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Philippa Russell and the Wills of London’s Late Medieval Singlewomen
By Judith M. Bennett and Christopher Whittick
The London Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3 (2007)
Abstract: Never-married women were common in the streets and lanes of late medieval London, but few of their wills survive. Philippa Russell is one of only 15 such testators recorded in London probate courts between 1450 and 1500, and her will is especially long and informative. Providing readers with a translation of Russell’s will, this article examines what it reveals about Russell’s piety, charity, civic-mindedness, wealth, and personal and familial relations. It also discusses the varied meanings of the new term ‘singlewoman’ (Russell’s chosen self-identiﬁ cation) and compares Russell’s last provisions with those of other singlewomen, maidens, puellae and virgines in late medieval London.
For centuries, the quintessential female testator in London was a widow. Although many medieval and early modern widows were desperately poor, a few had sufficient assets to bequeath their real estate, cash, chattels and other goods. Widows not only sometimes had the financial wherewithal to compose a last will and testament; they also had the legal authority. Wives were deemed ineligible testators until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, and although some married women before 1882 made wills, usually with the explicit permission of their husbands, few did. Like widows, never-married women had the legal capacity to devise goods and land, but it was not until the middle of the fifteenth century that some of their wills can be firmly differentiated from those of widows. Philippa Russell, whose extensive will from 1458 is translated and discussed here, is among the first testators in London to identify herself as a never-married woman. Singlewomen such as Philippa Russell never outnumbered widows in the registers of the various jurisdictions in which the wills of Londoners were proved, but they did speak in a distinctive voice.