Wills and Administration records can be another great source of information for family historians. A Will, will often name family members and their relationships along with property both real and personal. Such records can be used for research from today in the 21st century and can survive back many centuries.
Where to find Wills and Administration records and what you will find depends on the period in which you are researching, in particular whether before or after 1858 when the jurisdiction for the probate changed from Ecclesiastical jurisdiction to the civil jurisdiction of the newly created Court of Probate, the Principal Probate Registry.
National Probate Calendar
Basic details of Wills and Administrations since 12th January 1858 can be found in the National Probate Calendar (NPC). This is a central calendar (or index) compiled annually of all Wills and Letters of Administrations since 1858 when the Principal Probate Registry (PPR) was introduced, the PPR holds the national annual Calendar indexes from Probate Registries in England and Wales. It is therefore a central record and it is no longer necessary to search individual probate courts.
The calendar will provide the name of the deceased, occupation, date of death, place of death, date of probate, the registry in which the probate was granted, the value of their estate and who probate was granted to.
They can be searched where a death record cannot be found, although of course not everyone made a will and a grant of administration may not have been required in all cases (such where the estate was limited to jointly owned property or only had no real property).
Copies of Wills or Administrations can be obtained from the probate service website “Find a Will” https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/#wills for a small fee of £1.50.
Before the National Probate Calendar
As stated above, before 1858, Wills and Administrations were the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts, most commonly either the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York; the Bishop’s Consistory/Commissary Court; or the Archdeacon’s Archdeaconry Court. But they could also be proved in Deaneries presided over by the Rural Dean or in Peculiars (a parish or groups of parishes which were outside the usual ecclesiastical jurisdiction such as a Lord of the Manor, Abbeys and Monasteries and anyone who had acquired ecclesiastical jurisdiction when they purchased land from the Abbeys and Monasteries following their dissolution.
The court in which Wills were proved depended on the value and location of land held by the deceased.
In theory a will should have been proven in the lowest court however, over time, as the value of property increased[i] and the bona notabilia £5 rule (which was set in 1604) remained the same, it became increasingly common for wills to be proven in the PCC or PCY. It was also the case that the PCC and PCY were often more efficient, discreet and looked after their records with more care. Probate therefore may not have been granted in the expected lower court! Searching for an ancestor’s will may not therefore be straight forward!
During the civil war and interregnum between 1650 and 1660 the lower ecclesiastical courts ceased to operate. The PCC was replaced in 1653 by the “Court for the Probate of Wills and the Granting of Administrations” (CPWGA). This court ceased in 1659 and in 1660 the PCC and ecclesiastical court system were restored. The records of the CPWGA were then merged with the PCC records
Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are held at the National Archives (TNA) and can be found online at www.ancestry.co.uk, www.findmaypast.co.uk and other commercial websites. Wills provide in the Bishops or Archdeaconry courts are usually held in local archives, many of which may be available online at sites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and www.findmypast.co.uk.
Who could make a Will?
Before 1882 only males, spinsters and widows over the age of 21 years could make a will, married women could only make a will with the consent of her husband. Wills can provide family relationships often naming wives, children, siblings, aunts, uncles amongst other relations. They also provide an insight into the wealth of the family and location of a property they held.
Will and Testament
Today we use the term Last Will and Testament referring to one document which more commonly is simply referred to as a Will in which an individual can leave both real and personal property on their death. However, originally these were two separate documents dealing with different types of property. A Will dealt with real property (realty) such as houses (tenements and hereditaments) and any land or buildings etc was associated with it. It also included rivers, hedges and woodland. A Testament dealt with personal property (personalty), often referred to as “goods and chattels”, which could include personal goods, clothing, bedding, furniture, crockery, plate, jewellery, livestock, grain, tools etc.
Before the Statute of Uses of 1535, only land which had been “purchased” could be left be Will, land which had been inherited could not, inherited land had to pass under the laws of inheritance. Purchased land would also pass under the laws of inheritance if no Will had been made, i.e., the owner had died intestate. If there was no heir, the land would revert to the Lord of the Manor. It must however be remembered that at this time all land was owned by the Crown and those who “purchased” property held the freehold tenure to the property that is that they held it free from any services to the Lord of the Manor or Crown, other than an annual rent.
The Statute of Uses stopped the practice whereby one person could own the property but another had the right to use it, meaning that anyone who had the right to use property also had the right to hold the freehold tenure and had a right of possession. The Statute paved the way for the development of Trusts.
The Statute of Wills 1540 enabled those who held freehold land to devise all their land by Will and those who held land under military tenure (i.e., they performed military service in return for land) to devise two thirds of their land by Will (military tenure was abolished in 1662). Those who held land by other means, such as copyhold, could not devise the land by Will until 1815 and land held in fee tail (that is to a specific line of heirs) could not be devised by will until 1925 when the manorial system and copyhold tenure was abolished by the Law of Property Act. Copyhold land however could be surrendered to the use of a tenants Will with the agreement of the Lord of the Manor and such entries will frequently be found in Manorial Court records. This meant that a tenant could leave by Will the use of the property usually to themselves and then their heirs.
Types of Will
Sworn Will – this is the more common type of Will which would have been handwritten (typed today) and sworn by the testator (person making the Will) and confirmed by two or more witnesses.
Nuncupative Will – this was an oral will, which up until 1838, could be made for personal property (a Testament) in the presence of reliable witnesses, their wishes would be written down by the witnesses who swore to its contents in a probate court. They were often made by those who believed they were dying and had not previously made a valid Will. This practice is now usually limited to combatants on active service.
Holographic Will – is a will written entirely by the testator him/herself and not witnessed by others. This kind of will was usually presented to the probate court by witnesses who could swear to its authenticity.
Original Wills made be found at local archives amongst family or estate papers. Many records of Wills and Testaments before 1858 can be found online at commercial websites such as www.ancestry.co.uk and http://www.findmypast.co.uk. These Wills are usually not the original Wills but the copies created by the relevant probate court. Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) registered Wills are available in PROB 11 at the National Archives discovery website and can be downloaded for a small fee (currently £3.50 each).
For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices, some of which may have also been made available online such as Wills proved in the Surrey Archdeaconry Court which are held at London Metropolitan Archives but are available at www.ancestry.co.uk under their “London, England, Wills and Probate, 1507-1858” collection, such as this Will of Henry Roake of Horsell for which probate was dated 17th September 1746:
Probate Act Book 1526 – 1858
These are registers of the grants of probate (wills proved in court) with separate Books for each probate court. For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) these can be found in series PROB 8 at TNA also at http://www.ancestry.co.uk; for Prerogative Court of York (PCY) they can be found at the Borthwick Institute and at www.findmypast.co.uk.
For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices.
They record each probate granted and include the name of the deceased, occupation, date of grant of probate, and the executor’s name. They can include facts about a deceased which are not given in his will such as his parish, whether he died married, unmarried, widowed etc, his trade, profession or status or that he belonged to one parish but died in another. It may also tell us that an executor died before him. They will include renunciations, when an executor does not wish to act the court would appoint a successor. They will also include details of a successor in the event of an executor’s death.
The books often contain unregistered wills (wills not proved in court) and vital additional information not found in the will itself.
From 1529 to 1782 executors and administrators were usually required to prepare a probate inventory, which was a list of the deceased’s personal or moveable goods, assets and chattels, not including real estate or land.
They would include cash (‘money in his purse’) and clothes (‘his wearing apparel’) and then proceeded around the house from room to room listing and valuing the deceased’s movable goods, before moving outside to list the contents of agricultural buildings, livestock and crops growing in the fields. Anything that was not movable was omitted, so even things like cooking utensils and curtains and goods would often be identified by room, thus providing evidence of both rooms and room use. However, it is impossible to tell whether all the rooms in the house have been listed, unless there are internal inconsistencies (e.g., a ‘chamber over the buttery’ but no ‘buttery’). They provide an excellent insight into an ancestor’s life and status.
The objective of the exercise was to ensure that any unpaid debts owing at death could be paid.
They are likely to be found attached to the will at county record offices. Inventories filed with wills proved at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are housed at The National Archives and those filed between 1660 and 1782 are searchable online via TNA’s Discovery Catalogue.
Letters of Administration
These were granted, usually to the next of kin, to allow the administration of a deceased’s estate when they died intestate. They provide the deceased’s name, address, occupation and date and place of death, the name address, occupation, relationship to the deceased of the administrator. The value of the estate will also be given. The details of beneficiaries are not provided. They therefore contain less information genealogically than a Will.
Before 1858 they will be found in the records of the relevant ecclesiastical court, usually in local record offices, or the records of the PCC (at TNA) or PYC (at Borthwick Institute, York). Gibson’s guide and Phillimore’s Atlas and Index to Parish Registers should be consulted to find the relevant ecclesiastical court and record office.
Administration (Admon) Act Book
These are registers of the grants of administration (where a person had died without a will) covering the period from 1559 to 1858. There are separate Admon Act Books for each probate court. For the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) these can be found in series PROB 6 at TNA also at http://www.ancestry.co.uk; for Prerogative Court of York (PCY) they can be found at the Borthwick Institute and at http://www.findmypast.co.uk. For other probate courts, they can be found in local record offices.
They record each letter of administration granted and include the name of the deceased, parish of residence, occupation, date of grant, the name of the administrator and their relation to the deceased, and the dates on which the inventory and accounts are to be returned. They will also include renunciations, when an administrator no longer wished to or was able to act (e.g., died) the court would appoint a successor.
Records for Wills and probate can provide details of several generations of a family and relationships between local families. They are particularly useful where real property is being passed through the generations and there are a number of people with the same name. Identifying the property in a Will can identify the correct family members. The contents of the Will can also provide an insight into the relative wealth of the family.
Wills and probate records are one of the documents that really must be examined if they can be found for your family members. They were not restricted to the wealthy land owners as they would be used by those less well off to ensure personal property passed to whom they wished it to be, particularly important if passing property to females (wives, daughters etc) as they were often restricted in their rights to property and inheritance until the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act.
Manorial records and Wills and probate records leads nicely to my next blog topic, that of title deeds.
Join the Your Family Through Time mailing List
Want to be notified of future blog posts, podcasts and more from Your Family Through Time?
Just enter your email address below and join the Your Family Through Time mailing list!