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March 2012 Item of the Month

A schedule of 'goulde and silver in readie currant coine',

annexed to the will of Richard Belasyse of Morton, 1599.

Until 1858 probate was administered through Church courts, and the procedures and forms established over the centuries remain remarkably familiar to those encountered today in the civil Probate Service. The records of some 80,000 individuals from the north-east of England can be found in Durham Diocese's probate collection (1540-1858), held in the library's Special Collections: an online catalogue was published in 2010, and images of all the documents will be made available by the Genealogical Society of Utah.

Among the great mass of conventional testates and intestates' records can be found documents that surprise the researcher with glimpses of lives that could not be confined within the bounds of the court's dry formulae.

One such example is the 1597 will of Richard Belasyse esquire of Morton Grange, with its accompanying schedule of gold and silver. This schedule is a treasure map for several large caches of specie secreted in various ingenious places throughout his home: some, for example, 'walled upon the lefte hande and west side of the litell darke staire that goeth downe out of my bedde chamber at Morton into my studie their about three quarters of a yearde above the upper steppe or staire', some more 'putt w[i]thin a bagge thrust into an old lether shoe and lieth within upon the upp[er] floore of the said presser in my studye where the glasses standes on the West end behinde two bookes', and more 'putt into the wall of the highe new studie on the est side in a hole yt hath a namer doore of firre'. (Note that the present Morton House was completely rebuilt in 1709!)

The schedule is doubly interesting, as it survives only as a meticulous copy, what later might be called a facsimile, made by Thomas King, a notary public and Durham court official. The document's authenticity was challenged - the original was clearly a palimpsest of the testator's fluid financial and testamentary dispositions over the last few years of his life. In the court's copy each of Belasyse's own cancellations and additions is faithfully reproduced, both with his own contemporary subscriptions as to their validity, and with the additional judgements of Thomas King as to the authenticity of the handwriting in the original.

The character of Richard Belasyse that emerges is more that of a careful than a paranoid man. The document presents the general predicament of monied English people living outside London in the early-modern period, that is living in a society without banks. The retail banking services we (begrudgingly) rely upon today were not established at this date, the first county bank in this region, that of Bell, Cookson, Carr and Airey, was founded in Newcastle upon Tyne around 1755. Until then, society functioned largely on credit, a market in which Richard Belasyse was clearly an active participant, and to which probate records generally can offer a valuable insight. We might also note that Belasyse salted away all this coin, and there really was a lot of it, only with the aid of his trusted housekeeper, noting more than once, 'Margret Lambert is onely privie, who helped to lay it their'. Lambert was sensibly named as a co-executor, and herself received substantial legacies of money and goods, indeed of a value and significance commensurate only with those bequeathed by Belasyse to his closest relations.

Subsequently Belasyse's probate was twice the subject of litigation: even the executors fell out with each other, and the schedule was ultimately only entered into the registry once Belasyse's nephew had been compelled to exhibit it by Margaret Davell, formerly known as Margaret Lambert.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.