Until the introduction of a civil Court of Probate in 1858, wills in England and Wales were proved in church courts, of which the most important was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. During lockdown, The National Archives (TNA) has made its digital collections free to download following the coronavirus lockdown, and this includes Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills which date from 1384 to 1858.
The records held at TNA are copies written into the Prerogative Court of Canterbury registers by the court clerks. TNA also has some of the actual wills left by famous people which you can download for free from here. Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills are also available on subscription family history websites Ancestry and TheGenealogist.
Although most people in this period did not leave a will, your ancestor will have if they were relatively wealthy. If you can find a copy of a will, it’s a goldmine of family history detail. It reveals not just when and where your ancestor died, but the names of other relatives who they left money and property to. The bequests can provide a fascinating insight into which family members they favoured, and which ones they didn’t!
In theory the Prerogative Court of Canterbury was for wills and probate involving property in more than one diocese, which is a district under the care of a bishop. Where property was all in one diocese, the will could be proved locally in a ‘lower’ court. Over time the Prerogative Court of Canterbury came to be regarded as more prestigious and perhaps more reliable than local courts. Therefore many wills that could have been proved locally are actually found in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. You may also find a man’s will in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, but his widow’s in a local court.
In the north of England the Prerogative Court of York covered the dioceses of Chester, Carlisle, Durham and York. The records of this are held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, although the indexes (covering 1688–1858) are on Findmypast.
Today a will is a single document, often beginning “This is the last will and testament of…”, but in the Middle Ages there were two separate documents. The testament concerned a person’s goods, while the will itself expressed their wishes as to the disposition of lands. By about 1500 the two documents had merged, and began to be written in English instead of Latin. The Statute of Wills in 1540 enabled landowners to devise their lands by will. Other requirements were also laid down: a will must be in writing, signed by the person whose will it was (the ‘testator’), and must have at least two witnesses and an executor.
It is worth remembering that the wills appearing in will registers are always copies, with the possibility of errors creeping in occasionally despite the best efforts of the clerks concerned. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury retained many original wills, including those of famous people such as William Shakespeare (see image above). Dated 1616, this can be downloaded for free from TNA’s website.
After 1858, probate was removed from the church Prerogative Courts to the National Court of Probate for England and Wales (Scotland had a separate system). These later wills have become much easier to access since the Government launched its ‘Find a will’ website. Prices have also been slashed to just £1.50 per will, making it much cheaper to find out what a family member left to others. For Scottish ancestry, probate records can be accessed via ScotlandsPeople.
Check out our guide for information on tracing other kinds of family history death record.