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Family History: Last Will & Testaments

by Nick Thorne, The Nosey Genealogist on October 25th, 2015

 

Death of NelsonFinding Ancestor’s Wills

Wills are a valuable source of genealogical information for researching our ancestor’s family history. They can give us details of family members, places of residence and burial, as well as revealing details about possessions. Many researchers new to family history are surprised to find that all levels of society left wills and not just the wealthy.

That having been said, however, as this week has seen the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, on the 21st October 1805, I am going to take as my example the will of the great architect of that victory: Admiral Lord Nelson. Viscount Nelson, as most of us are aware from our history lessons, lost his life on that day on board his flag ship, HMS Victory.

 

I have accessed the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills on TheGenealogist website and by using the Master Search I entered the Forename: Horatio, and Surname of Nelson and then selected Wills from the drop-down menu.

With one click we can see below an image of the original will written, on the 10th May 1803.

Admiral Nelson's will

Who got what?

The last Will and Testament can reveal what an ancestor considered important to them by what they distribute to their family and friends. We can often discover the charities that they may have supported and perhaps, as in Nelson’s case, other people that they cared enough about to have specifically mentioned in the document.

Nelson, we can read, left the poor of three parishes a charitable donation. As for whom he considered important, his mistress, Lady Hamilton, is first in line with the gift of his Diamond Star and a silver cup. Next to receive a  bequest was his brother, the Rev. William Nelson D.D., who got the gold box that had been presented by the City of London to the Admiral. The Reverend Nelson was also left the gold sword that had been presented by the Captains who had fought alongside Nelson at the Battle of the Nile. His two sisters are left a sword and a silver cup each and to his “worthy friend Captain Hardy”, Nelson left his telescopes, sea glasses and £100.

Last Wishes Betrayed

Codicils can reveal changes of mind by our ancestors, or simply an update of their last wishes. In Nelson’s case he was aware that he was going into battle and may not survive the day when he wrote a final codicil “in sight of the combined fleets of France and Spain” poignantly he was correct in that assumption.

A click on the record on TheGenealogist and, with a bit of practice to decipher the handwriting, we can make out the words of praise that he heaps on Lady Hamilton for the help she has given to her country. It would seem that the Admiral believed she had been overlooked for a reward for her diplomacy on behalf of Britain.

 

Nelson's codicil

Nelson appeals to the King and Country that, should he die “ample provision to maintain her rank in life” should be given to his mistress. It would seem providing for Lady Emma Hamilton and, by inference, his illegitimate daughter Horatia lay heavy with Nelson as he saw the enemy fleets on the horizon.

On that very afternoon the Admiral was fatally wounded by a single musket ball and died.

HMS Victory and the spot where Neslon Fell

Despite his last wishes, the government awarded various moneys to Nelson’s family instead and ignored Lady Hamilton and Horatia. Emma ended up in the King’s Bench Debtors Prison, along with her daughter, before running away from her creditors and going to live in Calais. When Lady Hamilton died in 1815, aged 49, Horatia went to live with one of Nelson’s sisters and eventually she married a clergyman to live quietly with a large family of ten children as a vicar’s wife back in England.

 

To search for your ancestor’s wills and countless other useful records take a look at TheGenealogist now.

The Genealogist - UK census, BMDs and more online

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One Comment
  1. James Mac permalink

    You may wish to know that there is now a very substantial collection of wills made in the USA on Ancestry.com (which can be a handy way into overseas family records). It does require a worldwide subscription, though.

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