The Norwich Plague of 1666: Anne Beckett's Last Wishes

Having just organised a series of events looking at the plague, medieval diagnosis, medicine, and doctors and nurses, I had to post the following transcript from a probate entry I found this morning while putting together displays for the 'In Sickness and In Health' series.

I had hoped to find a will belonging to a plague victim based on a list of burials at St Peter Mancroft church, Norwich. As it happened, browsing through 1666 probate for anyone noted as being of 'St Peter Mancroft' I struck gold virtually straight away. Ann(e) Beckett was buried at St Peter Mancroft church on 07 July 1666 (register online here: https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.3.1/TH-266-12319-248323-77?cc=1416598&wc=MMVP-WK9:n961219346). Comparing the burials July/August 1665 to those a year later is staggering.

Anne's probate brings her story to life in a way I never quite expected, as it turns out her last wishes were expressed while she was effectively on her death bed:

 

Memorandum That on or about Friday the Seaventh of July in the

year of our Lord One Thousand Six Hundred Sixty & Six Anne Beckett late of

the Parish of St Peters of Mancroft within the City of Norwich Singlewoman being

sick of the sickness whereof she dyed with a mind to dispose of her Estate being

of p[er]fect mind and Memory did dispose of her Estate as followeth viz:- I give and

bequeath unto Jane Hawes the wife of John Hawes of the City of Norwich

Butcher all that I have desiring her to provide a Coffin for me and did cast the

Keys out of a Window to her and bid her to be take the Keys of what she had for

that she had was hers after her Death or words to that effect In witness

whereof we whose names are here undersubscribed have set to our Markes the

one and Thirtieth Day of July in the year of our Lord 1666.

 

Somehow, just a few lines bring to mind a woman desperate to be buried decently at a time when several funerals a day were being performed at most city churches. A woman unwilling (or unable) to let friends into her house for fear of infection - preferring to cast the keys into the street from her window - and a woman certain of her own imminent demise from the plague (the church register confirms hers as a plague death). Incredibly, if the date given in the probate entry is correct, then she was buried the same day as her last wishes were expressed. I wonder if she ever got her coffin?

I think wills are fabulous sources for local and family history, and this example just strengthens that opinion.

If you'd like to find it yourself, the Norfolk Record Office catalogue reference is: NCC Stockdell 281. It's on MF/RO 237/7 at either Norfolk Record Office or Norfolk Heritage Centre.

All Norfolk wills are name indexed at nrocat.norfolk.gov.uk - spanning 1276 to 1858 when the court system changed from ecclesiastical to civil. The main courts are the Norwich Consistory Court (Bishop's Court), Archdeaconry Court of Norwich and Archdeaconry Court of Norfolk. There are also some peculiars, which are also name indexed. If you can't find the will in Norfolk courts, make sure you check discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk in case the person you're looking for had their will proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. If you find one proved in Norfolk between 1800 and 1858, you can even view it online for free at www.norfolksources.norfolk.gov.uk 

If you'd like to see the items on display for 'In Sickness and In Health' you can visit the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library between this evening (27 September) and 13 October. There are also talks during the series, details here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/76690744@N08/9611295875/ The two on the plague are already fully booked, but those by Dr Joy Hawkins and myself still have a few spaces.

Go #explorearchives!