Wills & Probate Research Guides

Wills and probate documents may reveal much more about the personal lives and relationships of our ancestors than most official documents. They are especially valuable because of the genealogical information they provide, and exceptional in the first-hand nature of their evidence.Prior to 1858 probate was handled by ecclesiastical courts with jurisdiction in archdeaconries, dioceses of bishops and provinces of the archbishops of Canterbury and York. There were also exempt areas known as “peculiars”. Over 300 pre-1858 probate courts functioned at one time or another.The National Wills Index aims to overcome difficulties in searching and locating wills by creating the largest online resource for pre-1858 English probate material.The following articles and maps may help those researching probate before 1858 in England and Wales.

Introduction to Wills

Unlike most other genealogical records, wills are created not by the state but at the discretion of the testator. Wills reveal much more about the personal lives and relationships of our ancestors than most official documents.

Probate before 1858

Prior to 1858, wills were proved in an ecclesiastical court. Which court dealt with a particular will depended on where property was held. Parishes of the Church of England were grouped into archdeaconries, and a group of archdeaconries formed a diocese.

About Church of England Courts

Church of England Courts date back to the pre-reformation period. Alongside the criminal and civil courts and the courts of equity of this period was a whole network of some three or four hundred ecclesiastical courts whose activities affected many aspects of our ancestor’s lives.

Church of England Court Hierarchy before 1858

Hierarchy of Surrey Courts

Prerogative Court of York: Wills and Administrations

One of the most important of the church courts, was the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of York (PCY), second only in importance to the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury (PCC).