Signed, Sealed, Delivered Legal Records from the Early Modern Period to Late Modern Period

Government and legal systems rely on written documents to enact or provide evidence of legal transactions relating to the resolution of disputes, monetary payments, and the transfer of rights and property. This exhibit explores several types of legal documents from the holdings of the MRU Archives and Special Collection. This exhibit explains the importance of these records in their own time and their research uses today.

Where's Your Proof?

Legal records use special forms and language and other devices to attest to the authenticity of documents, preventing challenges and preserving their evidential value. Signatures and seals of witnesses and signatories are examples of early authentication devices. Seals, involving a unique matrix pressed into warm wax, authenticated documents and, in the case of letters, kept their contents private. By the early modern era, small personal seals in the form of a signet ring had become quite common and inexpensive.

Examples of personal seals and signatures on a deed from 0073-01 - Records relating to Blofield Manor, Norwich from 1827. Seals have been applied en placard on the face of the document.
Examples of pendant or hanging seals. Pendant seals could be problematic for authentication purposes because the weight would sometimes cause the tail or seal to detach from the document, or the wax seals would crumble, as with the left hand document above. Photographs of 0102-22-Lease of the Great House from 1582 (left) and 0102-21 - Marriage settlement from Suffolk, England from 1560 (right).

Another common authentication device for legal records was the wavy or toothed edge at the top of the document. The contract would be copied out twice on the same piece of parchment before being cut apart in this toothed pattern; the word “indenture” comes from this practice, from the Latin “dente” for tooth. In the case of a dispute, the parties could authenticate the copies of the agreement by matching together the cut edges. Often words or a design was drawn over the area to be cut to further strengthen the authentication process.

Example of an indenture with a wavy edge and an intricate initial letter design from 0073-01 - Records relating to Blofield Manor, Norwich from 1755.
The Business of Love: Marriage Contracts and Settlements

Marriage in the early modern period was a tool used to organize society and economic resources. Through marriage, families forged alliances, expanded their fortunes, and created systems of patronage that were expected to endure for generations. Marriage was intricately tied to church, state, and community, and served important social and religious purposes. Marriage contracts solidified the marital bond and protected each party's material interests.

Marriage contracts offer insight into the economic and legal ramifications of marriage such as the types of property exchanged or transferred, the agreed management of joint wealth during the relationship, and what would happen to marriage resources on the death of one or both spouses. From a social perspective, marriage contracts can provide insight into less-easily observed aspects of society such as gender relations, cultural traditions, and family tensions.

Below is a French marriage contract between Jacques Mouvet and Francoise de Lounducourt dated February 16, 1594. Some of the typical elements found in a marriage contract include the declaration of mutual consent, the exchange of tokens (such as rings), an exchange of vows of affections, provisions for the costs of the marriage (such as banquets or wedding clothes), and an accounting of the assets brought into the marriage by each party.

0102-21 - Marriage settlement from Suffolk, England

Written in Latin, the document to the left is a marriage settlement from Suffolk, England from July 1560, relating to the marriage of Thomas Heyward and Margaret Bryan of Sudbury. Similar to marriage contracts, marriage settlements were drawn up before a union and focused on the division and management of marital property.

There are two primary types of marriage settlements: a strict settlement and a trust settlement. A strict settlement “entailed” property, so that it would be passed on to a sole heir, usually the eldest son of the union and his heirs. This prevented estates and wealth from being divided among multiple heirs. A trust settlement, on the other hand, was drawn up to preserve a woman's separate estate. Since English women could not write their own wills without the permission of their husbands before 1882, this type of settlement protected a woman's interest in property or a source of wealth. Trust settlements served many important functions such as protecting property for a woman's children from an earlier marriage and securing a woman's source of income for her own use after her husband's death.

Given their preoccupation with the consolidation and management of property and wealth, detailed marriage contracts were often the purview of the wealthy. Couples without property or gifts to exchange were more likely to be satisfied with their union simply being recorded by church or court officials.

The Business of Death: Wills, Codicils, and Family Registers

Probate records are court documents which validate and prove the last wishes of the deceased and settle their estate. Wills, testaments, and codicils are all types of probate records. These records are an invaluable source for historians and other researchers as they provide information such as the names of heirs and family members, familiar relationships, the localities associated with individuals and families, and inventories of properties and household goods.

The last will and testament of Margaret Tinker of Wiltshire, England dated April 3rd 1704. The will is multiple pages and written in English. The record of probate is attached to the front of the will and written in Latin. 0067-02 - Tinker and Amor families records. Click here to view transcription.

In order to avoid court costs, wills were occasionally not submitted to the probate courts. Wills and related documents would be kept among family and estate records to be probated at a later date if the disbursements were contested. The records below were found among the Parsons family’s records, and include the wills of two family members and a family register which tracks births, deaths, and marriages.

0067-07 - Parsons family records - Last will and testament of James Parsons, 1774. Click here to view transcription.
0067-06 - Parsons family records - Portions of a will, codicil, and estate notes of William Parsons, 1769. Click here to view transcriptions.
0067-07 - Parsons family records - Presumably written by William Parsons, author of the above will. Family records can be a great resource for piecing together family trees. However, they can also be difficult to interpret given that many family members shared the same names, and they were not always updated with deaths or later marriages. Click here to view transcription.
Manorial Records: Leases, Sales, Copyhold

Manor records are a rich source and may include marriage contracts, sales receipts, leases, deeds, property rolls, and copyhold agreements. While often associated with landed upper class families, a manor is an administrative body that manages specific geographic units of land. As such, manor records typically deal with the boundaries of estates, the leasing of land, and the granting of services and privileges related to land. Manorial records are notable in that they provide evidence of the lives of both the lords of the manor and the ordinary people who rented and worked the land.

The Archives and Special collections holds several records from Blofield Manor in Norwich, England. The documents, such as the Deed of Covenant below, lay out the privileges granted to each tenant and the services or payments the tenant would render to the lord of the manor in return.

0073-01-Records relating to Blofield Manor, Norwich
The absolute surrender (or sale) of copyhold land by James Grimble from June 12, 1819. Click here to view transcription.

A copyhold is a type of land ownership in which land is 'owned' by the lord of the manor but is 'held' and used by the tenant. The tenant's hold on the land, and subsequent rights and privileges, were based on the custom of the manor of which the land was a part of, and could vary widely from manor to manor. Copyhold agreements dictated the uses land could be put to, the rents charged, and the transfer of land from tenant to tenant, or to a tenant's heirs. From the 16th century on, copyhold transitioned into true ownership of the land, known as freehold.

This document, which transfers copyhold from the deceased father to his eldest son through sale, demonstrates how copyhold rights and inheritance systems intersected. Click here to view transcription.
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