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A Short Guide to Wills and an Explanation of the Probate Courts

Wills are a good starting place for family historians who are looking to fill out their family tree with more personal detail. They are often the first thing researchers turn to when they move away from the more familiar birth, marriage and death records and the censuses.

Wills can sometimes be thought of as intimidating. How and where do we find wills? Did my ancestors actually make them? They didn’t come from a wealthy background, so they probably wouldn’t have anything to leave. If I do find one, will I be able to read it?

However, wills can add to our family stories with the insight they give into family life, so it is worth looking for them.  For example, we know from his will that William Shakespeare left his wife his ‘second best bed’, and everyone has heard of the errant son of a rich family being cut off without a shilling.

How do we track down any wills that our family may have left?

Until 1858 wills were dealt with by church courts (apart from 1653 to 1660 during the Civil War, when ecclesiastical jurisdictions were abolished and all wills were proved in London).

After 1858 wills were dealt with by the Principal Probate Registry (PPR).

Wills before 1858 can present a challenge.  Wills before this date were proved in the multiplicity of church courts.  There was a hierarchy of courts, and the court in which a testator’s will was proved depended on where they lived and how much land and property they owned.

The first level of organisation was the Diocese.  This was divided  into two or more Archdeaconries, for administrative purposes.  The lowest level of probate court was the  Archdeaconry Court, and testators who lived in and/or only owned land in the Archdeaconry would have their wills proved here.

Consistory or Commissary Court. If the testator owned land in more than one Archdeaconry, their will would be proved in the next level of court, the Consistory or Commissary court.

If land or property was owned in more than one Diocese,  it would be proved in the highest ranking probate court – the Prerogative Court of the relevant Archbishop, for example the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of York (PCY). The Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury (PCC) was the highest ranking of all probate courts.

These superior courts (PCC for England and Wales, PCY for the Northern Regions) were usually used by people of wealth, property, and higher social standing, hence their records were usually better maintained than lower courts. During the 19th century they became more commonly used, meaning that some minor courts fell into disuse.

The Peculiar Court.  The area of a Peculiar might be anything from an area within a parish, a parish itself, or several parishes. Peculiars are outside the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon and/or the Bishop of the Diocese.  They can be under the management of the Dean and Chapter of a Cathedral, a university, or if a ‘Royal Peculiar’ under the jurisdiction of the Monarch. Westminster Abbey is an example of a royal Peculiar.  People living within a Peculiar could  have their wills proved in the relevant Peculiar Court.

Hampshire was served by the following probate courts (since Church of England Dioceses do not cover the same area as a county, they can extend to more than one county):

  • The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC)
  • The Consistory Court of Winchester
  • The Archdeaconry Court of Winchester
  • Peculiar Courts –  48 in Hampshire

These probate courts cover former Hampshire parishes:

  • The Archdeaconry of Berkshire
  • The Archdeaconry Court of Surrey
  • The Commissary Court of the Bishop of Winchester
  • The Peculiar Court of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury.

Sometimes a will has an Inventory attached. These are of interest to a family historian, as they list all the possessions the person owned.  They can give a real insight into their life and occupation.  The monetary value of the items can be converted to modern amounts giving an appreciation of the person’s finances.

If a person died intestate, a relative or friend may have taken out Letters of Administration, known as Admons, to distribute their effects. Although less informative than a will, a next of kin might be identified, so these sources should not be disregarded in the search for knowledge about a family.

Many wills have now been indexed. They can be searched for online and a copy can be obtained from the relevant county record office.  The survival of wills can vary: for example, most Devon wills were destroyed by enemy action in 1942, whilst in Hampshire, the Record Office has over 110,000 wills listed in its catalogue.

Church courts still exist today, and we occasionally hear of religious disputes being heard in them. However, on 11 January 1858 probate matters were transferred from ecclesiastical to civil jurisdictions following the Probate Act of 1857.

All wills since 1858 are in the Principal Probate Registry in London or the local Probate Registry. They are also indexed and can be searched online. A copy can then be obtained from the national or local Probate Registry.

Chris Pavey, HGS Member


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