Posted by on February 5, 2014 in Content, Deaths

We recently added over a million probate records to Ancestry.com.au, featuring the last will and testament of some of histories most famous names including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Sir Francis Drake.

The most comprehensive UK collection of its kind available to view online, 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 $965 today[i].

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, Shakespeare’s will details how he left a sum of one hundred and fifty pounds to both his daughters (over $690,000 today) as well as his wife the pleasure of his ‘second best bed’.

Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen also appears in collection. Upon her death on 18th July 1817, she possessed assets totalling around £800 ($110,000 today). The majority of this was given to her sister Cassandra aside from £50 to her brother Henry and a further £50 to a Madame Bigoen – 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’ of the town and Parish of Plymouth in 1596 – the equivalent of $275,000 today.

Other famous names in the collection include:

  • William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778) An acclaimed politician, Pitt left $6400 to his son William, $3200 to his son James Charles Pitt and the same amount to his daughter Lady Harriet Pitt, a cool million in today’s money
  • George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) – This German born composer left $1100 maximum to build a monument of himself in Westminster Abbey. That’s about $165,000 today.
  • Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) A philosopher, scientist and author, Bacon’s will reveals his generosity towards his staff. He left servant Robert Halpeny the equivalent of $1.4 million on top of provisions of hay, firewood and timber and fellow worker Stephen Paise $1.2 million and a bed.

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 citizens’ 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.

[i] Source:  Bank of England Historic inflation calculation calculator: £5 in 1858 was calculated as being equivalent to £526/AUD965 in February 2013.