Wills – a great source of family history
Wills and other probate records are a rich source of historical material. Unfortunately, at the turn of the 20th Century, only one in ten people left a will on their death. Despite this, it is always worth investigating probate records. Wills could be left by people of modest means and many individuals, including servants, could be mentioned in them as executors, beneficiaries and witnesses. Also, as we shall see, wills are not the only probate records that may be available.
‘Proved’ wills are public documents and you can look up the wills of many rich and famous people from the past.
Types of ‘probate records’
‘Probate records’ include all court documents relating to the disposal of someone’s estate after death. You are most likely to encounter either wills or letters of administration. If you are lucky, you may discover older probate records such as inventories and probate accounts.
Will (aka Will and Testament)
This is a legal document in which the Testator gives directions on the disposal of his/her estate after death.
Although information varies according to time and location, wills generally include the following details:
- Personal details of the testator. Name, address, occupation, state of health (when drafted).
- Important Dates. Date the will was drafted. Date on which the will was proved. After 1837, the ‘proved’ will gave the date of the testator’s death.
- Names of beneficiaries, Executors, Witnesses. (Pre-1892: relationship of executors to the testator).
- Details of bequests.
- Details of property owned or leased. Sometimes, details included the locations of property. Earlier wills included detailed inventories or probate accounts.
- Extra information may be volunteered. Such as preferred place of burial.
Letters of Administration
Aka ‘admons’ or ‘grant of administration’. These documents provide the legal authority to administer the estate of a person who has died intestate (i.e. without leaving a will). They were (and still are) issued by the Probate Court, usually to a next of kin or other close relative.
Letters of administration usually contain scant information, often little more than what is shown in an index or calendar i.e.: the name and address of the deceased, and possible details of the administrator appointed by the court. However, they are worth viewing because they can contain details of other family members.
Inventory (compulsory up to 1782)
This is a detailed list of the deceased’s personal property including goods and chattels, stocks, cash and debts.
An inventory is very detailed, often giving a ‘room by room’ account of all personal property left by the deceased. A tradesman’s inventory would include stock in trade. A farmer’s inventory could include agricultural equipment, crops and livestock. They are, therefore, immensely valuable to both family historians and social historians.
Up to 1782, it was compulsory for executors/administrators to forward an inventory of the deceased’s estate to the probate court. After this date, inventories were still submitted but their use diminished. Few inventories survive before 1661 but the valuations they supply are often listed in probate Act Books.
Probate Accounts (mid 16th – mid 19th Century)
These were documents in which the executor(s) accounted for all receipts and payments of all assets, debts and expenses. A final net value was recorded.
The probate accounts broke down the value of the estate listing:
- ‘The Charge’ i.e. Gross value. This usually matched the total sum on the inventory (if there was one).
- ‘The Discharge’ i.e. less disbursements and expenses.
- The final net value. If the estate was in the red, it was known as being in ‘surplussage’.
The probate accounts also recorded personal details of the ‘accountant’ and the deceased such as their names, addresses, occupations and relationship.
If discovered, probate accounts can be hugely significant. They can contain details not recorded in an inventory such as itemised household expenses, business transactions and debt interest.
Probate accounts can produce a wonderful ‘story arc’ when guardians or tutors were appointed; they had to submit their accounts over a period of years, providing us with a running narrative of the ongoing maintenance and education costs spent on their charge(s).
Unfortunately, they are rare and were only produced in appreciable quantities up to 1685.
Click here for more wills and other probate terms.
Why are probate records so important for family historians?
Wills and other probate documents contain a wealth of information, plus the ability to throw up fresh leads and intriguing surprises.
- Personal details can confirm what we already know. More importantly, they can fill in genealogical gaps in our research.
- The date on a document (or better still, a date of death) can help the family historian who may be struggling to trace a missing death certificate.
- Named beneficiaries, executors, administrators or witnesses may throw up some interesting leads. Do you know who they are? You may discover other family members that you were unaware of. Were any family members omitted as beneficiary and why? (There may be a good reason i.e. they were much older and had already been provided for).
- Bequests can give an indication of friendships, loyalties and interests. For example, were bequests left for servants or friends? Bequests left to institutions can be an indicator of hobbies and other interests.
- Details of property obviously show the wealth (or otherwise) of the deceased. The locations (if provided) of property may help you find difficult to trace birth marriage or death records. If available, an inventory or probate accounts can provide an even deeper understanding of the wealth, tastes and personality of the testator.
- Extra information may be volunteered in a will that can provide greater insight into the personality of the testator, his likes and dislikes. They may throw up new leads or offer a hint (or more!) of familial disharmony.
‘Indexes’ and ‘Calendars’ – what they are and how to use them
During your research, you will often hear these terms. An ‘index’ is a directory of probate records. A ‘calendar’ is a type of contemporary index.
The information contained in indexes or calendars does vary according to probate type and year. Typically, they provide the testator’s name, residence and (possibly) occupation. After 1858, the National Probate Calendar (discussed later) supplied quite detailed information.
The first step in your probate search is to locate the relevant index or calendar entry. The next step is to use the information contained in the entry to locate the actual probate documents (either copies or originals). For post 1858 probate documents, this should be relatively straightforward. However, for older probate records, the indexes or calendars may be all that survives.
Fees can be incurred in both searching the index and downloading (or ordering) copies of the actual probate documents (if available).
Before you search…
- wills could be proven years after death – sometimes up to 20 years. If you are struggling to locate probate records, consider expanding your search to a wider time frame.
- Names were frequently mispelt (or alternative spellings used). Again, if you are struggling, consider expanding your search for variations in the spelling of surnames e.g. ‘Livingston’ and ‘Livingstone’ and so on.
Probate records dated on or after 1858
It is relatively easy to trace probate records dated on or after 12 January 1858. On this date a civil Court of Probate was established, with overall responsibility for proving wills and granting letters of administration in England and Wales. A Principal Probate Registry (PPR) was also set up, together with 40 District Probate Registries in England and Wales.
The new centralised system echoed that already in place for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. The district registries forwarded copies of their probate records to the PPR.
The PPR published an annual National Probate Calendar described as a national ‘index of wills and administrations’. One volume was produced each year, sorted alphabetically by only the first letter of the surname. Information typically included:
- The deceased’s personal details: name, address, (sometimes) occupation.
- Location of death.
- Dates: of death and grant of probate/administration.
- The executor(s)/administrator(s): names and (sometimes) relationship to the deceased.
- Value of the estate.
- Probate Registry.
Post-1858: where to search?
Post 1958 probate records are filed with the Principal Probate Registry.
You can search the Principal Probate Registry at Find a will or probate document (England and Wales)
You will find three databases (see separate tabs) to choose from:
- Wills and Probate 1996 to present.
- Wills and Probate 1858 – 1996.
- Soldiers’ Wills.
Once you have located your index entry, you can apply to download a copy of the actual will or letters of administration (for a small fee).
Probate Calendars (1858 – 1959) can also be searched at findmypast.co.uk
Searching district probate registries
The district probate registries, whilst sending copies to the PPR, continued to archive their own indexes and probate records. However, the initial 40 District Probate Registries were gradually whittled down over the years to just eleven; Birmingham, Brighton, Cardiff, Ipswich, Leeds, Liverpool, London Probate Dept, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Oxford and Winchester. (There are also sub-registries such as the Sheffield Probate Sub-Registry.)
if you wish to contact a district registry and view their probate records, here is a Directory of Probate Registries . Regarding those district registries that no longer exist, their records may be held at the existing local registries, local court record offices and libraries.
Probate records dated prior to 12 January 1858
Surviving records of wills in England and Wales go back to the 14th century. However, tracing wills before 1858 can be challenging (though ultimately rewarding).
Church courts handled all probate matters from the 14th Century up until their abolition in 1858. Unfortunately, there were over 300 of these ecclesiastical probate courts, each with their own separate registers. There was no national register.
When tracing probate records prior to 1858, the first job is to locate the church court in which probate (or administration) took place. This can involve a certain amount of trial and error but the main determining factors are:
- the location of the estate.
- the geographical spread of the estate.
- the estate’s value.
Once you have shortlisted the likely church court(s), you can approach the correct record office in which the court records are now stored.
To help you in your search, therefore, it is helpful to have some basic understanding of the geography and hierarchy of church courts.
The Church of England was split into two provinces and each province had its own Archbishop. These provinces were further divided into dioceses, each with its own Bishop. Each diocese was further divided into Archdeaconries, each with its own Archdeacon. The church court hierarchy essentially followed this structure.
The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (Archbishop’s Court)
The Province of Canterbury was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Archbishop’s Court was known as ‘The Prerogative Court of Canterbury’, presided over by an Archbishop’s official.
This was the top court in the country and its jurisdiction covered South England and Wales.
Wills likely to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
- Wills involving property spread over more than one diocese or jurisdiction in either the Provinces of Canterbury or York (which together comprised the whole of England and Wales). Unless the property was held wholly in the Province of York (i.e. North England).
- Estates of those who died abroad (such as soldiers, sailors, plantation owners).
- Where the testator was a non-conformist and wanted to avoid using the established church.
- All wills During the Commonwealth period (1653-1660).
As time went by, the PCC began to take on more and more probate business that did not necessarily fit the criteria listed above. At the time of its abolition in 1858, it is estimated that around 40% of all wills were proved in this court, many of which could easily have been ‘proved’ by a lower court.
As a result, many family historians start by searching the probate indexes of the PPC and then move on to the lower courts if they draw a blank.
The Prerogative Court of York (Archbishop’s Court)
The Province of York was presided over by the Archbishop of York. The Archbishop’s Court was known as ‘The Prerogative Court of York’, presided over by an Archbishop’s official.
This was the second most important court in the country and its jurisdiction covered the North of England i.e. the counties of Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Westmorland and Yorkshire. These counties were grouped into four dioceses: Chester, Carlisle, Durham and York.
Wills likely to be proved in the Prerogative Court of York (PCY)
Wills involving property spread over more than one diocese or jurisdiction in the Province of York. However, if any property was based in the South of England, it was dealt with by the PCC.
The Consistory Court/Commissary Court (Bishop’s Court)
The provinces of Canterbury and York were split into ‘dioceses’, presided over by a bishop. There were two types of ‘Bishop’s Court’: a ‘Commissary Court’ or a ‘Consistory Court’.
Dioceses could include many counties or just part of a county. For example, the Diocese of Norwich covered Norfolk and Suffolk, whereas the diocese of Rochester covered only West Kent.
Wills likely to be proved in a Bishop’s Court
Wills involving property held in just one diocese but spread over more than one ‘archdeaconry’.
Wills involving estates in the diocese of York (which included Nottinghamshire) were not proved in the Prerogative Court of York because they were contained within one diocese. These wills were generally proved in either the Exchequer Court of York (laymen) or Chancery Court (clergymen).
The Archdeaconry Court
Each diocese was further split into ‘archdeaconries’, presided over by an archdeacon. Each archdeaconry had an ‘Archdeaconry Court’.
An Archdeaconry was comprised of a number of parishes.
Wills likely to be proved in an Archdeaconry Court
Wills involving property held in just one archdeaconry.
The Peculiar Court
By a quirk of history, some areas fell outside the jurisdiction of the local archdeacon or bishop. Instead, they fell under the jurisdiction of some other authority such as a University, the Crown, a local lord, a local ‘Dean and Chapter’ (the Cathedral’s governing body) and so on. These areas could form part of a parish, a whole parish, or several parishes.
Wills likely to be proved in a Peculiar Court
Locating records probated in a peculiar court can be challenging. Any will involving property held outside an archdeaconry but inside a particular diocese may have been proved in a peculiar court.
Estates that were ‘bona notabilia’
The value of an estate also determined where it was probated. The prerogative courts and bishop’s courts were only supposed to handle estates that were ‘bona notabilia’ i.e. ‘of notable value’. This was the minimum value that was considered worth accounting for. This value was fixed in the 17th century at a minimum £5 (or £10 for London). Estates that were ‘bona notabilia’ required letters of administration in the absence of a will (i.e. a certain amount of formality was expected).
Pre-1858: where to search?
The National Wills Index published by findmypast.co.uk holds British Record Society and other probate collections.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury records
The National Archives holds copies of wills proved at the PCC between 1384 – 1858.
FindMyPast.co.uk holds indexes for the period 1300- 1858.
Ancestry also provide indexes.
Local record offices
To locate probate jurisdictions, we recommend The Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers.
Jeremy Gibson’s guide ‘Probate Jurisdictions – Where to Look for Wills’ is very useful if you can get your hands on it.
See also the helpful blog by FindMyPast.co.uk entitled: “Pre-1858 Probate Jurisdictions: Where To Look For Wills”.
Once you have some idea of location, you can continue your search by consulting the National Archives’ Directory of Local Church Record Offices.
The Prerogative Court of York and Exchequer Court of York records
The Borthwick Institute for Archives (part of the University of York).
FindMyPast.co.uk holds indexes for the period 1688 – 1858.
Searching probate records proved or administered in London church courts can be challenging because of the sheer number of record offices. There were also a great number of peculiar courts in and around London.
findmypast.co.uk holds a London probate index of over 62,000 documents covering the period 1750 – 1858.
London archives well worth a visit are:
The National Library of Wales holds archives of wills proved in the Welsh church courts prior to 1858.
Wills proved during the Commonwealth period (1653-60)
In 1653, a civil Court for Probate of Wills and Granting Administrations replaced the existing church courts. Judges were appointed to deal with probate matters in the various counties and cities of England and Wales. The fees collected were applied for the upkeep of the navy (after salaries and other overheads had been paid).
In 1660, when the Monarchy was restored, the church courts were re-established.
Probate records during the Commonwealth Period were stored at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and are now held at the National Archives.
Fees and other costs
Look out for fees and other costs shown on the probate documents. Church courts charged fees for drawing up documents and handling probate. These costs can often be seen on surviving wills. Fees were usually based on the value of the estate, with an exemption for those valued up to £5.
Who could not leave a will?
Prior to the Married Women’s Property Act (1883), married women required their husband’s permission to leave a Will. As a result, prior to 1883, most females who left a will were either widows or spinsters.
Children, lunatics, criminals, traitors or heretics were also unable to leave a Will.
This article has not discussed Scotland as the Scottish legal system is different to that which operated England and Wales. However, finding Scottish wills is relatively straightforward.
Where to search?
ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk holds a free index of all probate documents proved by the Commissariot and Sheriffs courts (pre 1901).
The church hierarchy in Ireland was very similar to that of England and Wales. The Prerogative Court of Armagh (PCA) was the highest level of church court and was presided over by an official of the Archbishop of Armagh.
Unfortunately, in 1922, many Irish probate records were destroyed in the Public Record Office fire in Dublin. However, some indexes and copies of probate records do exist.
Where to search?
Findmypast.co.uk holds an index of Irish wills – 1484 – 1858.
The Northern Ireland Government Services provides a search index for the District Probate Registries of Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry – 1858-1965.
Findmypast.co.uk also hold an Online version of the book ‘Indexes to Irish Wills’ by Phillimore and Thrift. This provides an index of over 30,000 Irish wills proved in Bishop’s Courts. The book itself is often available at Amazon.