This guide to wills and probate records includes:
- information about records of wills, probate and administrations held by The National Archives
- advice on what records are held elsewhere
- information about indexes, including those available online
The only probate court records held by The National Archives are those of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1383-1858 - see section 2.4.1.
2. Wills and administrations before 1858
Most wills and administrations before 1858, when the Principal Probate Registry was established, are among the records of the court where probate was granted. Until 12 January 1858 all wills had to be proved (that is, a judge had to approve a will as containing the last wishes of the deceased) by the church and other courts. In cases where no will was made letters of administration were granted to the next-of-kin, giving him or her the authority to distribute the intestate's estate. The term 'estate' refers to the chattels, cash, debts and leases of the deceased. The ecclesiastical courts had no jurisdiction over bequests of freehold property.
Over 250 different ecclesiastical courts dealt with wills and administrations. The records of most of these courts are kept in local record offices. Details of local archives are available on our ARCHON database. You may be able to order copies of wills or administrations by post from the relevant record office, citing the full reference from the index if you have been able to locate it. Some local archives will look in their indexes for you, if you can supply name and date of death.
For maps of the areas covered by each church court and details of their surviving records, see Jeremy Gibson's A simplified guide to probate jurisdictions. For a table showing where to look for records by county, see Amanda Bevan's Tracing your ancestors in The National Archives, chapter 9.5.
There were three main factors determining in which court a will would be proved: where the person died, the value of the goods, and how these goods were distributed geographically.
2.1 Ecclesiastical courts
In the period up to 1858 the country was divided into two provinces, York and 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 (each with at least two bishops). 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 table below shows how to establish which type of court would have proved a will:
|Location of estate||Type of court that proved the will|
|Within one archdeaconry||Archdeacon's court|
|In more than one archdeaconry but all in the same diocese||Bishop's court (also referred to as a consistory or commissary court)|
|In more than one diocese||Archbishop's prerogative court|
|If the goods were valued at more than £5 (or £10 within London), in more than one diocese||Archbishop's prerogative court|
For further information about wills and court hierarchy see Anthony J Camp, Wills and their whereabouts.
2.2 Death duty registers
Death duty registers and their indexes for the period 1796 to 1858, in IR 26 and IR 27, can also tell you where a will was proved. You can search death duty registers for 1796 to 1811 by name and keyword. The indexes in IR 27 can be browsed online at findmypast.co.uk, for a fee.
There is no single unified index of wills, but there are published indexes to most wills in local archives, and some are now searchable online. Several collections of pre-1858 indexes and abstracts are included in the National Wills Index, at Origins.net (£there will be a charge). The National Archives has copies of many indexes to wills proved in other local courts, available in the reading rooms at Kew.
The Society of Genealogists also holds a wide range of indexes. Try searching their online catalogue using keywords such as 'will', or see Will indexes and other probate material in the Library of the Society of Genealogists, edited by NJ Newington-Irving.
Many of the indexes to wills can be consulted at the Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are a number of these centres throughout the UK - find your nearest branch at their FamilySearch website. The indexes should give you a reference to the exact part of large documents where a particular will is located.
Irish wills for the period 1484 to 1858 are held by the National Archives of Ireland.
2.4 The Prerogative Courts of Canterbury and York
The estates of people leaving goods in more than one diocese worth £5 (£10 in London) or more were dealt with by one of the two archbishop's provincial courts, known as the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and the Prerogative Court of York. If goods were held in both provinces the grant of probate could be made either solely in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or in both courts.
2.4.1 Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury
The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was the senior church court, and dealt mainly with the wills of relatively wealthy people living in the south of England and Wales. It also dealt with the estates of people who died at sea or abroad leaving personal property in England or Wales. During the Interregnum, 1653 to 1660, the PCC was the only court to deal with wills and administrations.
Records of the PCC are held at The National Archives. The court copies of the proved wills are in PROB 11 and the original wills are in PROB 10. All Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills (1384-1858) from PROB 11 are available to download. Access is free on site at The National Archives. They have been fully indexed and are searchable by name, place, occupation and date. The original wills of selected famous people in PROB 1 are also available to download. Transcriptions of the fifty earliest English wills, 1387-1439, are available online on the Corpus of Middle English website.
From 1643 to 1646, during the English Civil War, some PCC wills were proved at Oxford rather than London. Although many of these wills were proved a second time in London, some wills were not, and consequently will not appear among the PROB 11 wills online. For these wills, the only recourse are the original wills (PROB 10/639-642). These wills have been digitised and are available to search and download online.
Probate act books (PROB 8) and limited probate act books (limited to a particular part of the testator's estate) in PROB 9 identify the parish where the testator died. The administration act books (PROB 6) and limited administration act books (limited to a particular part of the intestate's estate) in PROB 7 contain the PCC's own records of the letters of administration issued under the seal of the court.
Indexes of wills and administration grants are in the form of register books in PROB 12, available both in hard copy and on microfilm at The National Archives. They are arranged annually by the initial letter of the deceased, but not in strict alphabetical order.
The following alphabetical indexes are available in the reading rooms at The National Archives at Kew:
- indexes to wills, 1701-1800
- indexes to administrations, 1701-1749 and 1853-1858
- an index to wills and administrations, 1750-1800, by Anthony Camp
- indexes to PCC wills, 1383-1700, and administrations, 1559-1660, printed by the British Record Society
In two of the volumes of British Record Society indexes for the period 1383 to 1558 vacancy wills (wills proved by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury when the Archbishop's seat was vacant) have been included. The wills to which they refer are now kept in Canterbury Cathedral Archives. These volumes also include some wills entered in archbishops' registers, some belonging to peculiar jurisdictions, and some proved during the vacancies of bishoprics. The registers for these are kept at Lambeth Palace Library.
In the early 19th century the Bank of England ruled that when transfers of government stock holding were involved in a will, only PCC grants of probate were valid. As a result some executors chose to have wills proved by the PCC when they could have been proved by lower courts. This means that you are more likely to find a will among the PCC records from this period onwards. Ledgers of Bank of England will abstracts, 1717 to 1845, are held by the Society of Genealogists. Search The Bank of England wills extracts indexes online, by subscription, at findmypast.co.uk.
For wills of people living in America but having estates in England and Wales, consult the printed abstracts in American wills and administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610 to 1857, compiled by PW Coldham.
2.4.2 Records of the Prerogative Court of York
The Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York, holds records of the Prerogative Court of York. Indexes to wills proved by the Prerogative and Exchequer Courts of York, 1731 to 1858, are available by subscription at British Origins.
2.5 Disputed wills before 1858
Disputes regarding wills and the settlement of estates could arise over the validity of a will, claims of people seeking letters of administration, or disputes about the terms of a will. A single will may have led to lawsuits both in Chancery and the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. If there was litigation, additional records will have been created, such as the depositions of witnesses, pleadings, and exhibits.
The Inheritance Disputes Index (subscription required) on the Origins Network website covers 1574 to 1714 and has indexes to over 26,000 lawsuits instituted in the Court of Chancery relating to inheritance of money or real estate. Chancery records (C) from 1714 onwards can be searched by the names of the litigants (for example, Smith v Jones). Until the mid-18th century some of the most interesting series have contemporary indexes arranged by the name of the promoter (plaintiff).
There are various ways of finding out if a will was disputed in the PCC. Until 1800 wills in PROB 11 may have a sentence (judgement) entered after the probate clause or as a separate entry. The register books in PROB 12 may also tell you if a will or administration was disputed. In some of these volumes some of the disputes (known as 'causes') are indicated by an entry of 'by sent.' or 'by decree' as a marginal note against the name of the deceased. If the sentence was registered, a reference is given to the relevant folio number in PROB 11; the sentence gives the name of the case.
The procedural stages of a case are recorded in the Acts of Court Books (PROB 29) and the loose Acts (PROB 30). The series containing most information are the pleadings, in PROB 18 and PROB 25; depositions, in PROB 24, PROB 26, PROB 28 and PROB 37; and exhibits, in PROB 31, PROB 36 and PROB 42. PROB 18, PROB 26, PROB 36 and PROB 37 are fully searchable by name of deceased and the parties in Discovery, our catalogue, PROB 28 is searchable by the parties and PROB 31, concerning inventories, is partially indexed by name of deceased (see 2.6).
Cases concerned with the inheritance of property through wills were dealt with by Chancery: see Chancery proceedings: equity suits from 1558. For a short-cut, look in the death duty registers, which include references to law suits (see section 2.2). You could also try a search in the exhibits: these contain many wills, as well as further evidence deposited in court during a dispute.
Relevant records may also be found in J 90, records of the Court of Judicature - this series is searchable by name.
2.6 Inventories and the value of estates
Up to 1782 every executor or administrator was required to send the registry of the court an inventory of the deceased's goods. The inventory itemised the estate held by the deceased, including leases, chattels, debts owed and owing, cash, crops, stocks and slaves. No account of real estate (land) was normally taken in estimates and totals. Freeholds may be referred to where relevant to the settling of the deceased's debts. After 1782 an inventory might be called for by an interested party, but it was no longer an automatic part of procedure.
Only about 800 pre-1660 inventories have survived; there is a list and index of names and places in PROB 2. For the period 1660-1782 inventories are in the following series: PROB 3, PROB 4, PROB 5, PROB 16, PROB 32. For the period 1722-1858, they are mostly in PROB 31. All these series, apart from PROB 16, can be searched in Discovery, our catalogue, by the name of the deceased for inventories.
Various other series give information about the value of estates. The bonds in PROB 46 (1713-1858) were entered into by administrators and some executors of estates. In the 16th and 17th centuries the bonds give a rough idea of the value of the estate. In the 18th and 19th centuries bonds are an unreliable measure of the valuation of an estate, although they are thought to be roughly double the value.
Other records that can indicate the value of a person's estate are:
- probate and administration act books in PROB 8 and PROB 9 (from 1796)
- warrants - estimates of servicemen's estates and those under £40, £20 and £5, respectively, are noted on some of the 17th century warrants and most of the 18th and 19th century warrants in PROB 14
- register books in PROB 12 for records of pauper estates
- orders for the distribution of some intestates' goods in PROB 16
- orders of court books, 1816-1857 in PROB 38 contain orders for the revaluation of some 19th century estates
- death duty registers, 1796-1903, which can give the value of estates (see section 2.2)
Until 1533 the final appeal from the church courts in England and Wales was to the Papal Court in Rome. Calendars of these appeals can be consulted at The National Archives. From 1534 PCC appeals were made to the Court of Arches (the records of which are now in Lambeth Palace Library), or to the High Court of Delegates (DEL). The functions of the High Court of Delegates were transferred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1834. There is a printed Index of cases in the Court of Arches at Lambeth Palace Library 1660-1913, edited by Jane Houston, and an index of cases in the High Court of Delegates, 1651-1857, in The Genealogist, volumes 11 and 12. Both are available at The National Archives.
2.8 Other records
Records of wills and administrations are scattered in other record series, and some can be found through our catalogue. Some are also listed in A list of wills, administrations, etc in the Public Record Office, London, England: 12th-19th century, a copy of which is available at The National Archives. You could also try searching for wills among the Chancery Masters' Exhibits (C 103). The National Archives holds copies of many indexes to wills proved in other local courts.
3. Wills and administrations after 1858
The Principal Probate Registry was established on 12 January 1858, and keeps a copy of every will proved, as well as copies of letters of administration. You can request copies of wills from the Probate Service. The index to these records, known as the National Probate Calendar, is available to consult at the London Probate Department. Most sections of the National Probate Calendar for 1858 to 1966 are available at ancestry.co.uk. The National Probate Calendar up to 1942 is also available on microfiche or microfilm at the Society of Genealogists and the Guildhall Library, London as well as various probate registries, record offices and libraries throughout the UK (check ARCHON for information on local archives).
3.1 Disputed wills after 1858
The National Archives holds a 7% sample of papers relating to cases of disputed probate - that is, the validity of the will or administration - covering 1858 to 1960. These are listed by the full name of the testator whose will was being disputed, and the name of the suit (for example, Testator: Finlay, Anne Case: Raynor v Bevan). This series, in J 121, is therefore easy to search online. J 90 is searchable by name and contains some records after 1858.
3.2 Death duty registers, 1858-1903
Many people left estates which were liable for death duties. From 1858 there should be a death duty record for all estates worth more than £20. For further information see our in-depth research guide Death duty records 1796-1903.
3.3 Contemporary guidance
The process of getting a grant of probate or letters of administration, or paying death duties, used to be quite complicated, and several works of guidance were available. For the official advice, look at Ham's Inland Revenue Yearbook, which gives contemporary instructions. The National Archives Library has copies of this annual work (under slightly varying titles) from 1875-1930.
4. Further reading
The following publications are available in The National Archives' library. Those with a link can be purchased from The National Archives' online bookshop:
Arkell, Tom, Evans, Nesta and Goose, Nigel (eds), When death us do part: understanding and interpreting the probate records of early modern England (Leopard's Head Press, 2000)
Bevan, Amanda, Tracing your ancestors in the The National Archives, 7th edn (The National Archives, 2006)
Camp, Anthony J, Wills and their whereabouts, 4th edn (Society of Genealogists, 1974)
Chapman, Colin, Ecclesiastical courts, officials & records: sex, sin & probate, 2nd revised edn (Lochin Publishing, 1998)
Coldham, P W (compiled by), American wills and administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857 (Genealogical Publishing Co Inc, 1989)
Grannum, Karen and Taylor, Nigel, Wills and probate records (The National Archives, 2009)
Houston, Jane (ed), Index of cases in the Court of Arches at Lambeth Palace Library 1660-1913 (British Record Society, vol. 85, 1972)
Index of cases in the High Court of Delegates, 1651-1857, The Genealogist, vols 11 and 12.
A list of wills, administrations, etc in the Public Record Office, London, England: 12th-19th century (Magna Carta Book Co, 1968)
Newington-Irving, N J (ed), Will indexes and other probate material in the Library of the Society of Genealogists (Society of Genealogists, 1996)
Sheehan, Michael McMahon, The will in medieval England, from the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to the end of the thirteenth century (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, studies and texts VI, 1963)