After finding your ancestors in civil registration, census records, and parish registers, there are many different record types that are widely available for the UK. When I’m doing research, I usually look for probate records, and specifically wills, of my ancestors at this stage in the research process.
UK Wills and Probate Before 1858
Probate is the term for how a court distributes the estate of a deceased person. It was not required by law for people to create a will, but quite a bit of the population is covered by wills to make them a good genealogical resource. If your ancestor did not leave a will, there were many other types of documents they could be mentioned in, including letters of administration (gives someone permission to probate an estate without a will), and inventories (itemized list of all the goods the deceased owned).
Wills in England were recorded early into the eleventh century, but most of them didn’t survive until around the fifteenth century. Wills created before 1858 were held by church courts all over the country. Wills and other probate records could be found on any level of jurisdiction in the church courts in England; it would be wise to familiarize yourself with the jurisdictions before you look for a will of an ancestor. One good place to look is Maps.familysearch.org, which will show you the probate court for the parish you are searching for.
Wills in Wales were normally written by the upper classes, and would be probated at four different church courts: peculiars, archdeaconry, Bishops’ courts, and Prerogative Court of Canterbury. On FamilySearch a list of Welsh counties and their jurisdictions can be found for further research. All wills proved in Wales are available at the National Library of Wales and can be ordered.
Irish wills proved before 1858 were also recorded within the ecclesiastical courts. Twenty-eight consistory courts were used to record probate, as well as the Prerogative Court of Armagh, which was the highest court. Most wills proved before 1858 were destroyed in a fire at the Public Record Office in Dublin. The indexes did survive, however, which are available at the Family History Library. Scottish probate, or “confirmation” records consisted of testaments, or their equivalent to a will. They were also normally left by the higher classes, but were left by a much smaller population than the rest of the UK. Scottish testaments were proved either at the principal commissariat court in Edinburgh, or at a local jurisdiction for that court.
UK Wills and Probate After 1858
Wills in England and Wales filed after 12 January 1858 were filed in civil probate courts around the country for the Principal Probate Registry. Irish wills filed after 1858 were held under the Principal Probate Registry, which replaced the church courts previously in place. Scottish testaments, unlike England, Wales, and Ireland, were filed at commissariat departments at the sheriff’s courts after 1823.
What’s in a Will?
As wills will most likely be the record type you are finding for your ancestors, it is important to know what types of information you can find in them. Information found in a will varies greatly from will to will. Some information you could find in a will includes the name of the person who wrote the will, the date the will was written, the residence of the individual, relationships to people inheriting the estate, and an executor (the one who gives out the estate to people named in the will). More information, and even less information can be found from will to will. Try finding some wills for your family, and you will be surprised what it says!
Searching for Wills
English wills before 1858 must first be found at the correct church court before you can get the original record. Many of these are available at the Family History Library. If you cannot find a will at lower jurisdictions, you could search the Prerogative Court of Canterbury records (1384-1858), which are available online for ordering at the National Archives. After 1858, Wills from England and Wales have an index that can be searched on Ancestry.com in the National Probate Calendar, which indexes wills from 1858-1966.
Irish wills have an index that can be searched on FamilySearch, which indexes wills from 1858-1920.
Scottish testaments are indexed form 1513-1925 on ScotlandsPeople. The index is free to search, and you can pay a fee to download the image directly from their website.
Ancestry.com Collections to Start Your Research
Here are a few collections you can use to start testing your new-found knowledge:
- England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 (free access the weekend of April 19-20, 2014)
- UK, Extracted Probate Records, 1269-1975
- England & Wales, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, 1384-1858
- Web: Northern Ireland, Will Calendar Index, 1839-1943
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