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Legacies and Cultural Normalisation


In the British Library I recently saw the original will of Aethelstan the Atheling, son of Aethelred the Unready, who died in 1014.

It is the oldest will I have seen and in remarkably good condition. Well worth a visit if you have a few minutes to spare in London.

In the will, Aethelstan leaves his property to his family, his household and the Church. In this way, he makes sure his family is provided for, rewards faithful servants and friends and leaves a legacy to charity. Much like a modern will in fact.

His prized possessions, given the violent age he lived in, were his 11 swords and he leaves very specific instructions about who is to inherit these, including his brother Edmund Ironside (who received one belonging to Offa of Mercia – already an antique by 1014). Other gifts were left to Aethelweard the Stammerer, Godwine the Driveller (sic) and Aelnoth his sword polisher.

Fast forward 1,000 years to my local solicitors, where my wife and I are making new wills. In these, like Aethelstan we will be providing for family and leaving a legacy to charity. I don’t have any swords to bequeath, just a few bits and bobs that I want to go to specific people, should my time come. Unlike Aethelstan, I have not listed these in my new will, but in a letter of wishes referred to in the will, that I can update whenever I feel like it.

It gives a bit more flexibility and is increasingly common these days. It is interesting to muse on what led Aethelstan to leave a legacy to the Church. Maybe this was already a cultural norm by 1014, or perhaps, making a will on his death bed, he saw it as a bit of an insurance policy for the afterlife? Or maybe he was just asked by the priest who attended to him? Certainly, we will never know.

So what has prompted me to leave a legacy to charity? Well as someone who advises on legacy fundraising, I hope that by doing so I will have the authority to encourage others to join me, not just for the charity of which I am a trustee, but also for the charities I work with where leaving a legacy is not yet the norm. I know that “cultural normalisation”, to use the jargon, is supposed to take three generations, but as Aethelstan’s will shows, leaving a legacy to charity used to be the norm in the UK, so maybe we can skip one or two?

I won’t change things on my own, but if you join me and remember your favourite charity in your will, maybe together we can make charitable legacies the norm again?

There is more info here about legacy fundraising.

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