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I have been transcribing a number of 18th Century English wills and noticed that there don't seem to be mentions of wives -- at least not in the ones that I'm working on. Given the legal doctrine of Coverture (woman's legal rights becoming those of the husband on marriage), and the fact that the Married Women's Property Act wouldn't be until 1870, would the absence of such mentions be the norm or an indication that they'd already died?

  • Hardly an answer - my gut feeling without doing an analysis of my copies, is that a typical 19th century will would make it clear that the widow was to have the right to live in her husband's house after his death, even if the title were to pass to their son. But would it have been different in the 18th? I can't even think if I have such a will... – AdrianB38 Dec 19 '18 at 19:15
  • Thanks Adrian. I have recently found several relevant to my Leicestershire ancestors, but the writing is like reading ancient Egyptian. – ACProctor Dec 19 '18 at 20:07
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    Yes - a quick check shows one 1700s will in my collection - no mention of the wife but I do know she's died beforehand. And one 1807 will that requests executors to look after his widow. As for the writing.... PCC documents are distinctive well into the 19th century. A friend of mine was once told that her handwriting was very "O". That seems to describe PCC wills. (Actually, I wonder if they deliberately wrote to fill the page up?) – AdrianB38 Dec 19 '18 at 20:26
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    I've looked through a number of 17th century wills recently, mostly from Gloucestershire, and many mention wives. IIRC while married women had few options for asset ownership then, unmarried women (who might inherit from their fathers) and widows had more ownership rights. I'll see if I can dig up a reference for that later. – AndyW Dec 20 '18 at 10:20
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I have only experience dealing with colonial American wills, but those should be under the same norms as English. I've looked at dozens of wills from New England in the 17th and 18th centuries, and naming the wife, when alive, was definitely the norm.

You are correct that coverture is an important consideration, but so too is the right of dower:

https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Marriage_Settlements_in_England_and_Wales

The widow was entitled to 1/3 of her husband's property when he passed for her lifetime or until she remarried. Some husbands would grant them more explicitly in the will, and others would describe which portion would become hers. In the majority of wills I've seen the husband left the wife explicitly the house and usually I also see stipulations that children must support Mom out of their own bequest.

Of course, there are always exceptions. One of my ancestors wrote a will in 1704 in which he doesn't name his wife of 56 years, who was definitely still living as she signed his probate documents. The judge viewed her absence from the will, along with the ambiguity in wording of the duties of the executor, as sufficient cause to doubt the will's authority and to nullify the will!

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