How to look for records of... Inquisitions post mortem: land ownership and inheritance in the medieval and early modern periods

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find records of the following in the medieval and early modern periods:

  • land ownership
  • prominent people
  • legal and administrative processes concerning land transfer and inheritance

It does not relate to coroner’s inquests or medical examinations which take place after a suspicious death.

2. What were inquisitions post mortem?

Inquisitions post mortem were local inquiries into valuable properties, in order to discover what income and rights were due to the crown and who the heir should be.

These inquiries took place when people were known or believed to have held lands of the crown, and therefore involved individuals of considerable wealth and status. All have been indexed, and many are published in English.

3. Why were inquisitions post mortem held?

Under the feudal system all land belonged to the monarch and was therefore either held by him directly (the royal demesne) or on his behalf, directly or indirectly.

Those who held land directly on the king’s behalf were known as tenants in chief. When a tenant in chief died without an heir his lands escheated to (fell into the hands of) the king. If there was an heir, the king kept the lands until a livery of seisin took place; this involved the heir making a payment, known as a relief, in order to assume possession.

If the heir was under age the king kept the lands until he or she came of age (at 21 for men or 14 for women) and the king received rights of wardship and marriage, collecting the revenues of the estate and disposing of the heir in marriage. He was able to sell these rights to third parties, who were not necessarily the next of kin. These feudal tenures and rights were abolished in the Interregnum, and again by Charles II.

4. What happened at inquisitions post mortem?

It’s important to understand how inquisitions post mortem were held, as the surviving documents reflect their process.

When the chancery heard of the death of a tenant in chief, a writ of diem clausit extremum (‘he closed his last day’) was drawn up, ordering the escheator (the royal official who held the inquest locally) to hold an inquisition in his county.

Depending on the holdings of the deceased, writs could have been issued to the escheators of multiple counties. Each writ gives the name of the deceased and instructs the escheator to take the lands into the king’s hand, to summon a jury of local men to answer a series of questions relating to the extent, tenure and value of the lands, properties and rights of the deceased, and to identity the nearest heir.

Other writs might ask the escheator to certify (de certiorari) the true value of lands. This often happened in cases of dispute, where a previous escheator had not performed his commission, or the value of knights’ fees and advowsons of churches.

The inquisition was held locally, close to the lands which were to be valued.

5. What information do the records contain?

The inquisition return would detail, in order:

  • the county
  • the name of the escheator
  • a list of the jurors
  • the name of the deceased and the date of their death
  • a brief description of each landholding
  • its value (which was often underestimated)
  • the tenure by which it was held

This section may include extracts (in English) from a will or an enfeoffment to use (putting the lands into the hands of trustees, in order to avoid the king’s claims to livery and wardship etc., and also to allow lands to be left to people other than the heir at law). Lastly the next heir is identified and their age given. If the heir was of age (over 21, or over 14 for an heiress), the age given may be an estimate.

The next heir was usually one male, one female, or a number of females: lands were split between daughters (who were treated as having an equal claim if there was no male heir), but not between sons. Sometimes a proof of age was recorded in a separate type of inquisition (de aetate probanda).

Widows also had rights of dower in the lands, which continued long after the deaths of their husbands, and there are inquisitions (de assignatione dotis) into this as well. These inquisitions are included with the inquisitions post mortem.

6. What happened to the inquisition documents?

The escheators usually returned the inquisition documents into the Chancery which had ordered them (C 132-142). However, if one had been held under the escheator’s own authority, it was returned only into the Exchequer (E 149-150). The Exchequer also received duplicates (less the jury lists) of those ordered by Chancery.

This was done to support the escheator’s accounts (in E 136) of his administration of land falling into the king’s hands (for however brief a period). After 1540, another copy was sent into the Court of Wards and Liveries (WARD 7). Quite often the Exchequer and Wards inquisitions are easier to read, because they have been used less.

7. Researching inquisitions post mortem at The National Archives

There are various ways to access records of inquisitions post mortem, depending on the date of the inquisition and the current state of publication of its records.

Using Discovery, our catalogue

The Chancery series for Henry III – Henry VI are now searchable on our catalogue, by county, name and peerage title.

Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem

There are detailed summaries of the contents of each inquisition in the Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, which cover 1236 to 1447 and is available in our reading rooms. The standards of editing vary, with more details included in later publications. Each volume is indexed: if you want to look at the original documents, note the file reference printed after each entry; for example, E.Inq.P.M. File 49 (15), or C. Edw. III 40 (2).

Understanding the document references

These references need to be converted to a modern format. Those starting with E are Exchequer inquisitions, and convert into a reference such as E 149/49. References starting C are Chancery inquisitions, and differ for each reign. The example given converts from C. Edw. III 40 (2) to C 135/40. Only the first two numbers (C 135/40, E 149/49) are required to order the document, but you need the last number to find the item within a file of inquisitions.

You may also see the entry E. Enrolments & c. of Inq.: these are estreats, or extracts of Chancery inquisitions sent to the Exchequer for information and enrolled there, in E 152. They can supply information for damaged or missing inquisitions.

Date range Monarch Catalogue reference
1236-1272 Henry III C 132, E 149
1272-1307 Edward I C 133, E 149
1307-1327 Edward II C 134, E 149
1327-1377 Edward III C 135, E 149
1377-1399 Richard II C 136, E 149
1399-1413 Henry IV C 137, E 149
1413-1422 Henry V C 138, E 149
1422-1461 Henry VI C 139, E 149

 

1447-1485: original documents only

These are searchable on our catalogue by name, title and county. There is also a paper list for 1413-1485 covering series C 138-141 in the standard series lists of the Chancery inquisitions under C 138. These give name, relationship, county and type of inquisition (for example, post mortem, dower, proof of age), as well as the item number to be looked for in the file, once ordered, and the regnal year. Note that they do not give any details of land.

For lists of the lands mentioned in an inquisition, look at the Calendarium inquisitionum post mortem sive escaetarum, IV (1828). This is shelved with the calendars and arranged by regnal year and item number. It does not include the many documents found and added to the series after 1828; not all of these went to the Chancery, so if you also want to check the Exchequer inquisitions, in E 149, try the four manuscript volumes, arranged by the names of the person being investigated. These volumes also contain the details of series E 152and E 153.

Date range Monarch Catalogue reference
1422-1461 Henry VI C 139E 149
1461-1483 Edward IV C 140E 149
1483-1485 Richard III C 141E 149

 

1485-1509: published in English

These series are searchable using our catalogue, by name and by the county where the inquisition took place. Restrict the search to record series C 142 and E 150.

Alternatively they are calendared in detail in the Calendar of inquisitions post mortem for the reign of Henry VII, which is available in our reading rooms. The calendar refers to C 142 as C. Series II and E 150  as E. Series II.

1509-c1640: original documents only

From 1540 duplicates of inquisitions were also sent to the newly-established Court of Wards and Liveries. These can be searched by name and by the county where the inquisition took place using our catalogue. Restrict the search to the record series C 142, E 150 and WARD 7 (for 1540-c1640 only).

There is also a series of composite indexes to these record series available in our reading rooms, which give the name, date and county, with references to the three possible copies of the inquisition. These indexes were published as the Index of inquisitions post mortem. Check the front of each volume for the format needed to locate the original documents.

Cheshire, Durham and Lancashire, and the Duchy of Lancaster

The palatine counties of Cheshire, Durham and Lancashire and the Duchy of Lancaster also had inquisitions post mortem. For Henry VIII -– Charles I, they have been included as appendices in the Index of inquisitions post mortem, Charles I and later. The relevant series are:

Because the finding aids for the earlier period are complicated, it’s best to read the introductory notes to each of these series. These are filed in the standard list set.

8. Records of what happened after inquisitions post mortem

If an heir was of age, or once an heir’s age had been proved and dower assigned, land was delivered to the heir, often after a period of wardship if this was deemed necessary. Records of the livery of lands, sale of wardship etc. can be found in the Patent Rolls (C 66).

For more details of how to locate relevant information in this series see the research guide to Royal grants in Letters Patent and Charters from 1199. From c 1540 onwards, it may be worth looking in the records of the Court of Wards (see Land inheritance in the Court of Wards and Liveries 1540-1645). The introductory notes to all these series, filed in the standard series lists, give more information.

9. Further reading

Published inquisitions post mortem

Many local record societies have published translations of inquisitions post mortem for their counties. Ask in our reading rooms for help in identifying what is available using Texts and Calendars.

Useful publications

  • Carpenter, ‘Introduction’, Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem Preserved in the Public Record Office XXII: 1422-1427 (1-5 Henry VI), ed. Kate Parkin (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 1-42
  • ‘The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions Post Mortem: a Companion’, ed. Michael Hicks (Woodbridge, 2012)
  • ‘The Later Medieval Inquisitions Post Mortem: Mapping the Medieval Countryside and Rural Society’, ed. Michael Hicks (Woodbridge, 2016).