An ancestor’s will can be very useful for discovering or confirming family relationships where they are missing in other records – but even when they don’t give this information, they are an essential resource if you want to know more about how your ancestor lived. However, probate in England can be a complicated affair, and you need to know your way around the range of wills and probate indexes that exist both online and in archives.
Whether your ancestors were aristocracy, rich merchants, middle class tradesmen or working class labourers, it is always worth checking to see if a will was left. While it is far more likely that you will find wills within wealthy families, they do crop up within the lower classes more often than you might imagine. They can tell you a great deal about your ancestor’s family, his relationship with his family, friends and community, his religion, his possessions, land and property, and, quite often, his attitude to life. If you want a closer insight into your ancestor, then his or her will is probably the best kind of document you will ever find (apart from letters or diaries – but these are very rare finds).
However, finding a will is not always that easy. Up until 1858 there is no single index of wills. This is because before this date wills were proved in the ecclesiastical courts, and depending on how much property you had, and where it lay, it might have been in the local archdeaconry courts, a bishop’s court (or consistory courts), or in the two archbishop’s prerogative courts (York or Canterbury).
If you are looking for a will before 1858 you will therefore probably have to search in several places, both online and in archives.
If you are searching online, the first steps you will probably take will be to use the National Archives site to search for PCC (Canterbury) wills, which you can download for a fee of £3.50, or Origins.net which has an index to the PCY (York) wills, held at the Borthwick Institute in York. You will need to take out a temporary or long term subscription to Origins. You can order a PCY will from the Borthwick Institute website for £5.00.
However, because you were probably fairly wealthy to have a PCC or PCY will, this is probably the least likely place to find a will if your ancestors were of more modest means. Therefore, the next best place to search online is Ancestry.co.uk or Origins.net, which both have searchable indexes of some consistory court wills and a few archdeaconry wills from various areas in the UK.
If you find a will in these indexes, it should tell you where it is held – usually in a county or diocesan record office, and you will have to apply to this office to obtain a copy.
If you do not find what you are looking for in these indexes, then your next best step is to search indexes of wills in the diocesan record office that covers the area where your ancestor died. Diocesan record offices usually cover more than one county (Lichfield RO, for example, serves parts of Staffordshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire), and you need to make sure you search the right one. Most of north Warwickshire falls within the Lichfield Diocese, whilst the southern parts of Warwickshire are mostly covered by the Worcestershire Diocese. Some county record offices hold wills indexes for the diocesan offices, and then you can usually order a copy of the will by post or online.
Lastly, check the wills indexes that are held in the county record office for the county your ancestor died in to see if any archdeaconry wills are held within that office. You should then be able to order the will to read at the record office. Quite often you will not be able to photocopy a will, but you should be able to photograph it after receiving permission from the record office staff.
If you are searching for a will after 1858, then your task is much easier. From 12th January of that year jurisdiction over wills was transferred to the new Civil Court of Probate, which have continued ever since.
To search for a will after this date you need to search the National Probate Calendar, which is available online at Ancestry.co.uk and at Origins.net. Once you have found a will here you can obtain a copy of the will from the Principle Probate Registry for a fee of £5.00.
While searching for wills and probate in England may seem complicated, especially for searches before 1858, it is basically just a case of making sure you have searched all the available indexes both online and at the appropriate local archives. It is well worth doing, for when you find a will you will instantly feel closer to your ancestor!