Copy of section of Jane Austen's will (Catalogue reference: PROB 11/1596)

This is a brief guide to researching records of a will or administration before 1858 which was provedprove - to obtain legal authentication in England and Wales. At that time, over 250 church courts dealt with wills and administrations. The records of most of these courts are kept in local archives

  • What do I need to know before I start?

    • Try to find out:

      • the name of the person
      • the geographical location
      • an approximate date of death
  • 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.

Did you know?

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury was the highest church court in England and Wales until 1858.
An application for administration would be made when a person died without leaving a will.

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

Most people used the appropriate church court. Even in the late 1850s, just before the national court was established, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was only proving about 40% of the national total of 21,653 wills.

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

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.

There were three main factors determining in which court a will would be proved:

  • 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
  • Canterbury

The associated courts were the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York (or Archbishop's prerogative courts).

The two provinces were split into a number of dioceses. These 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 will of a person with goods in more than one archdeaconry was proved in the bishop's diocesan court. There were also various other courts, known as 'peculiars', administered by the deans and chapters of cathedrals.

The list below may help you establish which type of court would have proved a will:

  • If it was within one archdeaconry then the will was proved in an Archdeacon's court
  • If it was within more than one archdeaconry but all in the same diocese then the will was proved in a Bischop's court
  • If it was within more than one diocese or if the goods were valued at more than £5 (or £10 in London) then it was proved in an Archbishop's prerogative court