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will writing

When Did Will Writing Begin?

Will writing, the practice of documenting one’s wishes for the distribution of assets and care of dependents after death, is an ancient and essential tradition that spans cultures and centuries. Understanding the history of will writing provides insight into societal values, legal evolution, and human desire for order and continuity. This blog explores the origins of will writing, tracing its development through different civilisations and historical periods, and reflecting on its significance in the UK today.

Origins in Ancient Civilisations

The concept of will writing can be traced back to ancient civilisations, where the need to ensure the proper succession of property and authority was paramount. In ancient Egypt, for example, documents resembling wills have been discovered in tombs dating back to the third millennium BCE. These early wills often took the form of letters to the gods, asking for protection and guidance for the deceased’s family and possessions. The Egyptians believed that proper burial rites and the careful allocation of possessions were crucial for a smooth transition to the afterlife. Similarly, in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilisation, the practice of recording one’s wishes regarding property and inheritance was evident. The Code of Hammurabi, one of the oldest known legal codes, included provisions for inheritance and the distribution of assets. These early legal frameworks laid the foundation for more formalised will writing practices that would emerge in later civilisations.

Will Writing in Ancient Greece and Rome

The c and Romans further developed the practice of will writing, incorporating more structured legal elements. In ancient Greece, wills were often oral declarations made in the presence of witnesses. This practice was eventually replaced by written wills, known as “diathekai,” which were more formal and legally binding. Greek wills typically included provisions for the distribution of property, guardianship of children, and instructions for funeral arrangements.

The Romans, renowned for their legal innovations, made significant contributions to the practice of will writing. Roman law, particularly the Twelve Tables, provided a comprehensive framework for wills and inheritance. Roman citizens could draft “testamentum,” a written will that required witnesses and specific formalities to be considered valid. Roman wills not only addressed the distribution of property but also included provisions for the manumission of slaves, demonstrating the complexity and importance of wills in Roman society.

Mediaeval Europe and the Influence of the Church

During the mediaeval period, the practice of will writing in Europe was heavily influenced by the Church. The Christian doctrine emphasised the importance of preparing for the afterlife, which included making provisions for the distribution of one’s earthly possessions. Consequently, the Church played a central role in the drafting and validation of wills. In mediaeval England, wills were often written in Latin and included detailed instructions for the distribution of land, goods, and money. The clergy frequently acted as witnesses and executors, ensuring that the deceased’s wishes were carried out in accordance with religious and legal norms. The Church’s involvement also extended to the establishment of charitable bequests, where individuals would leave part of their estate to religious institutions or for the care of the poor. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 brought significant changes to the legal system, including the administration of wills. The introduction of feudalism meant that land inheritance became more complicated, with the king retaining ultimate ownership of all land. As a result, wills often required royal approval, adding another layer of complexity to the process.

The Evolution of Will Writing in the Early Modern Period

The early modern period saw significant developments in the practice of will writing, influenced by social, economic, and legal changes. The Renaissance, with its emphasis on individualism and humanism, encouraged people to take greater control over their personal affairs, including the disposition of their property after death. In England, the Statute of Wills, enacted in 1540 during the reign of Henry VIII, marked a crucial turning point. This legislation allowed landowners greater freedom to dispose of their property through wills, breaking away from the rigid constraints of feudal inheritance laws. The Statute of Wills established that land could be bequeathed by will, provided certain formalities were met, such as the use of written documents and the presence of witnesses. The development of common law in England further refined the practice of will writing. Legal professionals, including solicitors and barristers, began to specialise in the drafting and execution of wills. This professionalisation ensured that wills were prepared in accordance with legal standards, reducing the risk of disputes and ensuring the deceased’s wishes were honoured.

Colonial Expansion and Will Writing

The expansion of European colonial empires during the early modern period brought the practice of will writing to new territories. In the American colonies, for instance, English legal traditions influenced the development of inheritance laws and the drafting of wills. Colonial settlers often adopted the legal frameworks of their home countries, ensuring that the practice of will writing continued to evolve in different cultural and legal contexts. In the British colonies, wills played a crucial role in the transfer of property and the establishment of familial and social order. The complexity of colonial life, with its diverse populations and economic challenges, required clear and legally binding instructions for the distribution of assets. Wills often reflected the unique circumstances of colonial life, addressing issues such as land grants, trade partnerships, and the manumission of enslaved individuals.

The 19th and 20th Centuries: Modernisation and Reform

The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed significant changes in the practice of will writing, driven by legal reforms and social transformations. In the UK, the Wills Act of 1837 established a comprehensive framework for the drafting and execution of wills, standardising the requirements and ensuring greater legal clarity. The act set out the formalities for valid wills, including the need for written documents, signatures, and witnesses, and remains a cornerstone of English inheritance law to this day. The rise of the middle class during the Victorian era also influenced will writing practices. As more people acquired property and wealth, the need for clear and legally binding wills became increasingly important. The growth of the legal profession and the establishment of probate courts ensured that wills were properly executed and disputes were resolved efficiently. The 20th century brought further reforms, with changes in social attitudes and legal standards. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, for instance, allowed married women to own and dispose of property independently, leading to greater autonomy in will writing. Additionally, the introduction of inheritance tax in the early 20th century prompted individuals to carefully consider their estate planning to minimise tax liabilities.

Contemporary Will Writing in the UK

Today, will writing in the UK is a well-established and regulated practice, with legal professionals and specialised firms offering a range of services to assist individuals in drafting their wills. The advent of digital technology has also transformed the process, making it easier for people to create and store their wills securely. Despite these advancements, many people still do not have a will, often due to procrastination or misconceptions about the complexity and cost of the process. However, the importance of having a legally valid will cannot be overstated. A will ensures that one’s wishes are honoured, reduces the risk of disputes among heirs, and provides clarity and peace of mind for loved ones. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of will writing, with a significant increase in the number of people seeking to create or update their wills. The uncertainty and risks associated with the pandemic have prompted many to consider their mortality and the need to make clear arrangements for the future.


The history of will writing is a testament to humanity’s desire for order, continuity, and control over one’s legacy. From the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians to the Greeks and Romans, and through the mediaeval and early modern periods, the practice of documenting one’s wishes for the distribution of property has evolved significantly. Legal reforms and social changes have shaped the development of will writing, reflecting broader shifts in society and individual autonomy. In the UK today, will writing is a crucial aspect of estate planning, ensuring that individuals can make clear and legally binding arrangements for the future. The practice continues to evolve, influenced by technological advancements and changing social attitudes. Understanding the history of will writing not only provides insight into the legal and cultural heritage of the UK but also underscores the enduring importance of this ancient and essential tradition. As we move forward, the need for clear and legally valid wills remains paramount. Whether through traditional methods or modern digital platforms, the practice of will writing will continue to play a vital role in ensuring that individuals can protect their loved ones and leave a lasting legacy. For more information about wills, power of attorney or anything else, contact the team at Complete Estate Protection.