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Introduction

The following abstracts of Inquisitiones post mortem are taken from those that are still extant in the Public Record Office, London, for the county of Wilts, from the commencement of the reign of King Charles I. The original documents are in Latin, and the advantage of these readable English abstracts, which supply all the information which the originals themselves contain, will be generally appreciated. They are taken from the Series known as “Chancery Inquisitions,” and have been collated whenever necessary with the transcripts sent into the Court of Wards and Liveries.

It will be convenient to give some particulars respecting these Inquisitions or inquests, which it must be borne in mind are quite distinct from the inquests still taken by the coroner in order to ascertain causes of death. Inquisitiones post mortem were concerned only with the property held “in chief” by the deceased, and were requisite in order to ascertain the feudal rights which accrued to the Crown upon the death of any tenant in chief. Until the practical abolition of the service of knight serjeantry in 1645—it was not formally abolished until the accession of King Charles the Second in 1660—the Crown was entitled to levy certain feudal exactions, into the details of which it is hardly requisite to enter here. When the heir-at-law was a minor he became a ward of the Crown. This was turned into a source of profit, being often sold for hard cash, for it was a privilege of considerable value, meaning the right not only to receive the rents and profits of the property during the ward’s minority, but also the right of finding a spouse for the youthful heir. When the heir attained his majority he then became the subject of further, feudal exactions, for on suing out his ousterlemain, that is, delivery to him by the Crown of the lands for which he was in ward, he had to make certain payments, and bring forward strict proof that he had attained his full age of twenty-one years. Amongst the Inquisitiones post mortem are still to be found some few of these Inquisitions known as proofs of age, probatio etatis—usually very interesting documents on account of the evidence of the witnesses who were examined in order to show how they knew that the heir had attained his majority. Amongst the Inquisitiones post mortem are also some taken virtute officii, others ad quod damnum, besides those dealing with the property of lunatics and idiots.

The proceedings which followed upon the death of a tenant in chief were as follows:—A writ styled the writ of diem clausit extremum, which was a mediaeval synonym for obiit, was issued out of the Court of Chancery; this was directed usually to the escheator or feodary of the county in which the deceased was presumed to have possessed lands. It commanded him to hold an inquest and to summon a jury for the purpose of an inquiry which was directed to the following points:—
1.    Of what lands the deceased died possessed.
2.    Of whom and by what services the same were held.
3.    The date of his death.
4.    The name and age of the heir-at-law.
Following the directions contained in the writ the escheator or feodary summoned a jury, who in accordance with the evidence placed before them gave their verdict upon oath ; the return was engrossed upon parchment, and in due course delivered into the Court of Chancery and there filed. During the inquiry the dealings that the deceased had had with his property came under review, and this necessitated inquiry into family settlements and trusts affecting them, and consequently we often find such documents, including wills, are recited very fully, thus affording information of the highest value to the genealogist.
The officials in the Chancery in due course forwarded a copy of the inquisition into the King’s Exchequer, so that the officers there might collect the accruing feudal dues. Occasionally the jury made an insufficient or inaccurate return, and then a further writ, known as the writ ad melius inquirendum, was directed to the escheator requiring him to hold a second inquest for ascertaining the facts omitted. Sometimes this process had to be repeated a second or third time.

In the reign of Henry VIII, in consequence of the alleged extortions on the part of the Crown officials, and the practice which had grown up of compelling landowners who were not tenants in capite to sue out their ousterlemains, the Court of Wards and Liveries was created for the sole purpose of attending to the business arising from these Inquisitions. To this Court also were sent transcripts of the Inquisitiones post mortem. Consequently, until the thirty-fifth year of Henry VIII there are two sets, the original returns known as the Chancery series and the transcripts or the Exchequer series, while after that date must be added a third, the Wards and Liveries series. The existence of these three sets of transcripts is a fortunate circumstance, as sometimes they enable us to make good the deficiencies in the Chancery series.

These abstracts have been prepared by Messrs. Hardy and Page, and Miss Walford, of London, and every reliance can be placed on their accuracy.

The Indexes Nominum and Locorum, which have been generously supplied by Mr. A. Schomberg, of Seend, were compiled by Mr. E. Kite, of Poulshot, Wilts.
GEORGE S. FRY. EDW. ALEX. FRY.

Source: Abstracts of Wiltshire Inquisitiones Post Mortem returned into the Court of Chancery in the reign of King Charles the First. Edited by George S. Fry and Edw. Alex. Fry. London 1901.