One of the primary concerns of a newly-married couple with any property was to produce ‘an heir and a spare’ to continue the line and ensure the estate’s descent through future generations of their family. From the mid-16th century wills could be used to overrule the ancient law of primogeniture that gave the eldest child the right of inheritance, if this were not the desired outcome. They could also stipulate what would happen if the heir died without any surviving children.
Take the case of John Harrington who wrote his will in 1663. This was an unusually rambling document which revealed a story of family discord that was causing John untold worry. He had a son by his first wife, and two sons and four daughters by his second wife who also predeceased him. John owned three properties in Shropshire but had fallen out with his eldest son, referring in his will to ‘controversies guiles and differences between me and my son John Harrington’. Not only was John senior worried about his son inheriting his estate, but also what would happen to it if his son had no legitimate heirs. In his will he reminded his son that he had promised faithfully to settle the estate on his brother George if he should die without male heirs.
For his part, John junior had told his father ‘that he should fall mad in case I should alienate the ancient inheritance from him who much desired that it should continue in our name and blood’, but these ultimately proved to be empty words. John senior recorded this promise in his will and went on to say ‘I being in extreme anguish and pain not expecting to lie a day longer being often times visited with intolerable fits and to quiet and pacify my son John his passionate and discontented mind’.
John Harrington senior was evidently a worried man and, it turned out, with good cause. Six months after his death, John junior married a Berkshire heiress and moved to Sussex – so much for his love of his ‘ancient inheritance’. Although the Shropshire estate passed to the second son, George, he had no heirs and the estate was sold at his death.