How to look for records of... Wills and administrations before 1858

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This guide provides advice on how to search for a will or administration in England and Wales proved or granted before 1858. Not everyone left a will and not all wills needed to be proved by a court.

The National Archives holds wills from this period proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. For the many wills proved elsewhere you will most likely need to search in other archives.

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

When looking for someone’s will or administration you will need to determine which court dealt with it. Before 1858 this meant one of the more than 200 ecclesiastical courts, organized into a hierarchical structure:

  • The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (the highest church court in England and Wales but even in the late 1850s it was only proving about 40% of the national total of 21,653 wills)
  • The Prerogative Court of York
  • Bishops’ diocesan courts (the jurisdictions of Canterbury and York were split into a number of dioceses)
  • Archdeacons’ courts (dioceses were divided into several archdeaconries)
  • Other courts, known as ‘peculiars’, administered by the deans and chapters of cathedrals

Which of these types of court would have proved a testator’s will would usually be determined by the following factors:

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

The following guidelines may help you to establish which type of court would have proved a will:

  • If the testator was relatively poor the estate was usually dealt with in an archdeacon’s court
  • If the testator had possessions in just one archdeaconry then the will would have been proved in an archdeacon’s court
  • If the testator had possessions in more than one archdeaconry but all in the same diocese then the will would have been 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 it was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury or York

Each court kept its own separate register of wills – there was no central index – but if you know the county or parish where the will may have been proved then the following resources may help you to pin down the records:

Online records

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.

Records available only at The National Archives in 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.

Records 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 proved in other English ecclesiastical courts

Wills and administrations from courts other than the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are held in local archives. To find records try any of the following:

Other resources

Books

Visit The National Archives’ bookshop 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)

British Record Society indexes

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