Prior to 12 January 1858, wills in England and Wales were proved in ecclesiastical courts. This indexed collection contains images of wills and inventories proved in the Diocese of Gloucestershire. An understanding of how and where wills were proved will help you determine whether your Gloucestershire ancestor’s will may be in this collection.
Wills in England and Wales
Wills could be written for males beginning at age 14 and females at age 12. In 1837 the age was changed to 21 for both men and women, although in the case of women, these were primarily unmarried or widowed women, since a woman’s property by law was the property of her husband until 1882.
Archdeacon’s, Bishop’s, and Prerogative Courts
The ecclesiastical court system had several levels. Groups of parishes comprised deaneries, which were in turn grouped to form archdeaconries. A testator (person making a will) whose property fell in one archdeaconry would most likely have had the will proved in the archdeacon’s court. This typically included people with little wealth or property.
Archdeaconries were grouped into dioceses, which were overseen by bishops. Estates with considerable property that fell in more than one archdeaconry, but within one diocese, would likely have been proved in a bishop’s court.
The dioceses fell into one of two provinces: the Province of York or the Province of Canterbury. Wills of property within the dioceses of Carlisle, Chester, Durham, and York (counties of Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland, Westmoreland, and York, and the Isle of Man) would most likely have been proven in the Prerogative Court of York (PCY), the court of the archbishop of York.
Property that fell in more than one of the other dioceses (in the more southern sections of England) or in Wales—or if there was property owned in both provinces—would have been proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). In addition, the PCC proved wills for those who died abroad (including those who died during military service abroad) or in cases where the executor’s residence made it more expedient for the will to be proved there.
There were other reasons for having a will proven in the PCC. A Non-conformist might not want to be brought to the attention of local clergy and may have opted for the higher court. During a bishop’s visitations, cases from lower courts may have been moved to the higher court as well.
Tips for Using this Collection
- Wills were sometimes recorded years after the testator’s death, so search broadly after the date of death.
- You may find your ancestor's estate was dealt with by 'letters of administration' if he/she did not leave a will. These documents are included in this collection.
- Guardian Bonds are included in this collection.
- Bear in mind that our ancestors, particularly in early years, often weren’t consistent with the spelling of their names, so search for variants if you’re not finding them using a traditional spelling. Gloucestershire Archives' index was compiled following the rule of using the spelling of personal names as they appear in the testator's signature (when given). Spellings of occupations and place names were modernized.
- This index includes entries for wills that are now "missing" and thus were never filmed.
- Married women could not own property at this time, and were not allowed to make wills without their husband’s permission, so there will be few wills for them in this collection.
- Keep in mind that the location of the court was dependent on the location of the property being devised, not the testator’s residence or place of death.
- While most of the documents are in English, the handwriting in old documents can be very difficult to read. In addition the probate section will be in Latin. Ancestry.com has a Latin glossary in the Research Center, and The National Archives has a helpful section with a guide to reading old handwriting.
For More Information on Wills and Probate, see The National Archives website.