How to look for... Wills and administrations before 1858
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This guide provides advice on how to search for a will in England and Wales proved before 1858. The Principal Probate Registry was established on 12 January 1858 and for wills proved from this date onwards go to the Probate Service.
This is not an exhaustive guide to finding wills and the focus is on what you can find at The National Archives. However, there is some advice on wills held elsewhere. There is also advice on searching for letters of administration, issued in lieu of a will.
Before starting a search, consider the following:
- Not everyone left a will and not all wills needed to be proved by a court. People leaving small amounts of goods could leave instructions with their family or friends.
- For the instructions in a will to be carried out by the executors, who would distribute the estate of the testator, the will had to have been proved in a probate court, almost all of which were church courts.
- Where there was no valid will, a probate court could issue letters of administration, appointing people to distribute the estate according to fixed rules of inheritance.
- Wives needed their husband’s permission to make a will, and most female testators were spinsters or widows.
- Many people left estates which were liable for death duties and these produced separate sets of records – read our guide to death duty records for more information
The National Archives holds wills proved in the highest and busiest probate court, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) in London. By the late 1850s it was proving about 40% of all wills. The records of this court are the best place to start looking for a will (over one million PCC wills are available online). However, before 1858 there were more than 200 other church courts across the country that dealt with probate, each of which kept separate records and registers of wills – there was no central index and this remains the case. For most wills proved elsewhere you will need to search in other archives. The probate court system is shown here from the top down:
- The Prerogative Court of Canterbury
- The Prerogative Court of York
- Bishops’ diocesan courts
- Archdeacons’ courts
- Other courts, known as ‘peculiars’, administered by the deans and chapters of cathedrals
When looking for someone’s will or administration you will need to determine which court dealt with it. Where a will was proved usually depends on:
- where the person died
- the value of the assets
- how these assets were distributed geographically
- If the testator was relatively poor the estate was dealt with in an archdeacon’s court
- If the testator had possessions in only one archdeaconry then the will was proved in an archdeacon’s court
- If the testator had possessions in more than one archdeaconry located in the same diocese then the will was proved in a bishop’s diocesan court
- If the testator had possessions in more than one diocese or if they were valued at more than £5 (or £10 in London) then the will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or Prerogative Court of York
You can use the English jurisdictions 1851 map to identify the jurisdiction of each diocese and therefore the respective probate court.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury records online
Registered copies of 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 but there are wills from people in all parts of England and Wales. Although on the whole the PCC was used by the relatively wealthy, as time went on many less prosperous people used this court, as well as people who feared to die abroad – sailors and soldiers are well represented.
Search online by name and year (the date you are searching for is the date of probate – the will itself may date from years before) plus occupation, place or county for Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills, 1384–1858 which you can download from our website (£). These records, that number over one million in total, are from series PROB 11.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills proved during the Civil War, 1643–1646
From 1643 to 1646 some Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills were proved in Oxford rather than London.
Search and download PCC wills proved in Oxford (PROB 10/639 – PROB 10/642) free of charge from our catalogue. These records are on digital microfilm and there are therefore multiple wills on a single download. You will need to scroll through the digital microfilm to locate a single will.
Wills of famous people proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1552-1854
There are online copies of the wills of 102 famous people from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including William Shakespeare, Admiral Lord Nelson and Jane Austen. For more information and to search these records see our guide to famous wills 1552-1854.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury records available only at The National Archives in Kew
Many of our records are not available online. To access these records you will either need to visit us and view the records at our site in Kew for free, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific document reference, order a copy (£).
Original Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills, 1484-1858
Original wills, as opposed to the registered copies held in PROB 11 (see online records section above), are what the executor brought to the court to have proved. They are either the will as drawn up and signed by the testator or a copy that was made before the notary of the court. Though they contain the same details as the registered copies, they can be easier to read.
Search for these original wills in PROB 10 by year/month of probate and (from around 1577) by the initial letter of the testator’s surname. Individual pieces cover ranges of months/years and ranges of surnames so their catalogue descriptions reflect this. For example, PROB 10/211 covers wills proved between June and August 1602 in surname ranges R-Y for June and A-W for July and August. Given these irregularities, it can be easier to browse through the series.
Administrations granted by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1559-1858
An application for administration would be made when a person died without leaving a will. Administrations ‘with will annexed’ were made if the original executors of a will died or refused to act.
The grants of administration are not very informative. They are registered in the Administration Act Books of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in PROB 6. These are the PCC’s own records of the letters of administration issued under the seal of the court.
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 (the corresponding administration books in PROB 6 have not survived for 1661-1662 so the indexes are the only source of information)
- 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)
Original Prerogative Court of Canterbury inventories, 1417-1858
Up to 1782 every executor or administrator was required to send the court registry an inventory of the deceased’s goods. Inventories itemised the estate held by the deceased, and can (but do not always) include details of:
- all the deceased’s goods and assets, including values
- the contents of a deceased person’s home room by room
- a deceased trader’s stock
- the crops, livestock, and agricultural equipment owned by deceased farmers
- debts owed and owing
Not all inventories survive, but there are over 60,000 held across a number of series. Click on the series links below to search the respective series by name of testator or intestate and/or by place name (counties are sometimes expressed in abbreviated form so try, for example, Staffs or Stafford as well as Staffordshire) plus the word ‘inventory’, to locate inventories from the following year ranges:
- pre-1660 in PROB 2
- 1661-1732 in PROB 3, PROB 4 and PROB 5 (there are a small number of inventories outside this year range in PROB 5)
- 1658-1723 in PROB 32
- 1722-1858 in PROB 31
Alternative searches could be by occupation or ‘at sea’.
Original Prerogative Court of Canterbury indexes, 1383–1858
Though largely replaced by the online indexes which allow you to search PROB 11 (see online records, above), the original indexes, also referred to as calendars, to wills and administrations used by the clerks of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are still available to view. Each index lists the names of the testators and intestates of whose estates grants of probate and administration were made in that year. They are held in series PROB 12 and modern copies of these indexes are available in the open reading rooms at Kew, as described and illustrated above in reference to administrations (they are indexes to both administrations and wills).
Though limited in detail, the original indexes do sometimes provide useful alternatives to the online indexes because:
- names are sometimes spelt slightly differently
- the online indexes use the domicile of the testator at the time the will was written; the original indexes use the domicile of the testator at the time of death
In addition they can provide:
- limited information about testators’ and intestates’ places of residence. In the case of the English and Welsh testators’ and intestates’ the county of residence is usually given, generally in abbreviated form, for example Ches for Cheshire (or county of Chester). Southampton (variously abbreviated to South, Southt, Southton) denotes the county of Hampshire and not just the town of Southampton.
- names of towns or cities, other than county towns. This information is only occasionally included. The most common examples (with abbreviations in brackets) are Bath, Bristol (Brist.), Coventry (Cov.), Exeter (Exon.), Norwich (Norw.), and Salisbury (Saru.).
- occupations for certain people such as clerics holding high office and members of the nobility and doctors and physicians. Data about occupation and status is not given for the majority of testators and intestates.
Beyond the Prerogative Court of Canterbury: some online sources for other probate court records
Wills and administrations from courts other than the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are generally held at local archives. Some of these are available online.
Indexes to wills proved in other probate courts
For online indexes to wills proved by English and Welsh courts other than the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, go to Ancestry.co.uk (charges apply) or Findmypast.co.uk (charges apply). Among the online indexes on these websites are indexes to:
- wills proved in the Prerogative Court of York
- wills proved at local courts all over England and Wales
Bank of England will extracts, 1717-1845
The Bank of England kept extracts of wills of persons who died with monies in public funds in England or who were stockholders who went bankrupt.
Search registers of will extracts once held by the Bank of England at Findmypast (charges apply). They include extracts from wills proved in the lower courts as well as those proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
Welsh wills, pre-1858
For Welsh wills, search wills proved in the Welsh church courts at the National Library of Wales (free to view online). These include other types of probate records, such as inventories. However, if someone held land in more than one diocese in Wales, the will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
Beyond the Prerogative Court of Canterbury: other sources for probate court records
Records of the Prerogative Court of York
The records of the Prerogative Court of York are held by the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York.
Records of other local church courts
Most of these are held at county record offices, some of which publish indexes and images of wills on their own websites. To search for these try one or more of the following:
- Consult the archived Online Probate Indexes (not updated since 2012) published on the now inactive Your Archives website
- Consult online probate indexes published by the British Record Society
- Search our catalogue, using the ‘held by’ filters to search in ‘Other archives’ and searching with the name of a county and the word ‘probate’
- Search online for local country record office websites
Indexes to vacancy wills, 1383-1558
Vacancy wills were proved by the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury when the Archbishop’s seat was vacant. The Canterbury Cathedral Archives hold indexes to these vacancy wills from 1383 to 1558, compiled by the British Record Society.
If you know the county or parish, the following resources may help to locate the records:
- Phillimore Atlas and Index of Parish Registers– for maps of the areas covered by each church court and details of their surviving records.
- Tracing your ancestors in The National Archives – for a table of records by county. Copies are available at the enquiry desks in the open reading rooms at Kew.
- Probate jurisdictions: Where to look for wills by Jeremy Gibson.
- A list of wills, administrations, etc in the Public Record Office, London, England: 12th-19th century.
- American wills and administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610 to 1857 by P W Coldham.
- Wills and their whereabouts by Anthony J Camp
Visit The National Archives’ shop for a range of publications about wills and death records. 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)
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