Contributing an original dimension to the significant body of published scholarship on women in 16th-century England, this study examines the largest corpus of women’s private writings available to historians: their wills. In these, female voices speak out, commenting on their daily lives, on identity, gender, status, familial relationships and social engagement. Wills show women to have been active participants in a civil society, well aware of their personal authority and potential influence, whose committed actions during life and charitable strategies after death could and did impact the health of that society. From an intensive analysis of more than 1200 wills, this pioneering work focuses on women from all parts of the country and all strata of society, revealing an entire population of articulate, opportunistic, and capable individuals who found the spaces between the lines of the law and used those spaces to achieve personal goals. Author Susan James demonstrates how wills describe strategies for end-of-life care, create platforms of remembrance, and offer insights into the myriad occupational endeavors in which women were engaged. James illuminates how these documents were not simply instruments of bequest and inheritance, but were statements of power and control, catalogues of material culture from which we are able to gauge a woman’s understanding of her own reality and the context that formed her environment. Wills were tools and the way in which women wielded these tools offers new ways to look at England in the 16th century and reveals the seminal role women played in its development.
Susan E. James is an historian and independent researcher. She received her PhD from Cambridge University and is the author of Kateryn Parr: The Making of a Queen (Ashgate, 1999), The Feminine Dynamic in English Art (Ashgate, 2008), and a contributor to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
"This book is highly recommended for its topic, approach, and new perspectives on women’s wills in the Tudor epoch. James presents her views with clarity and at a welcome pace." - George Lazaroiu, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, NY, and Spiru Haret University, Bucharest, Romania
"Does James succeed in allowing us access to the voices of ordinary women? The answer is yes, and with an extraordinary level of detail. Her desire to focus on women’s common experience, however, introduces the idea of a more “universal” Tudor woman than some historians would be willing to accept. But the book should be read by everyone interested in women’s voices, especially in this period. The great strength of James’s book is the amount of knowledge she has so admirably extracted from her sources. Wills really are so much more than mere transfers of property." - Judith Spicksley, University of York, UK
"This is an important contribution that analyses an impressive body of data. James’s investigation of women’s wills sheds light on the concerns, preoccupations and activities of women in Tudor England and raises important new questions about gender and inheritance." - CHARMIAN MANSELL, UNIVERSITY OF EXETER, UK