Famous Britons' dying wishes revealed online

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They record the dying wishes of some of the greatest Britons, including Shakespeare, Sir Christopher Wren, Horatio Nelson and Jane Austen.

They record the dying wishes of some of the greatest Britons, including Shakespeare, Sir Christopher Wren, Horatio Nelson and Jane Austen.

In all their elegantly scripted glory, one million wills from the last millennium have been placed online for the benefit of historians, genealogists, and the merely curious.

The documents, dating from 1384 to 1858, provide a glimpse into the lives and deaths of historical figures as well as hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens.

They include three of the six remaining examples of Shakespeare's signature, and Napoleon's 1824 bequest that gives "everything for the French people".

But anyone can search for wills written by their ancestors that may have been collected by the National Archives. Any of the wills can be downloaded for an online payment of £3, although the Shakespeare will, which has been online for some time, can be downloaded for free.

Sue Gibbons, librarian at the Society of Genealogists in London, said wills are essential for those seeking to trace their family history.

In Shakespeare's will, he bequeathes his "second-best" bed to his wife, Anne Hathaway - though experts explained that was not a snub, and instead was probably the marital bed; the "best" bed would have been retained for any heir.

Jane Austen's one-paragraph will of 27 April 1817 reads in full: "I, Jane Austen of the parish of Chawston, do by this last will and testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister Cassandra Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my funeral expenses and a legacy of £50 to my brother Henry, £50 to M. de Bijon which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my sister the executrix of this my last will and testament."

Another will is from Julius Angerstein, a merchant banker who died in 1822. His collection of 38 paintings was sold to the government for £57,000, and created the kernel of what became the National Gallery.

The full resource can be found at www.DocumentsOnline.pro.gov.uk

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