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The Christmas family argument: A centuries-old tradition

Posted on 21 December 2017

For many families Christmas isn’t all turkey, tinsel and Dickens. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without a family meltdown.


A 17th-century document uncovered in the archives at the University of York suggests that the annual festive family row is not an exclusive feature of the modern family Christmas. The contents of York grandmother Margaret Wincupp’s final will and testament written in December 1639 have the potential to have caused a Christmas squabble of epic proportions.

Believing she was on her last legs, Margaret Wincupp sat down to write her final will and testament unafraid to make her favourites clear. But after delivering her wishes, her unexpected survival through the Christmas period must have made for an extremely awkward family Christmas.


Rings to wear in remembrance of me

To her grandchildren John Hayes and Katherine and Jane Ranson she leaves the handsome sum of £10 each, but other members of the family are not so fortunate.

Granddaughters Abigaill Bethiak and Sarah Wincupp receive a respectable twenty shillings each, but they are told to use the funds to “buiy them Rings to weare in remembrance of me”.

Then there’s poor old Elzabeth Cockseild, who is pledged Margaret’s “Mourninge Gowne which I weare every day and workeday hatt” – the gift of well-worn second hand clothes.

The right to collect a debt

Finally, there’s granddaughter Mary Hayes, who is likely to have felt the most hard done by when Margaret bequeaths her the most thoughtful of Christmas gifts: the right to collect a debt, from her own mother. The “Fifty shillings her mother oweth me” are now Mary’s to claim.

Access Archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York, Gary Brannan, said: “Margaret was pretty sure she was coming to the end of her life and took the opportunity in December of 1639 to make sure things are done the way she wanted after her death. Her personality certainly shines through in her will!”

Wills can be full of unusual bequests, but you can imagine how difficult it would have been for Mary Hayes to chase her mother for the debt”, added Brannan.

Perhaps Margaret didn’t think she would live long enough to face the fallout from the uneven distribution of her estate, but burial records show that she stuck around until the August of the following year.

Margaret, who seems to have been reminiscent of Maggie Smith’s character Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey, was buried at Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate, York.

Her will was spotted in the 17th-century register of Archbishop Williams, which kept a record of court documents and is now held in the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York.

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About this research

Gary Brannan is the Access Archivist at the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York