How to look for records of... Wills and probate before 1858: further research

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you have already looked at our guide on Wills or administrations before 1858.

This guide will tell you how to look for other records which include:

  • probate records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury
  • disputed wills
  • inventories
  • the value of estates
  • appeal records

You may also wish to look at death duty records. Many people left estates which were liable for death duties. Read our guide Death duties 1796-1903 for information.

Request copies of wills after 1858 from the Probate Service.

2. Essential information

Wills were proved by a number of courts. The only probate court records held by The National Archives are those of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury up to 1858.

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), which actually sat in London, was the senior church court, and dealt:

  • with the wills of relatively wealthy people living in the south of England and Wales
  • with the estates of people who died at sea or abroad leaving personal property in England or Wales

From 1653 to 1660, the PCC was the only court to deal with wills and administrations.

To locate records of wills or administration, first establish where they were proved. Our guide on Wills or administrations before 1858 can help you to determine which court proved a will or administration.

Alternatively, consult Wills and their whereabouts by Anthony J Camp, 4th edition (Society of Genealogists, 1974) for guidance.

Some county record offices have indexed or digitised their own collections, for example Norfolk. Find these via the county pages on GENUKI.

3. Search tips

For advice on PROB 6 and PROB 11 records read our introductory guide on Wills or administrations before 1858.

You may need to use indexes in order to locate records.

Records of wills and administrations are scattered. Search our catalogue using the Advanced search option, within department codes PROB and C, by relevant keywords such as:

  • name
  • record type such as ‘administrations’ or ‘exhibits’ (which may contain wills and further evidence deposited in court during a dispute)

Refine your search by date. For more guidance on how to search our catalogue, read catalogue search help.

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.

The National Archives holds copies of many indexes to wills proved in other local courts. See section 4 below.

4. Indexes to locate records

The National Archives

To search for an administration, you must first consult an index to obtain a year and a folio number, and for later years, a county. There are several indexes, all available and held together in the Open Reading Room, and the one you use is determined by the year in question:

  • 1559-1660 Published indexes
  • 1661-1662 Copies of the original indexes (from PROB 12); 1661 partly indexed by a typescript index*
  • 1663-1664 Typescript index
  • 1665-1700 Copies of the original indexes (from PROB 12)
  • 1701-1800 Typescript index
  • 1801-1858 Copies of the original indexes (from PROB 12)
  • Corresponding administration books in PROB 6 have not survived for 1661-1662

The PROB 12 indexes on the shelves in the Open Reading Room.

Canterbury Cathedral Archives

The Canterbury Cathedral Archives hold indexes to vacancy wills from 1383 to 1558, compiled by the British Record Society (BRS). Vacancy wills were proved by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury when the Archbishop’s seat was vacant.

Lambeth Palace Library

The Lambeth Palace Library holds finding aids which includes a British Record Society volume that incorporate:

  • wills entered in archbishops’ registers
  • wills belonging to peculiar jurisdictions
  • wills proved during the vacancies of bishoprics

Society of Genealogists

The Society of Genealogists holds the Ledgers of Bank of England will abstracts, 1717 to 1845. Search SoG Data Online (this is a subscription website).

Online Wills Indexes

You will find that various online will indexes, abstracts and source documents relating to wills can be found online via Ancestry (£) and (£).  These include:

  • all records proved in the Prerogative Court of York
  • British Record Society probate indexes
  • Oxfordshire and Chester original images, and the Devon Wills Project, among others
  • local will indexes (£) also has Bank of England will extracts. In the early 19th century the Bank of England ruled that a will could be proved in a lower court, but if it involved a transfer of government stock holding the grant of probate had to be made by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

The Bank of England kept extracts of the wills in these cases. Search indexes to them at Findmypast (£). They can be a good place to look because they contain some extracts from wills proved in the lower courts as well as those proved in the PCC.

5. Disputed wills

Disputes regarding wills and the settlement of estates could arise over the:

  • validity of a will
  • claims of people seeking letters of administration
  • 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
  • exhibits

There are various ways of finding out if a will was disputed in the PCC and of finding out about the dispute itself:

  • Consult the register books in PROB 12. These may 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
  • Consult the Inheritance Disputes Index (1574 to 1714) at Findmypast (£) for indexes to over 26,000 lawsuits instituted in the Court of Chancery relating to inheritance of money or real estate
  • Search our catalogue using the Advanced search option by litigant’s last name (1714 onwards), within department code C (Chancery records), for court records of disputed wills. Until the mid-18th century some of the most interesting series have contemporary indexes arranged by the name of the promoter (plaintiff)
  • Search and download our online wills (1384-1858) which, up until 1800, may have a sentence (judgment) after the probate clause or as a separate entry. If the sentence was registered, you will find a reference to the relevant folio number and the sentence also gives the name of the case
  • Search our catalogue using the Advanced search option by the names of the parties disputing the will in PROB 28

You can also search our catalogue by name of deceased for procedural stages of a case. Search within:

Read our guide on Chancery equity suits after 1558 for advice on how to search for cases concerned with the inheritance of property through wills, which were dealt with by Chancery. For a short-cut, look in the death duty registers, which include references to law suits.

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
  • slaves

Real estate (land) was not normally included in estimates and totals.

Only about 800 pre-1660 inventories have survived. Browse PROB 2 for a list and index of names and places.

For the period 1660-1782, search our catalogue by name of deceased for records of inventories in:

For the period 1722-1858, they are mostly in PROB 31.

Other records that can indicate the value of a person’s estate are:

  • 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
  • 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 which can give the value of estates. Read our guide on Death duties 1796-1903 for information

7. Appeals

Until 1533 the final appeal from the church courts in England and Wales was to the Papal Court in Rome. Consult the calendars of these appeals at The National Archives, Kew.

From 1534 PCC appeals were made to:

The functions of the High Court of Delegates were transferred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in 1834. Use the printed Index to locate records:

8. Wills during the Civil War (1643-1646)

From 1643 to 1646 some PCC wills were proved in Oxford rather than London.

To view and download those that were proved in Oxford but not London, browse PROB 10/639-642 or search our catalogue using the Advanced search option by name within PROB 10.

Many of these wills were later proved a second time in London (although some where not). Search by name for these at online wills, 1384-1858 (PROB 11).

9. How to find out where a testator died

To identify where a testator: died, browse:

  • probate act books in PROB 8
  • limited probate act books (limited to a particular part of the testator’s estate) in PROB 9

10. Copies of letters of administration (1810-1858)

Browse PROB 7 for the PCC’s own records of the letters of administration issued under the seal of the court.

11. Wills of people living in America (1610-1857)

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 by P W Coldham, available on Ancestry (charges apply).

12. Further reading

An index to wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1750-1800, by Anthony J Camp

Indexes to PCC wills, 1383-1700, and administrations, 1559-1660, printed by the British Record Society

Visit The National Archives’ shop for a range of publications about wills and death records.

Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives’ reference library.

You may also be able to find them in a local library.