You may be wondering where to go looking for your ancestor’s will.
The first thing that you need to consider is that before 1858, England and Wales were divided up into two provinces.
Canterbury was the largest and most influential and its remit covered the South of England up to the Midlands along with Wales. The other one was The Province of York, whose area covered the counties of Durham, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire, and also the Isle of Man.
The structure of these ecclesiastic provinces were that at the head of each was an Archbishop. Then the province was subdivided into several smaller dioceses with each diocese having a minimum of two bishops. A further division was where these dioceses were divided again into archdeaconries.
Until 12 January 1858, all wills had to be “proven” in a church court to ensure that it was considered a legal will. There were, in effect, over 250 church courts across the country that proved wills and the records of these wills are now to be found stored mostly in local record offices.
Where a will was proved would depend upon where the lands the property was situated in. Another important consideration was whether they were contained within a single archdeaconry. If they were then the will would be proven in the Archdeacon’s court. If, however, the property of the deceased was to be found stretching across several archdeaconries, then it would have to be proven in a Bishop’s Court.
In a similar fashion, should the land be in more than one diocese then it would be to the Archbishop’s Prerogative Court that the will would need to go to be proved.
As always, there are the exceptions to the rules and one of these is if the deceased had died abroad. I such a case the will would be proven at the Prerogative Court of Canterbury regardless of where the property was.
Wills proven in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are now held at the National Archives in Kew, while the wills proven in the Prerogative Court of York are to be found at the Bothwick Institute in the University of York.
All of the wills proven in the lower courts up to 1858 are usually held in the Diocesan Record Office and often this will be the County Record Office. In Wales, however, wills from 1521 are held at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
Family historians can find locating wills to be an up hill task. It is recommended that you try to locate an index before you set off to one archive or another, to see if a will for your forebear exists. Many indexes are now available on CD and online via the subscription sites like TheGenealogist.co.uk and Ancestry.