By Stanley Merridew
Whilst on a visit to The National Archives I overheard a conversation regarding probate. A researcher was saying that their ancestors had not left any wills as they had searched the index at TNA without success. I didn’t get the chance to put my oar in before they had moved on. When searching any index the researcher needs to be aware of the extent of the index and in particular what is doesn’t contain. Wills and probate are possibly the most complex of the subject matter we tackle as family historians and without some understanding success will be limited.
A will is drawn up by an individual to record their wishes on the disposal of their assets after death. Any will you find is unlikely to be an original in the testator’s handwriting but is probably a copy made during the probate exercise. It is very easy to assume that as your forebears were at the bottom of the pile they did not leave a will. This is often a mistake as I have found on a number of occasions. Also it is possible that your ancestor was left a bequest by a relative or employer and by searching beyond your immediate family you can find evidence that may aid and prove your research.
At worst, probate will confirm death and residence. The relationship to the deceased of any person mentioned is shown, ie son, cousin. Unfortunately the term “Kinsman” can be found in older wills which is not definitive. Where married daughters are mentioned showing their married name they are very helpful in proving relationship particularly in parishes where even unusual surnames can be frequent. Sometimes an inventory, a list of their possessions is attached, which gives the researcher an insight into their wealth or lack of it and their way of life.
Here is an example of a pre 1858 will:
In the name of God Amen the 12 Day of January Anno Domini 1757 I Godfrey Horsman of Thruscross in the Parish of Fewston and County of York Skinner being weak in body but of perfect mind and memory………… I do make my Last Will and Testament…………. I give unto Isabella my wife & Godfrey my son whom I appoint joint executors,all my Goods & Chattels debts and demands whatsoever after my debts and loyalties are paid. Item I give to my son George the new chest at Storrs Head in the chamber Item I give to my son Francis of Brathit ten shillings Item I give to my daughter Mary the wife of John Gill one shilling and lastly I do revoke all former wills whatsoever …….. Signed sealed published and delivered in the presence of both of us
Wills can be neatly divided into two parts, post 1858 and pre 1858. This is the date when probate registries came into being, removing the Church of England’s authority over probate. These records are held in probate registries around the country, known as the National Probate Calendar. Our nearest registry is at York Place in Leeds. Each registry holds the complete index for the whole country. The entries in the index will give you the basic information, the amount of probate, names mentioned in the will, for example:
TENNANT Stephen 16 October 1867
Effects under £450 The Will with a codicil of Stephen Tennant late of Buckden in the Parish of Arncliffe in the County of York Farmer deceased who died 8 July 1859 at Buckden aforesaid was proved at Wakefield by the oath of James Tennant of Kettlewell in the County aforesaid Innkeeper the son of the Executor. Former Grant at Wakefield January 1860
Note probate often granted years after death. The National Probate Calendar is available online via Ancestry. Remember this is from 1858.
Prior to 1858 wills were proved in church courts. The individual court used depended on where the testator owned property. The country was split into two halves, “Sees”, roughly north & south, under the jurisdiction of the Archbishops, Canterbury the senior and York. The counties of Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire,Westmoreland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Isle of Man, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire were part of the Archbishopric of York. The rest of the country including Wales was covered by Canterbury.
Below them were a number of bishops each responsible for a number of Archdeaconries who in turn managed a number of parishes.
Where property owned: Probate granted by:
Both Sees Prerogative Court of Canterbury
One See Relevant Prerogative Court
More than one Diocese Relevant Prerogative Court
More than one Archdeaconry Bishops Court
More than one parish different Archdeaconries Bishops Court
Parishes same Archdeaconry Consistory/Commisary Court
The Prerogative Court of Canterbury is generally abbreviated to PCC and York as PCY. The Consistory or Commisary Court was run by the Archdeacon or Bishop’s representative. The exceptions to the rule, yes there always is one, are Peculiars. These are areas, normally a single parish which have separate historical authority, here the jurisdiction would be granted by the Archbishop. Their records would be entirely separate from any other and you need to be aware of any possible peculiars within any diocese you are searching.
Some online providers do have some indexes of wills but you must be aware that these are incomplete. The records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury have been indexed, 1384 to 1858. TNA also have wills of Royal Navy & Royal Marine personnel 1786 to 1882. Both series are available online. Probably the best internet site is provide by www.nationalwillsindex.com part of Origins. It gives a list of all the courts included and is continually updated. This site includes York Medieval Index 1267-1500 and York Peculiars Index 1383-1883.
Most pre 1858 wills for Yorkshire are held by the Borthwick Institute at York as most parishes came within the jurisdiction of the Diocese of York. However some parishes to the north and west were part of the Archdeaconry of Richmond which was part of the Diocese of Chester. These records are at Leeds Archives. The Borthwick Institute website includes a list of Peculiars. These were usually small areas that had separate jurisdiction.
Where property was owned the Deeds Registry can be helpful. The West Riding Registry of Deeds in Wakefield has records of deeds going back over three hundred years and sometimes a copy of a will is found attached to the deeds.
If a person died intestate, without leaving a will and their estate was worth more than a certain figure which changed over time, a Letter of Administration was drawn up giving probate to their next of kin if no other authority was obtainable. Example:
On the 11th June 1877 Letters of Administration of the personal estate of Christian Cecelia Edbrooke late of 81 Durnford Street, Stonehouse Plymouth who died of the 7th March 1877 at 81 Durnford Street a spinster without parents and intestate were granted at the Principal Reigistry of the Probate Division to Martha Charlotte Gibson of 1 Norris Road Crisp Street Poplar widow the natural and lawful sister and one of the next of kin. Estate under £200 no leaseholds.
Prior to the Married Womens Property Act 1882 a married woman could not make a will without the consent of her husband. Widows and spinsters however could and often did make wills.
From Death Duty Registers you can also glean further information. Death Duty was introduced in 1796. They are held at TNA up to 1903. An index is also available. Most wills would have been liable to pay the duty. As the registers are nationwide it can sometimes be the easiest way of locating an original will as the register shows the place of probate. The Society of Genealogists hold an index up to 1858. The registers include much of the information from the will including beneficiaries and next of kin.
Although as I said at the beginning the topic is complex, finding an original will is very satisfying and well worth pursuing. I would recommend further reading:
Words from Wills and Other Probate Records by Stuart Raymond
Probate Jurisdictions: Where to Look for Wills by Jeremey Gibson & Elise Churchill.
The National Archives website can also provide guidance.