This index has been created as a combined project by Origins.net and the Devon Wills Project to compile a consolidated index of pre-1858 Devon wills, administrations, inventories, etc. Many Devon probate records were destroyed by enemy action, when the Probate Registry was destroyed in the bombing during the Exeter Blitz in 1942. Thus the aim of this index is to create a finding-aid to enable the researcher to determine what probate materials were originally recorded and most importantly what documents have survived and where they can be located.
I’ve been looking back at an ancestor’s will this week. These family history records are fascinating. Seems that one of my two times great grandfathers left a little money and his house to his wife. In his life he had changed occupations from being a Hatter in Tavistock to being a grocer in Plymouth and it makes me wonder about the economic and social forces at work which made him chose this path.
Another ancestor, on my mother’s family side, seems to have cut his eldest son out of the will, everything being inherited by the children who were next in line! What was the story there, I wonder?
These wills, however, are from the start of the records created by the Probate Registry, which took control of proving wills and administrations in 1858. Before this, four different types of ecclesiastical (church) courts dealt with these cases.
Ancestry.co.uk has recently published online over a million probate records, featuring the last will and testament of some of histories most famous names including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Sir Francis Drake.
Ancestry bill this as being “the most comprehensive UK collection of its kind available to view online”. Certainly I have found that other providers give access to these records on their own sites, for example The National ArchivesÂ on Documents OnlineÂ and TheGenealogist.co.uk has a substantialÂ collection of Wills and Will indexes available online, including the index of the Court of York and full Wills for the Court of Canterbury.
The England and Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills 1384-1858 covers nearly five centuries worth of history and details how much people owned and who they left it to.
Up until January 1858, the church and other courts proved wills in England and Wales. The PCC was the most important of these courts and was responsible for the probate of wills where the value of assets was greater than five pounds, equivalent to Â£526 today.
Searchable by name, probate date, residence and estimated death year, each record contains information about the final assets of the deceased. Additional notes on their occupation, property and overall standard of living may also be included.
Many famous names can be discovered in the records including world famous playwright William Shakespeare. Dated 25th March 1616, Shakespeareâ€™s will details how he left a sum of one hundred and fifty pounds to both his daughters (over Â£380,000 today) as well as his wife the pleasure of his â€˜second best bedâ€™.
Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen also appears in collection. Upon her death on 18th July 1817, she possessed assets totalling around Â£800 (Â£60,000 today). The majority of this was given to her sister Cassandra aside from Â£50 to her brother Henry and a further Â£50 to a Madame Bigoen â€“ who had previously acted as a nurse to her family.
The records also reveal that the privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake was somewhat of a real life Robin Hood. Having plundered many Spanish naval vessels and earned a fortune during his adventures in the Americas, Drake left forty pounds to the ‘poore people’Â of the town and Parish of Plymouth in 1596 – the equivalent of Â£150,000 today.
The original records are held at The National Archives and some of the earliest records in the collection cover males as young as 14 and girls as young as 12. This changed in 1837, when it was decided by the court that both genders must be over the age of 21 to have a will proved.
On top of monetary matters, these records tell us more about the private lives of some very public figures and will help historians discover more about the dynamics of their personal and familial relationships.
The majority of records in the collection also pre-date civil registration, the government system established in 1837 to keep accurate accounts of citizensâ€™ lives in documents such as censuses. As such, the collection is a valuable resource for anybody looking to trace an ancestor living before the mid-19th century.
Ancestry.co.uk Content Manager Miriam SilvermanÂ comments: â€œThese probate records provide fascinating insight into the final fortunes of some of our nations most famous names, right down to who should get their bed.â€
â€œThey are an incredibly valuable family history resource, covering a period in history from which few official documents remain.â€
Disclosure: Some links are compensated affiliate links.
If one of your ancestors, in your family tree, died without making a will, then their next-of-kin could apply
to the church courts for Letters of Administration to be granted to them. What would happen is that they
would then be bound in law by entering into a bond to administer the goods of the deceased. As well as family it is sometimes possible to find that a creditor is granted the letters of administration, but in all cases they are referred to as an Administrator, if they are male, whilst a female is known as an Administratrix.
You may well notice that administrations, or sometimes admons,are generally less informative for the family historian than wills are. That said, however, If you have found that one of your ancestors left no will, but their effects were dealt with by and administration, then at least the document will include: the name of the administrator(s) and bondsman, as well as the the relationship of the administrator(s) to the deceased. This could indeed be valuable to someone tracing their family tree. In addition to which, the administration may often include a date of death and the value of the deceasedâ€™s estate, that could help you fill in some gaps.
As in the case of wills, until 1858 it fell to the church courtsÂ to be responsible for granting administrations. So for that reason you will need to use the same system to find administrations as you would do for finding wills of the same period. The main point to remember was that it is the same two provinces â€“ the Prerogative Courts of York and of Canterbury â€“ each controlled by an archbishop, that England was divided into.
A subdivision then occurs into several archdeaconries, and then further divisions again into rural deaneries. What all this means to the researcher is that there are over 250 church courts who were responsible in some way for the granting of letters of administration.
So where do we make a start? One answer is to take a look at the A2A website (Access 2 Archives) on the National Archives website:
It is a fantastic database covering a myriad of records from over 400 record offices across not just England, but the whole of the UK.Â Some of their records go back as far as the eighth century, while some come right up to date.
It is possible to search it by name, or a place and also by a topic and while it may not cover every single record office, by the very nature of its substantial coverage it can be used to search for probate material by using the key words â€˜wills, administrations or inventoriesâ€™ plus the region of the country that your ancestor died within.
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.
It was not just the rich who would leave a will in the Britain of the past. For this reason, family historians looking into their family tree, should consider it worth researching whether their ancestor did so. This area of family history research is often recorded as Wills and Administrations. I will write about Administrations in another post concentrating today on Wills.
Technically what we refer to in common speech as a â€˜willâ€™ is in fact a joint deed that is legally known as â€˜The Last Will and Testamentâ€™ of the person who has died and it was in 1540 that in England it came into existence. From that date on a party could now devise, or gift, their â€˜Freeholdâ€™ land by the means of a will.
In order for a deceased’s wishes to be carried out an executor, or executrix, would need to be appointed by the departed to administer and distribute their estate after their death. The executor/executrix would need to apply to a court for the will to be carried out and that court would have to be satisfied the will was valid and that it was the deceasedâ€™s final will, and testament. This is the process known as “proving a will”. When satisfied the court then issues a grant of probate that allowed the executors to finally carry out the willâ€™s terms and distribute the deceased’s property.
Before 1540, in England, a testament was only concerned with what is known as “personality” or personal property, which is a personâ€™s moveable goods and chattels. This was because a person’s interests in any “real property” (that is the land and any buildings that they owned) would automatically descendedÂ to the
deceasedâ€™s immediate heir, normally the first son. Ecclesiastical law, however, held that at least one-third of a manâ€™s property should pass to his widow as her dower and then another one-third should go to all his children.
As you delve into this area of family history you may possibly come across something called a nuncupative will, or perhaps you will see it referred to as an oral will. If you consider that in some places, in years gone by, very few people other than the clergy could read and write. So if your ancestor was dying, with no one available with the skill to write down his wishes, then the court may have relied on the deceased’s oral declaration of their last wishes to another party. Probate would only be granted after the courts had listened to the sworn evidence of those persons who had heard that declaration being made.
As I am sure we can all imagine, this sort of will would often lead to disputes. Needless to say nuncupative wills were made invalid in England by the Wills Act of 1837. There being one exception, however, and that is in the case of members of the armed forces on active duty, for whom they are still legal today.
You can tell such wills apart in the records, as they can usually be identified because they start with the word: Memorandum.
A holographic will, on the other hand, is a will and testament that has been entirely handwritten and signed by the testator. In the United Kingdom, unwitnessed holographic wills remained valid in Scotland up until the Requirements of Writing Scotland Act 1995. This Act of Parliament abolished the provision and so such wills written after 1st August 1995 are now invalid in all of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.
Family historians, may well find that the ancestor that they though would just not have written a will, may well have done so. Consider that even if your ancestor was not wealthy, but a person who owned the tools of a trade, then they may well have wanted to make sure that these were passed on to the right person.
Another lesson that I have learnt is that finding wills can be difficult. I had searched many times, over the years, in various online places before I found the probate for my 2x great-grandfather on the recently available Ancestry Wills & Probate data.
Henry Thomas Thorne, for forty years worked on the River Dart first as the steersman of the railway ferry the Perseverance and then as captain of the GWR Steamer The Dolphin making the short crossing between Kingswear and Dartmouth. He died in 1908 and left effects of Â£202 17 shillings. That’s about Â£15,700.00 now, using the retail price index.
As with all family history research, don’t give up on blanks in your family tree, simply resolve to return to unfruitful searches at regular intervals as more data becomes available all the time.