- Prerogative Court of Canterbury: Wills of Selected Famous Persons. Digitized images. Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Series PROB 1. The National Archives, Kew, England.
- Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: Will Registers. Digitized images. Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Series PROB 11. The National Archives, Kew, England.
While not everybody left a will, the wills proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury represent the largest collection of pre-1858 wills for England and Wales.
Prior to 12 January 1858, wills in England and Wales were proved in ecclesiastical courts. This indexed collection contains images of wills as they were copied into the registers of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). The PCC, for the most part, handled probates from southern England and Wales, for individuals who owned property in both the Province of York and the Province of Canterbury, or those who died outside of England and Wales. Most of the wills in this collection will be for members of the middle and upper classes.
In the earliest days covered by these records, 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 these were primarily unmarried or widowed women, since a woman’s property by law was the property of her husband until 1882.
The ecclesiastical court system had several levels. Groups of parishes made up 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. Those with little wealth or property would also likely have had the estate processed in this court.
Archdeaconries were grouped into dioceses, which were overseen by bishops. Property falling in more than one archdeaconry, but within one diocese, would likely be probated in a bishop’s court.
These dioceses fell in one of two provinces—the Province of York or the Province of Canterbury. Wills dealing with 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 multiple dioceses in the more southern sections of England and Wales—or if the testator owned property in both provinces—would have been probated in the PCC. In addition, the PCC proved wills for individuals who died abroad (including those who died in military service abroad) or in cases where the executor’s residence made it more expedient for the will to be proved there. During the Commonwealth era for the years 1653–1660, the PCC was known as the Court of Probate of Wills and Granting Administrations and was responsible for proving all wills for England and Wales.
There were other reasons for people choosing to have wills proven in the PCC. For example a Nonconformist might not want to be brought to the attention of local clergy and so might opt for the higher court. During a bishop’s visitations, cases from lower courts may have been moved to the higher court as well.
What You May Find in the Records
Wills provide a name, date, and place for the testator, which is always important information. But they can also be a source for family relationships, providing names of spouses and children and sometimes even parents. They may also give some clues about the relationship between the testator and an heir in the instructions given or items bequeathed. You may learn something about an ancestor’s occupation, property, residence, and standard of living as well.
Make note of the executor and witnesses to the will as well. These might be family members or neighbors.
Tips for Using This Collection
- Wills were sometimes recorded years after the testator’s death, so search broadly after the date of death.
- Bear in mind that our ancestors, particularly in early years, often weren’t consistent with the spelling of their name, so search for variants if you’re not finding them using a traditional spelling.
- Married women could not own property at this time and were not allowed to make wills without their husbands’ 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 residence of place of death of the testator.
- The piece description for earlier registers will typically contain the surname of the first testator in the book.
- While most of the documents are in English, the handwriting in old documents can be very difficult to read. In addition the probate section of the 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.
Updates: Sep 2020: Added images for wills proved at Welles (1558-1559).