History of Wills

The History of Wills

The history of Wills in English (and Welsh) law is a fascinating journey that spans many centuries. Wills, also known as testaments (hence the term ‘Last Will and Testament’), have played a crucial role in determining how a person’s property and assets are distributed after their death. Here is an overview of the history of Wills in Britain:


  1. Ancient Roots: The concept of Wills has ancient origins, dating back to Roman times. The Romans had a system of Wills that allowed individuals to dictate how their property should be distributed upon their death. This concept gradually made its way to Britain during the Roman occupation.


  1. Anglo-Saxon Era: In early England, during the Anglo-Saxon period (circa 5th to 11th centuries), Wills were informal and primarily oral. Land and property were often passed down through customary rules, and individuals had limited control over their estate’s disposition. Similarly, in (modern-day) France they have a system of forced heirship meaning that the testator has ‘rules’ by which their estate passes.


  1. Norman Influence: After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the legal system underwent significant changes. Feudalism became prominent, and the control over land and property was tightly regulated. Wills were still informal and often oral, but there was a growing recognition of the importance of written documents to ensure the deceased’s wishes were carried out.


  1. Development of Formal Wills: By the late Middle Ages, written Wills began to take hold in England. The Church played a significant role in Will-making, as people sought to ensure the salvation of their souls through charitable bequests (to the Church). Formalities and requirements for creating valid Wills started to emerge.


  1. Statute of Wills (1540): One of the most pivotal moments in the history of Wills in England was the passage of the Statute of Wills in 1540 during the reign of King Henry VIII. Henry VIII was known for his liberal approach to marriage and with modern estate planning as it is and the increase in blended families it’s easy to see why King Henry wanted a little more control over the estate planning process. The statute he introduced allowed individuals to dispose of their land through written Wills. It marked a significant shift towards the recognition of personal autonomy in estate planning.


  1. Further Legal Developments: Over the centuries, English and Welsh law continued to refine and expand the rules governing Wills. Various Acts of Parliament introduced new regulations, including the Wills Act of 1837, which established many of the formalities still in use today, such as the requirement for witnesses and the signing process needed to make Wills valid.


  1. Modern Wills: Today, Wills in England and Wales whilst unregulated in terms of who can write a Will, must adhere to specific legal requirements. A valid Will should be in writing, signed by the testator (the person making the Will) or signed at their direction and in their presence, and witnessed by two independent witnesses. These legal safeguards are in place to ensure the authenticity and validity of Wills.


The history of Wills in England and Wales reflects the evolving legal and societal attitudes towards the disposition of property and assets upon death. From informal oral traditions to more regulated written documents, Wills have come a long way, and they continue to be a crucial aspect of estate planning in England and Wales.


As a provider of estate planning, Just Wills and Legal Services monitors the legal landscape and is always attuned to any changes or the changing needs of clients. Should you want to put a Will in place, speak to us and book in a free consultation with one of our friendly advisers.


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