I had a 7th great-granduncle, William Shepheard (1638-after 1685), who attempted to have a forged will of his brother, Sampson Shepheard (ca1636-1685), proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in 1685. If he had been successful, my 6th great-grandfather, Nicholas Shepheard (ca1675-1756), would have been deprived of significant lands and other property. No doubt the history of his descendants would have been much different as well, without the family estate in Cornwood parish, Devon.
I found the court summary in a search of the name, Shepheard, in the catalogue of The National Archives (TNA) of Britain. The surviving records concerning the proceedings were contained in four files which were readily obtained through TNA. They included the supposed will submitted for probate, depositions of persons who had been enlisted to draft and witness the will, notes of the justice overseeing the case and the written sentence of the justice. Several of the documents were written in Latin which, of course, made reading it a bit difficult. That problem was solved by enlisting the services of a student in the Fine Arts Department of the University of Calgary to translate the document. Today I could probably use one of the online translating sites such as Google Translate.
The story is one of both deceit and intrigue.
|1685 - portion of TNA document PROB 11/385 - Concerning the nullity of the alleged will of Sampson Shepheard|
William first sought out an attorney to draft the will and was introduced to Richard Stephyns of Tavistock, Devon, by a mutual acquaintance, John Winsor, who knew him only as Constable Shepheard of Cornwood Parish, Devon. He presented himself to both men, posing as his deceased brother, Sampson. According to Stephyns, he was “in the habitt of a Souldier (wearing a greene Coate & beareing Armes)” surely to impress them with his position and power and to leave them no doubt as to his veracity. He requested the lawyer back-date the document, to a time which was before the actual decease of the real Sampson, saying he wished the date to precede the actual execution of the will because “there might arise some differences about the said Will betweene his friends” presumably meaning he (Sampson) had informed certain people of what the will contained and wanted the document to reflect the date they had been informed.
Stephyns had John Winsor and a neighbour, Stephen Harvye, witness the signature of William Shepheard, who signed the will in front of them as Sampson Shepheard. At the time none of them knew he was not who he said he was. In depositions given later, all expressed great surprise in learning he was not the testator.
William then presented the executed document to another lawyer, Henry Legassicke, of Modbury, Devon, requesting him to have it proved “with as much speed as possible” as Legassicke described in his own deposition given to the court later. William indicated to Legassicke he did not personally know the witnesses or where or when the will had been sealed, “but said that his brother was not at home the day of the date of the will (being the first day of May last) & hee did believe that his said brother was then at Tavistocke & made the will before & did believe that the witnesses lived at or near Tavistocke.”
According to the deposition of the lawyer, William had “found it in his brothers chest. “Legassicke thought “it was well penn’d but did suspect the source.” In his opinion, the signature on the will did not appear to be in the same handwriting he had seen on other documents executed by Sampson. William indicated he would get the witnesses to each sign a note saying they knew Sampson Shepheard but later, when pressed by Legassicke for the notes, was told “they confessed that they were witnesses to the will but refused to set their hands to the said note.” Legassicke informed William he would not get further involved, without those supporting affidavits. William subsequently found another lawyer to act on his behalf and paid out Legassicke for his services.
The forged will was challenged in court by Nathaniel Ryder, the guardian of Nicholas Shepheard, who was a nephew of both William and Sampson. Nicholas was still, at the time, under the age of majority. The judge in the case reviewed depositions taken from each of the parties and declared William had not proven his case and the will he put forth was not legitimate. He was ordered to pay all the expenses Nathaniel Ryder had incurred in the proceedings.
As a result of the case, the properties of Sampson Shepheard were passed down to his nephew Nicholas Shepheard, and, from him, through several more generations of my direct Shepheard line who resided in Cornwood parish.
No information has yet been found as to whether William was ever charged or convicted of a fraud.
A subsequent post here will show how the relationships of all of the Shepheards named in this proceeding were unraveled.
Most of this post was first published in Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society, in October 2011, volume 32, number 1. Some additional information has been obtained since then and the interpretation as to my direct line ancestor has been changed. A follow-up post concerning my 7th great-grandfather will follow.
The court documents are the property of The National Archives and published under their Open Government License. Catalogue references for the documents are PROB 11/385, PROB 18/18, PROB 18/18/45 and PROB 36/4.
Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He serves as the Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.