As a genealogist, there are few public records that are more exciting than a will. Only a small percentage of the population left wills prior to the 20th century, although some sources speculate that during the 15th century as much as 70% of men did. By the late 17th century, however, as few as two percent of common citizens left a will. During this time in England, the succession of land was rather straightforward. Land generally passed from husband to wife (for the course of her life) and then to children and heirs. English women were barred from owning land until 1883, and even after, women rarely left wills unless they were widowed.
Regardless, this document can offer us a great deal of information. The creation of a will was left almost entirely to attorneys, who would be summoned by the property holder and given specific instructions. Once the will had been completed, the testator would sign in the presence of the attorney and two witnesses. In the case of more common folks, a parson or curate would often step in to record last wishes due to the sole fact that they were literate. Prior to 1837, when England passed the Wills Act, it was not uncommon for attorneys to forge signatures, especially if the testator was ill or incapacitated. The Wills Act also made it illegal for beneficiaries to witness the signing of a will.
Some of the more customary practices found in these wills include the donation of assets to churches and charities, which society saw as a moral obligation. This custom now helps lend genealogists important clues about testators– like where he grew up, attended school, apprenticed, or a number of other associations or organizations in which he may have participated. In the medieval times, it was customary to divide assets three ways, with a third going to each; the man’s wife, his oldest son and to charities, bells and masses.
While typically the oldest son received the largest portion of assets, it was not unlikely for younger sons to receive smaller inheritances, or for daughters to receive a cash sum to serve as a dowry. However, all children are not always included or named within a will. This is especially true of married children, who would have received their inheritance at the time of marriage.
In the case of unmarried men, we have found that landladies, nurse-keepers and others who have offered them care and nurturing, are frequently chief beneficiaries.
Furthermore, the description of relatives within the will can lend some confusion. In English records as well as early North American probate records, the term “son-in-law“ or “daughter-in-law” usually denoted a step-child, while those who married trueborn children are recognized simply as a son or daughter. Additionally, the word cousin may refer to any sort of relative. For example, Shakespeare described his granddaughter as his niece.
Before 1858, a large variety of courts proved wills. Most of these were ecclesiastical courts belonging to the Church of England. The Prerogative Courts of Canterbury or York held probate records of the wealthy and important. As genealogists, the indexes to these higher courts are always worthy of a search, as the courts were not confined to the wealthy. The best resource for wills is the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (P.C.C.), which took precedence of all other jurisdictions in England and Wales and holds records dating from 1383.
Lower courts of the diocese or peculiar or other jurisdictions exist in virtually every county, and many of these wills are now available online. Virtually all English and Welsh probate records are on microfilm at the LDS Family History Library. While the use of English and Welsh probate courts can be complicated, you can learn how to utilize these valuable resources by consulting the following sources:
www.genuki.org.uk – Click on the country, then the county, then Probate records
wiki.familysearch.org – Type in Wales Probates or England Probates to find articles with detailed descriptions of the British probate records.
www.ancestry.co.uk – Click on Search, then Wills & Probates
The National Wills Index is the largest on-line resource for pre-1858 English and Welsh probate material containing indexes, abstracts and sources documents, most not available anywhere else online. These date from the 14th century. It can be accessed at www.origins.net.
After 1858, all English and Welsh wills were proved and housed in a central location. These are all indexed and the calendars are available on Ancestry.co.uk.
Wills can be a wonderful resource to assist you in your search for possible ancestors. You should always check for a will, regardless of the socioeconomic class of the individual or family.
For more details:
Bettridge, Helen, ed. Derbyshire Wills and Where to Find Them. Derbyshire Family History Society. 144 (March2013): 21-25.
Eastman, Richard W. Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, Plus Edition. “Lichfield Consistory Court Wills Index 1650-1700 Online.” (Announcement written by Origins.net). vol. 18 no. 26 July 1, 2013.
Herber, Mark. Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. 2nd ed. Sparkford, Somerset: Sutton Publishing Limited, 2004.