William Nicoll left to Richard, he and his lawfully begotten heirs to have and to hold forever, paying the rents and services due from the same, and bearing the other half of the annual costs of the priest and obit or anniversary in the church in perpetuity. Should it happen that Richard die without leaving such an heir, then the half of the lands and tenements left to Richard, along with the other half of the lands and tenements left to Juliana, when they fell to him after her death, should go to Joan the wife of Thomas Payne of Looe in Cornwall, sister to Richard, and the lawfully begotten heirs of her body forever, paying the rents and services due from the same, and bearing the entire annual costs of the priest and obit or anniversary in the church, as set out above, in perpetuity. Should it happen that Richard and his heirs as well as Joan and her heirs fail to support the annual costs of the priest or the anniversary or obit in the church for an entire year, then all the lands and tenements with their appurtenances should go to the mayor and burgesses of the town of Southampton, and their successors forever. Or should it happen that Joan die without lawfully begotten heir, then all the lands and tenements with their appurtenances should go to the mayor and burgesses of the town of Southampton, and their successors forever, paying the rents and services due from the same by ancient custom, and bearing the entire costs of the priest and anniversary or obit in the church in perpetuity. Should it happen that the mayor and burgesses fail for an entire year to support the costs of the priest and anniversary or obit in the church, then all the lands and tenements with their appurtenances shall go to the Prior and Convent of the monastery of St. Denys neighbouring Southampton, and to their successors forever, paying the rents and services due from the same etc., and bearing the costs of the priest and anniversary or obit in Holy Rood church in perpetuity. He made Juliana and Richard the executors of his testament.

After this had been done, William Nicoll became so seriously ill that his physicians were certain he would die. It was then recalled by dom. John Serteyn and others who were with William Nicoll that his manor of South Stonham with its appurtenances lay outside the city or borough, in the county proper, and if William Nicoll died in possession of it then his brother's daughter, Alice, who had married a bondman of Twyford, would be heir to it. Consequently they thought it advisable for them to draw up a deed of enfeoffment and transfer all the lands and tenements to certain persons. And so Thomas was ordered by Juliana, dom. John Serteyn, and William Stone to write a deed to that effect [enfeoffing] Master Thomas Forest, Walter Fetplace, Robert Aylward, William Stone and dom. John Serteyn priest, as well as a letter of attorney appointing Thomas Pyrie to deliver possession, in the name of William Nicoll, to the feoffees of and in all those lands and tenements. When Thomas Pyrie had written out these documents and put wax on them, and brought them to William Nicoll's bedside and read them out loud to him, William Nicoll's mind had already deteriorated to the point where he had lost awareness, so that he said nothing nor gave any sign or indication that he had heard or understood. But Thomas Pyrie took William Nicoll's hand from beneath the bedcovers and sealed the documents with the seal[-ring?] of William Nicoll, then reinserted his hand under the covers. Immediately William Stone and Thomas Pirie went to South Stonham and there Thomas put William in possession of the manor and its appurtenances, by authority of the said document, and then returned to Southampton, where he put William Stone and the other co-feoffees in possession of the tenement of William Nicoll in which John Flecher was then residing, on behalf of all the lands and tenements subject to that deed within thw town and suburbs of Southampton. On the same day that those documents were drawn up and sealed, and possession was transferred as described above, William Nicoll died and departed from this world.

In witness that all this was related as is set out above, Thomas Pyrie put his seal to this evidential letter, in the presence of myself, the mayor. And to reinforce the credibility of this information, at the request of Thomas Pyrie, I have appended my seal of the office of the mayoralty of the city of New Salisbury. Drawn up at Salisbury on 2 December 1478.


Deeds and wills were all too often subject to challenge, or the grounds of forgery, and death-bed acts were particularly open to suspicion. In this case, the will itself was not tampered with, but additional action was required to avoid the will's provisions being superseded by county custom. Those gathered around Nicholl's death-bed may have felt, as Pyrie probably did, that the action they were taking would represent Nicholl's wishes, to ensure – through a trusteeship – that his widow had access to all the properties required to support the obit which appears to have been Nicholl's primary preoccupation. The wish to prevent inheritance by a niece who had evidently incurred disgrace, by marrying beneath herself, was presumably secondary.

It appears that some legal difficulty had arisen in Southampton with regard to the property bequeathed by William Nicholl, since Pyrie found it necessary to obtain the above evidential letter and present it to the Southampton authorities (whereby it found a place in the borough archives). Possibly the requirement was simply to clarify the rights of Nicholl's trustees to dispose of the property, for in 1480 they – Walter Fetplace and four others who must have succeeded the original feoffees – quitclaimed their rights to the manor of South Stonham to William Langherne.

The events recounted by Pyrie must have taken place over thirty-six years earlier; in the 1470s he is found at Salisbury, perhaps in the service of the borough government, for in 1471 he was chosen by the city council to state its grievances before arbitrators in a dispute with the bishop. There were at least two men named William Nicholl in Southampton in the fifteenth century, and they were among the most prominent townsmen of the time; they are difficult to disentangle, one from the other, and their relationship to each other is not certain. One of them, a goldsmith and merchant, was elected bailiff of Southampton in 1401 and 1407, and mayor in 1411, 1417, 1422, and 1427; he is known to have had two wives, Elena and Catherine. Another of the name, possibly his son, was also a merchant – both men apparently active in commerce in the 1420s and '30s – and is felt to be the more likely candidate for the William elected mayor in 1438; it was probably he who is seen in 1422 with wife Alice. Which of these two was subsequently married to Juliana is unclear, but probably the latter, who is found associated with a chantry at St. Mary's and an obit at Holy Rood, in his name and the names of wives Agnes and Alice. Juliana had married Richard Thomas by 1442, so whichever William had been her former husband must have died before then.

It may be that Richard Thomas also died without direct heirs, for records of the Nicholl obit in 1495/96 show that it had been merged with obits for Richard Thomas and Thomas Payne, suggesting that the heirs of Joan Payne may eventually have inherited some of the property. Apart from the religious services, the obit was then being celebrated by a feast to which the poor of the town were invited (assuming they also attended the memorial mass). Provisions for the feast were: 400 plain buns, 300 spiced buns; butter, cheese, and saffron; a quantity of ale for the poor, and a small amount of wine for the priests and borough officials paid to attend the memorial.



"William Wynne"
He was the town clerk at this time (appointed 1474).

Business representative.

"rents and services due"
These were generally small but inescapable payments to the lord of the land.

"monastery of St. Denys"
The Augustinian priory, which held the advowson of Holy Rood church, lay two miles north-east of the town.

"Walter Fetplace"
It could have been Walter Fetplace senior who is meant; he was a merchant and parishioner of Holy Rood, who served as mayor of Southampton on five occasions between 1419 and 1444, and died in 1449. However, his kinsman (but not son) Walter Fetplace junior, who also served as mayor in the 1460s, was in 1454 living in Holy Rood parish in a tenement formerly of William Nicoll, and was one of the co-feoffees of the manor in 1480; so it is possible that he was the Walter here referred to, at an early point in his career.

"Robert Aylward"
A merchant who associated with Walter Fetplace in some trading ventures. He is seen dealing particularly in wine, soap, and dyes, but occasionally in cloth and iron. In 1448 he was suing, in the king's court, John Shepard (referred to as both husbandman and chapman) of Ringwood, Hampshire, for a debt of £4.2s.2d. In 1449 and 1450 he was commissioned to investigate mercantile complaints: one concerning the seizure of a cargo by pirates, the other by Cologne merchants, despoiled of a cargo at Plymouth and suspecting that some of it had found its way to Southampton. In 1451 he is seen as an appraiser of linen cloth seized by the sheriff, and in the same year we learn that he owned two ships, the Nicholas and the Margaret. He served as steward of Southampton in 1430/31, as bailiff 1433/34 and was elected as mayor in 1436, 1441, 1449 and 1453. He died ca.1454.

"heirs of Joan Payne"
A John Payne, who had a brother called Thomas, was elected mayor in 1450, 1451 and 1462; a member of a later generation, also called Thomas Payne, was mayor in 1472/73 and it was he who founded a chantry in Holy Rood church.

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Created: February 29, 2004. Last update: January 6, 2019 © Stephen Alsford, 2004-2019