How to look for Wills or administrations before 1858

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

View online

How many are online?

  • None
  • Some
  • All

Order copies

We can either copy our records onto paper or deliver them to you digitally

Pay for research

Use our paid search service or find an independent researcher

Visit us

Visit us in Kew to see original documents or view online records for free

This guide provides advice on how to search for a will or administration in England and Wales proved or granted before 1858.

What do I need to know before I start?

Not everyone left a will and not all wills needed to be proved by a court.

Most people who left a will used the appropriate church court. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury was the highest church court in England and Wales until 1858, when the national court was established, but even in the late 1850s it was only proving about 40% of the national total of 21,653 wills.

Until 1858 there were more than 200 church courts each of which kept separate registers of wills – there was no central index.

When looking for someone’s will or administration you will need to determine which court dealt with it – for advice on how to do this see the penultimate section of this guide.

What records can I see online?

Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (1384-1858)

Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) mainly relate to testators resident in the south of England, although all parts of England and Wales are represented in the records.

Search and download Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills (1384-1858) (PROB 11) from our website (£). We hold over 1 million PCC wills proved before 1858.

Selected original wills (1643-1645)

Browse and download selected original wills (PROB 10/639 – PROB 10/642) on digital microfilm.

Try browsing PROB 10 (1484-1858) instead if you do not locate any records relevant to your research. Please note, not all these records are online. Visit us to view these records.

What records can I find only at The National Archives at Kew?

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Original Prerogative Court of Canterbury indexes (1383-1858)

Consult the original indexes to wills and administrations of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in PROB 12.

Administration Act Books (1559-1858)

Look in Administration Act Books of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in PROB 6. Some indexes are available in the reading rooms.

An application for administration would be made when a person died without leaving a will.

What records can I find in other archives and organisations?

Welsh wills (pre-1858)

Search wills proved in the Welsh Ecclesiastical courts online at the National Library of Wales.

Wills and administrations from other courts

Visit local archives for wills and administrations from courts other than the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Read Probate jurisdictions: Where to look for wills by Jeremy Gibson online on Find My Past to identify relevant record offices for your search.

Online indexes of wills held by other archives

Search a number of indexes and digitised collections of wills and administrations on Findmypast.co.uk (£) and Ancestry.co.uk (£). Some county record offices also host indexes or digitised collections of wills on their own websites.

How to determine which court dealt with a will or administration before 1858

It was primarily the following three factors that determined which court would prove a will:

  • where the person died
  • the value of the goods
  • how these goods were distributed geographically

In the period up to 1858 the country was divided into two provinces, York and Canterbury. The associated courts were the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and the Prerogative Court of York.

The two provinces were split into a number of dioceses. These in turn were divided into several archdeaconries, which were then split into rural deaneries. If a person was relatively poor the estate was usually dealt with in the archdeacon’s court.

The list below may help you establish which type of court would have proved a will. If the person had possessions…:

  • in just one archdeaconry then the will would have been proved in an archdeacon’s court
  • in more than one archdeaconry but all in the same diocese then the will would have been proved in a bishop’s diocesan court
  • in more than one diocese or if they were valued at more than £5 (or £10 in London) then it was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York

There were also various other courts, known as ‘peculiars’, administered by the deans and chapters of cathedrals.

Consult the Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers for maps of the areas covered by each church court and details of their surviving records.

Alternatively, see Tracing your ancestors in The National Archives by Amanda Bevan for a table showing where to look for records by county.

What other resources will help me find information?

Books

Search The National Archives’ bookshop to see whether any of the publications below may be available to buy. Alternatively, look in The National Archives’ library catalogue to see what is available to consult at Kew.

Karen Grannum and Nigel Taylor, Wills and probate records: A guide for family historians, 2nd edition (The National Archives, 2009)

British Record Society indexes

Consult indexes to Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills (1383-1700) and administrations (1559-1660) published by the British Record Society.

Websites

Identify the relevant probate court using the English jurisdictions 1851 map.