The Unusual Burial Request of Stephen Kendall, singleman of Hempstead cum Eccles, Norfolk


The wills of 16th and 17th century testators can provide researchers with some remarkable insights into the lives of ordinary people by telling us their actual thoughts and beliefs, albeit in a stylised form, as opposed to what written history wanted later generations to believe. The underlying beliefs of the testators can then be matched to their actions to explain why and how they make provisions for preserving their souls, and through their various bequests of money and goods how they provide for family, friends and the wider community.  

Generous Bequests

Stephen Kendall made his will [1] on the ‘xijth daie of Marche in the third yeare of the raigne of our soveraigne lord James by the grace of god of England ffrance and Ireland kinge,…’ in other words March 12th 1606. [2] He describes himself as a singleman, and makes two very simple bequests, firstlyleavingtwenty shillings to the town stocke [3] ‘for the pore people  within the parishe of hempsted and Eccles aforesaid for theire releife,’ and he also leaves ‘unto every of the children of my late sister Margaret the late wife of John Leame to itche of them xls [40s] a pece’. Although he doesn’t say how many children this applies to it is reasonable to assume he means two. The residue of his goods and chattels he bequeaths to his mother Dorothye who he says is, ‘the new wife of Roberte Ryall of Hempsted and Eccles aforesaide…’

Mariners of Hempstead

The probate record also includes Stephen’s brief inventory [4] where his few possessions, amounting to the value of £8:13s:4d, comprised a chest, one net, one line, a small coffer and ‘his pewter taken by his executor.’  [5] This helps to confirm that he was a mariner, almost certainly a fisherman in the family tradition. 

Probate inventory of Stephen Kendall, 1608. Norfolk Record Office, DN/INV 22/43

The 1557 will of John Kendale [6] records that he was a mariner of ‘Hempstead nere Sea’, and the 1590 will of Thomas Kyndle, [7] probably John’s son, also confirms that he too was a mariner of Hempstead. Thomas leaves his estate to his wife Dorothy and eldest son William, but Thomas and Dorothy had other sons, sadly unnamed, but given the mother’s name it seems very likely that one of them was Stephen.

Stephen’s inventory also shows he was a prudent young man having made investments in ‘bonds obligatory’ of £6, the same amount as the total of his bequests.  

Stephen’s Firmly Protestant Testament

Much of his actions are explained in examining Stephen’s testament, written in a highly evocative Protestant style where he, ‘comende my selfe bothe bodie and sowle unto Almyghtie god the father sonne and holy ghoste…. belevinge to be saved By and throughe the atonemennttes of our only saviour Jesus christe….’ He firmly believes ‘att the daye of the general resurrection of all flesh to lyve raigne with thrifte united in bodie and sowle in the kyngdome of heaven’ which explains his carefully planned savings, and his generosity to the poor of the parish. He was obviously a relatively young man, but given the dangerous nature of his profession and committed ‘God-fearing’ beliefs he foresaw the need to make a will. Perhaps fearing his death would come as a result of a disaster at sea or by unexpected disease, he made his will in March 1606, some two years before his death. Many testators of that time only made their wills on their death beds, indeed his father’s will is ‘non cupative’, [8] meaning that he left it rather too late and his will was made after his death.

An excerpt from the will of Stephen Kendall. The last three lines contain his request for burial at sea.
National Archives PROB 11/118/502

Burial at Sea

Stephen’s will was subsequently proved by Norwich Diocesan Court on July 4th 1608, the day after his inventory was taken, which all indicates he must have died by the first week of July 1608. Stephen also requests in his will to be buried at sea by stating, my bodye in the meane while I adventure to God his provident uppon the sea and to the sea yf it shall please God there to call my sowle to his heavenly kingdom.’ This is somewhat unusual; none of the other 16th/17th century wills of Hempstead or Eccles testators, mariners or otherwise, make such a provision, although it does seem very appropriate given his profession. [9] Again, it may be that Stephen was pre-empting his eventual demise given that he could all too easily have been lost at sea with his body never recovered.

Was This Unusual For the Time?

There may be another clue that this burial request was unusual for that time in that some three years after Stephen’s death his mother Dorothy, whom he appoints as his executrix, lodges the will with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. [10] This is the highest probate court in the land which would determine cases where, for various reasons, the Diocesan courts would not entertain a case. Could Stephen have been lost at sea with the absence of a body causing the will to be contested? The text of the second will is virtually identical to the first and National Archive records confirm that it too was proved by the Prerogative Court in London on December 9th 1611.

Stephen’s story begs the question; how common was it for testators to request to be buried at sea in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, and did the practice only come into common usage in the ‘great age of sail’ during the 18th and 19th centuries?

Written by David Stannard, Eccles-on-Sea    

[1] NRO NCC Spencer 55

[2] This will is dated by the Regnal Year as March 12th in the third year of the reign of James I [of England] and the 39th of his reign in Scotland. James ascended the English throne on March 24th 1603, so the third year of his reign commenced on March 24th 1605. Accordingly, this will must have been written on March 12th in the following Calendar Year 1606.

[3] A town stocke is a community trust fund usually used for poor relief.

[4] NRO DN/INV 22/43

[5] A coffer is a chest with a curved lid, probably Stephen’s sea chest.

[6] NRO ANF Liber 16 Beales fo.65 

[7] ANF Liber 30 Carter fo. 398

[8]Nun cupative’, Latin for ‘now imparted.’

[9] Wills of Hempstead Residents [1487-1608].  David Stannard – unpublished research study

[10] National Archives PROB 11/118/502

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