Wills and Probates

Our March 2015 meeting addressed the topic of wills and probates.

In English probate research, 1858 is a key date. Prior to this date, probates were handled by ecclesiastical (church) courts. The Probate Act of 1857 removed probate jurisdiction from the church courts and set up a national Court of Probate for England and Wales. After 1858,  a “union index” of all wills and administrations called the National Probate Calendar was published for each year up to the present.

Finding probates in 1858 and later

Beginning in 1858, estates and wills have been probated through the Principal Probate Registry System. See the “Principal Probate Registry” article in the FamilySearch wiki for details on the system.

Finding probates in 1858 and later is easier than finding pre-1858 probates, because of the existence of the National Probate Calendar. You can search the Calendar online at Ancestry.com from 1858 to 1966–go to “England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966.” Ancestry has indexed the name, the date of probate–usually within one to three years of the death date, the death date, the death place, and the probate registry where the probate was filed.

Be sure to click through to the digital image of the National Probate Calendar page. Entries, about a paragraph in length, contain great identifying information not included in the index:

  • Name of the deceased
  • Size of the estate
  • Date of probate
  • Type of instrument (will, letters of administration)
  • Residence of the deceased
  • Occupation of the deceased
  • Death date and place
  • Names, residences, occupations, and relationships of executors and administrators.

TIP: Even if you don’t order the original probate documents, you can still use the National Probate Calendar entries to find exact dates of death for your late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century research subjects, and go on to order death certificates with greater certainty that you have the right individual than if you just used the GRO indexes.

You can also search post-1858 probates online, without an Ancestry subscription, and order copies of wills at https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate. (The system is currently in beta, so it will likely change from what is described here before it assumes its final form.) On the search page, you can choose to search Wills and Probate 1996 to present, Wills and Probate 1858-1996, and Soldier’s Wills. All three search tabs have an Advanced Search feature.

Results of the 1996 to present search include surname and first name of the deceased, date of probate, probate number, date of death, document type (grant of probate, will, grant and will), and probate registry handling the case.

The 1858-1996 search brings up page images from the National Probate Calendar with entries for the surname and year you specified in your search. You page through these to locate the correct probate.

The Soldier’s Wills search allows you to search for the will of a soldier who died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986. Your search brings up the surname, first name, regimental number, and date of death for each soldier’s will that meets your search criteria.

You can order copies of any of these wills right on the website. Copies of wills cost 10 pounds; you can pay by debit or credit card. Wills are made available digitally within 10 working days of your order, and you are able to access the wills for 31 days.

Pre-1858 probates

Before 1858, probate was handled by ecclesiastical (church) courts. Which court handled a particular probate depends on the location of the deceased person’s property. To determine which ecclesiastical courts might have handled your ancestor’s estate, start with the lowest-level court serving the parish where your ancestor lived or died.

You can find the identity of the probate courts to check using “England & Wales Jurisdictions 1851” at http://maps.familysearch.org/ to look up your ancestor’s parish. Once you click on the parish name, a map appears. Superimposed on the map is a box with three tabs: Info, Jurisdictions, and Options. The Info tab identifies the parish. The Jurisdictions tab gives the name of the lowest-level probate court for the parish, likely an archdeaconry court or a “peculiar” court with local jurisdiction. Original records of these courts, if they survive, are likely to be found in a local record office. The Options tab allows you to search the Family History library catalog, the digitized Historical Records on FamilySearch, and the FamilySearch Research Wiki articles for materials pertaining to the parish. These links will help you to find the location of original records, microfilm, indexes, and published materials.

FamilySearch Research Wiki articles for each county identify the “secondary,” or higher-level, courts that might have handled your ancestor’s probate if he or she had property in more than one jurisdiction. For estates where property was located in more than one archdeaconry, but within the same diocese, the next higher level court is the bishop’s court. Bishop’s courts might be called consistory or commissary courts; their surviving records would likely be found in a local record office.

The highest level ecclesiastical jurisdictions, above the diocesan courts, were the Prerogative Courts of York and Canterbury (abbreviated as PCY and PCC). Broadly speaking, the PCY had jurisdiction over wills and administrations in the north of England (Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Westmorland, and Yorkshire) where the testator or intestate had goods totaling five pounds or more in more than one diocese in the province of York.

The PCC had jurisdiction over the south of England and Wales (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire,  Cambridgeshire, Cornwall, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, London, Middlesex, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Surrey, Sussex, Suffolk, Wales, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, and Worcestershire) and the testator or intestate had goods totaling five pounds or more in more than one diocese in the province of Canterbury.

Original records of the archdiocese of York are located at the Borthwick Institute. Findmypast.com offers the”Prerogative & Exchequer Courts of York Probate Index, 1688-1858,” as well as the “York Medieval Probate Index, 1267-1500” and the “York Peculiars Probate Index, 1383-1883.”

Original PCC records are located in The National Archives (TNA) at Kew. The index to PCC wills from the period 1384-1858 is searchable on TNA’s website at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/wills.htm. If you find an index entry for the will you want, you can order it on the spot for three pounds thirty and download a copy. Ancestry.com also has the index and images of PCC wills on its website.

Remember that if you don’t have your own subscription to Findmypast or Ancestry, you can use the subscriptions in the MGS library or your local Family History Center. In the case of Ancestry, you can use the Ancestry Library Edition in many local public libraries.


Ancestry.com. Subscription website. Look for the National Probate Calendar, PCC wills (index and images), and calendars, indexes, transcriptions, and some images of wills and probate records from London, Gloucestershire, Kent, Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Lichfield and Coventry, Worcester, Lincoln, Leicester, and Yorkshire. Check the Wills, Estates & Guardian Records category under “Tax, Criminal, Land & Wills” for Europe, United Kingdom in the “Card Catalog” under the Search tab for updated listings.

FamilySearch Research Wiki articles include
“England Probate Records”
“Principal Probate Registry”
Also check for Probate Records links in the wiki entries for individual counties–e.g., “Devon Probate Records”

Findmypast.com. Subscription website. Look for indexes to the PCY wills here, along with indexes and some transcriptions of wills from Billingshurst, the British India Office, Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent, London, Northamptonshire and Rutland, Surrey, and York peculiars. Check “A-Z of record sets in United Kingdom,” under the Search tab for updated listings.

“Find a will or probate (England and Wales),” Gov.uk
(https://www.gov.uk/search-will-probate : accessed 28 March 2015). This is the place to search the National Probate Calendar for probates from 1858 to 1996, 1996 to the present, and wills of soldiers who died while serving in the British armed forces between 1850 and 1986.

Grannum, Karen, and Nigel Taylor. Wills & Probate Records: a Guide for Family Historians, 2nd ed. Kew: The National Archives, 2009. An excellent reference work, though not the most up-to-date resource for online materials.

All URLs are current as of 28 March 2015.


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