Where there’s a will…

Wills and Probate in Genealogy

A last will and testament


Professional genealogists get excited when it becomes clear that a client’s ancestor left a will.  Wills often contain lots of useful information.  They might uncover hidden family relationships or give details about land held by the will writer.  Some wills even tell of long-running family feuds.  In 1858 the government would establish the Principal Probate Registry with the authority to prove wills and grant administration.  Copies of wills from 1858 are available from a single archive.  Before 1858 probate was a matter for the Anglican Church.


Where to find family history wills


Prior to the days of the probate registry, a large number of ecclesiastical courts proved wills.  An executor of a will would consider a number of factors before deciding which court to apply to for probate.  Firstly, where did the testator live?  Secondly, what was the value of the estate?  And where did they hold their property or land?  At this time, England was divided into two regions called the provinces of York and Canterbury.  Each province had its own courts.  The main ones were the Exchequer and Prerogative Court York and the Prerogative Court Canterbury.  The University of York holds copies of wills proved at York.  The National Archives has the Canterbury wills.  Smaller courts also proved wills.  County record offices often have these wills.  For more information see Wills and Where to Find Them by J. S. W. Gibson or contact Heir Line.


The different probate courts


The two provinces were made up of dioceses, archdeaconries and rural deaneries.  The will of a person with a simple estate, with possessions held within a single archdeaconry would be subject to the local archdeacon’s court.  But if they held possessions in more than one archdeaconry within the same diocese then the will was proved in a bishop’s consistory court.  People with possessions in more than one diocese had their wills dealt with by the prerogative court of the province.  Canterbury trumped York when possessions were held within both provinces.  Just to complicate matters, some English parishes and townships had special powers to prove wills at their own courts, known as peculiar courts.  But even if a person lived within such a place, their will still might have been proved elsewhere!


Heir Line’s historical probate work


The Borthwick Institute at York has a large collection of original and registered wills for most of Yorkshire.  Most executors chose to have registered copies of a will made.  These are available to view on microfilm in the search room at the archive.  An exciting part of Heir Line’s work involves reading and transcribing original and registered wills written by clients’ ancestors.  We have solved many family history mysteries with the discovery of a few lines within a will.  We often find charming references – such as discovering the names of clients’ ancestors’ livestock.  One memorable 16th century will, written by a yeoman farmer from the wilds of the Forest of Bowland, left his youngest daughter a spotted cow.  He had named her Nightingale, much to our client’s delight!


Do you want to find out more about the wills in your family tree?


Our professional family historians will search through all the indexes of wills for the many courts in England.  Who knows what we might find?  So drop us a line with your query today.




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