A Generous Gift Compromised by Events? The will of Alice Spratt, widow, of Eccles against the Sea

The will of Alice Spratt [1] dated January 11th 1558/1559 [2] clearly shows counter-Reformation tendencies despite the fact that Catholic Queen Mary had died in the previous November and her younger sister Elizabeth now sat on the throne. Alice bequeaths her soul to ‘Almytghtie god And to our blissed ladye sainte Marye and to all the gloryous companye of heaven’, firmly Catholic sentiments which would have been heavily suppressed in her lifetime during the reign of Protestant King Edward VI [1547-1553] However, Catholicism was restored as the state religion during Mary’s reign and it seems still tolerated in the early days of Protestant Elizabeth’s reign.

Alice was a widow and she asks to be laid to rest in the churchyard of Eccles St. Mary next the Sea ‘nigh to Robert Cristwicke my late husband’. With no mention of a second husband it appears that Alice has resorted to her maiden name in widowhood.  

Spratt, alias Pratt, Alice, widow, of Eccles [St Mary] next the Sea. Norfolk Record Office, NCC will register Veysye 18

Her will is typical of a well-to-do widow of a Norfolk east coast farming and fishing family, making careful and detailed bequests of her house, lands, possessions and money to her close family and friends. She leaves the main part of her estate to,

Thomas Cristwick my sonne all my house and lands That I nowe stande in free and bond in fee simple to hym and to his heires for ever…’

But she also directs that he has to provide for his siblings and other close family members ‘yelding and paying them for xxtie [20] years’ and goes on to give a detailed list of the money and possessions Thomas has to provide. The possessions mentioned include mainly clothing and jewellery to the female family members;

 ‘Item I give to Katherine Deram my daughter my beste Gowne and A payer of taches[3] of sylver and Gilt’, whilst several younger male members receive ‘a manfare of heryn Nettes’ [4] when they come of age.   

In making her will we know that Alice looked far to the future in directing Thomas to make provision for twenty years, and a similar time period is also assigned to her bequest directed towards the poor people of the parish where she says,

Item I will give one Combe wheate Racey [5] And one combe of malte Growne [6] and one quarter of A weye of chese [7] to be devyded amonge my neighbours in the churche of Eccles yerely duringe the tyme of xxtie [20] yeres till complete.’

Alice’s gift to the poor of wheat to make bread, malt to make beer and cheese is not particularly unusual for earlier Tudor times, and was a common intercessory practice intended to speed the benefactor’s passage through purgatory and quickly reach the sanctity of heaven. Such beliefs and practices were made illegal under Edward VI, but encouraged in Mary’s counter-Reformation.  .

Maintaining these distributions of food and drink for twenty years, presumably each January on the anniversary of Alice’s death [8] is more unusual and also particularly generous. When milled to wholemeal flour a coomb of wheat would yield at least 240 standard 1lb loaves of coarse ‘Yeomans’ bread, whilst a coomb of malt could produce three 36-gallon barrels of weaker ‘small’ beer. With the population of Eccles around two hundred people, [9] we can estimate that some 30% would qualify as poor, thus at least sixty people would be able to use Alice’s generous gift every year to each produce around two gallons of beer, four large loaves of bread and they would also receive just under one pound of cheese. At that time the cheese would have been well matured, very hard and grated into soup or pottage to provide extra flavour.

So it is with some poignancy we find that Alice’s kind forethought may never have been made ‘till complete’ with the demise of Eccles church in 1570. By then, some eleven years into the due term, as a result of severe coast erosion St. Mary’s church was badly damaged and dismantled in 1571, with the parishioner’s graves including those of Alice and husband Robert abandoned to the sea. By a Deed of Union [10] the parish of Eccles was combined with neighbouring Hempstead; Eccles parishioners then attended St. Andrew’s church, but whether the annual distributions continued in this church for the remaining years is not known.

Neither can we be sure that Alice’s kind gifts were not compromised by other events and perhaps never distributed in the first place. It would not be long before Elizabeth’s Protestant views would see yet again the suppression of intercessory practices and the widespread persecution of Catholics across the land.  

David Stannard August 2020

[1] Norfolk Record Office Norwich Consistory Court Will Register NCC Veyse 18 MF53  

[2] Tudor Legal year 1558/ Calendar year 1559

[3] Taches are fasteners

[4] A fleet of herring nets

[5] A coomb of wheat weighs 18 stones. ‘Racey’ wheat is of the finest quality

[6] ‘Malte growne’ is germinated barley

[7] With a ‘weye’ equal to 224lbs this makes 56lbs of cheese.       

[8] Her will was proved at Norwich on February 3rd 1558/9.

[9] The Certificate of the Ruynated Estate of the Poor Towne of Eccles in the Countye of Norffolk’ NRO HNR 723/1a

[10] Tanner’s Index NRO DN/REG 31 folio 1595 (pages 551-3)

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