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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. Read article
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. Read article
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. Read article
Church of England Court Hierarchy before 1858
Hierarchies of Church of England and Church of England Courts under the Crown. View chart
Pre-1858 Probate Jurisdictions: Where To Look For Wills
Negotiate the labyrinth of over 300 pre 1858 probate courts with our probate jurisdiction maps. Each map is accompanied by a detailed legend giving a breakdown of the jurisdictions for each county. Browse maps
The Importance of Probate Documents to the Family History Researcher
Presentation by Ian Galbraith, Origins.net founder and CEO, at Who Do You Think You Are Live, London 2013 (.pdf 3MB) View presentation
A-Z Glossary of Probate Terms
An essential research aid. A-Z glossary of terms related to wills and probate, such as Account, Act Book, ad colligendum bona, Administration, Affidavit, Appraisal.... Browse glossary
About Will Abstracts
An abstract can give you, all names and places appearing in the will (testators, executors, witnesses and beneficiaries) plus information such as relationships, occupations, date of death / burial place and value of estate where found in the original document. Read article
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). Read article
Examples of Documents
Examples of: Act book entry 1792, Administration, Declaration in lieu of inventory, Inventory, Renunciation, Will - 1791. Medieval Will - 1477 in Latin. See examples
Wills & Probate in Origins.net Shop
Books and CDs to help the family historian. Browse Wills & Probate in Origins.net Shop
Transcription and Translation Services
Many wills are difficult to read, and some probate documents are partially or wholly in Latin. If you need help we recommend the specialist Duncan Harrington. More information
Source Record Archives - England
Contact details for source record archives in England See details
Examples of probate documents
Church of England Court Hierarchy before 1858
Probate Jurisdictions: Where to look for wills