Finding wills before 1858
In 1858, the Court of Probate Act was formed. This established the Principal Probate Registry in London, with 40 district registries to handle probate matters in England and Wales. Therefore the National Probate Calendar contains details of probate cases from 1858 onwards.
Prior to this, probate was an ecclesiastical matter, administered by around 300 church courts across the country. Records were kept at a local level so searches and access to copies is much more difficult.
Church Court control and hierarchy is quite complex. The Archbishop’s chancellor presided over the Prerogative Courts. Northern England fell within the Province of York – Prerogative Court of York (PCY). Southern England and Wales fell within the Province of Canterbury – Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC).
Bishops presided over diocese, sometimes covering several counties. The Bishop’s Diocesan Court was known as a Consistory Court.
An Archdeacon headed the Archdeaconry Court. Made up of parts of a diocese, they could cover part of a county or several counties.
To make matters more complex, some parishes were independent of the local church court system. Probate was then governed by a different official other than those aforementioned. For example, a Cathedral Dean or Lord of the Manor.
How to search
Where the records are held will depend on where the deceased held property and the value of that property. This will not necessarily be where they lived or died, thus making the search even more difficult.
For instance – If the deceased owned land or property all in one archdeaconry, a search should begin at the local Archdeaconry Court. If your ancestor had assets in more than one diocese but all in Province of York, you should start a search of the PCY.
The Prerogative Court of Canterbury was the largest and most important. It contains probate records from 1384-1858, providing a good place to start. Next search the records in the ecclesiastical region in which they lived.
If your ancestor had land or property in one jurisdiction and that was also the place where they lived, the search is much more likely to be fruitful. However, it was common for the wealthy to own property in multiple locations. The not so wealthy often inherited property and land from their parents, which was not necessarily in the place where they lived.