The death of Captain William Greene: 2 January 1686

Captain William Greene, mariner of Ratcliff in the parish of Stepney, in the county of Middlesex, was my 8 x great grandfather, and is still my earliest confirmed ancestor.

The Thames at London Bridge in the 17th century (Science Photo Library)

In an earlier post I reproduced the transcript of a will which appeared to be written by Captain Greene. Many of the details in the will matched what we knew about him: this William Greene also lived in Ratcliff, was a mariner, and had a wife named Elizabeth and a son called Joseph. The only detail that didn’t quite match was the date of his death. The will was written on 22 October 1685 (‘in the first yeare of the Reign of our Soveraigne Lord James the Second’) and proven in October of the following year. However, the inscription on the family tomb in Stepney churchyard, in which William was buried, seemed to indicate that ‘our’ Captain William Greene had died on 2 January 1682, though whoever transcribed it had expressed some uncertainty about the final digit, putting it in brackets.

Now, however, I have found a record of Captain William Greene’s burial, which appears to confirm that this is, indeed, his will. At first, I was confused by a reference to the burial of William Greene at St Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, on 6 January 1685. But this turned out to be an error by the Ancestry transcriber. The previous, facing page in the parish register is headed ‘Burials in 1685’ and lists interments that took place in December of that year. These continue at the top of the next page, which then moves on to January. Logically, if December was in 1685, then January must be in 1686 – even if the transcriber failed to notice this, and (to be fair) the register did not make it clear.

St Dunstan's church, Stepney, and churchyard

The parish register records that on 6 January 1686, ‘Captain William Greene of Ratcliffe mariner’ was buried. This is consistent with the date of death – 2 January – inscribed on the family tomb. However, it means that the transcriber’s guess at the final digit of the year was wrong: it should have been a 6, not a 2. A death and burial in January are perfectly consistent with the deceased composing his last will and testament in the previous October when (as he says) he was ‘weak and infirme in body’. As to why the will was not proven until nine months after Captain Greene’s death, that remains something of a mystery.

Does confirming the date of William Green’s death help us to establish the date of his birth, and therefore the names of his parents? That’s a question for another post.

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