Probate records not only begin earlier than parish registers, but, in contrast to parish registers, they provide direct evidence to extended familial relationships. Children will often be named in the last will and testament in birth order or by sex and birth order.
Probates can be used in a variety of ways to enhance our understanding of the past. Those who have an academic interest in how to utilize probates for historical research might start by reading the essay of Dr. Eric Josef Carlson published in 1994. The essay is entitled "The Historical Value of The Ely Consistory Probate Records" and is part of the introduction to volume 103 of the Index Library series of the British Record Society (hereafter BRS). The essay is also available on FindMyPast. For an overall description of probates and the research procedure in using them, go to the FamilySearch Wiki page entitled England Probate Records.
There are several types of probate records. There is a useful description of the various types of records, samples of the original documents, and abbreviations used in probates at Findmypast.com. This links to a Glossary of Probate Terms. The most important probate documents for the family historian in their descending order of importance are: original wills (both those proven and unproven in court), registered copy wills, administration bonds, inventories, and accounts. See the above website for examples of an act book, administration bond, inventory, and an original will. Compare the original will with the registered copy will on the National Archives (from the menu on the left, click on "Interactive Tutorial" and then "Document 2"). The accounts were a report to the court after the terms of the will or administration had been accomplished. They would rank much higher in this list if they survived in greater numbers. Some have been microfilmed, notably those for Leicester and Kent. For a further description of accounts and samples of those documents go to Family Records and click on "Probate Records" in the menu on the left. The BRS published 2 volumes in 1999 to the whereabouts of the majority of the surviving accounts as Index to the Probate Accounts of England and Wales, volumes 112: A-J and 113: K-Z. (FHL 942 B4b v. 112 & 113)
The Family History Library has obtained microfilms and microfiche of about 90% of the wills and administration bonds available in England from the Late Middle Ages to 1858. Despite their remarkable time coverage and ease of accessibility, this great resource on microfilm is underutilized. The reasons for this include fear of coping with the old handwriting and confusion over which court to start with and exactly how many courts should be searched.
The average researcher is bewildered by the fact that the 40 English counties came under the jurisdiction of some 300 courts of the state church where the vast majority of wills were proven before 1858. Working from the lowest level of the church hierarchy to the higher ones, a will might have been probated at the parish level if the parish was a peculiar; or the court of the archdeacon; or even more likely, the Episcopal consistory court of the diocese of a bishop or one of his commissaries; and perhaps the prerogative courts of the provinces of the Archbishop of York, and especially of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
You can quickly find the lowest court with original jurisdiction over your parish or place by using England & Wales Jurisdictions 1851. Go to Family Search Maps. Type the parish or place name in the search box. When the county map appears with a pin number for your place, click on the pin to see an Information box. The Jurisdictions label at the top leads to the name of the county and probate court with original jurisdiction. If the name of that probate court is not underlined, then click on the county name in the same list and then "Search the FamilySearch Research Wiki" and then click on Probate Records. On the subsequent screen you will discover a list of the courts with higher or superior jurisdiction over the lowest court and links to any online indexes for probates in that county. Going back to the map search, you will also find a link to the FHL catalog (hereafter FHLC) for their microfilm numbers. CAUTION: before proceeding to the microfilm, check the section on this website for your county as listed under "By County." Here you will find references to any online probates, printed indexes or filmed manuscript calendars for each court, and some helpful miscellaneous materials. Each county has a decision table as a research guide to the various hierarchical levels of church courts to be searched.
Although not as up-to-date as the FHLC, the call numbers can also be found quickly in the probate keys known as the Hand List of English Probate Jurisdictions. There is a binder for each county in the reference section of the British floor under FHL 942 S2ha and BYU Religion/Family History reference starting with the call number CS 435. The filmed (599,217-222 at BYU) and fiche (6,026,312) versions of the keys are quite out of date but still have some value for the major collections. For the volume coverage and an online version of the keys on their in-house network, go to the FHL catalog on FamilySearch.org and use the Film search feature and type in 6,026,312.
Local Search Strategies
These research routines are listed in their order from the easiest to the most difficult. Family Historians should do at least the first three.
- Check the court of lowest or original jurisdiction over the place(s) where the ancestor lived, died, or held property. Search the appropriate indexes or calendars for all entries of the surname, including spelling variations, forward for 50-100 years from the date of marriage or earliest known child's birth of the sought after ancestor. Plot out the towns listed and read any will within a 15-20 mile radius of the last know ancestral residence. You can generate a list of parishes within 20 miles by using FamilySearch Maps.
- Do a similar but shorter search in the superior courts over the court identified in step 1. These higher courts may have superseded the rights of the lower court, were more convenient to the executor, or considered more secure by the executor. A shorter search might be 30-50 years depending on the size of the court and the commonness of the surname.
- Allow for border problems. If the place is located relatively close to the boundary of other courts of original jurisdiction then check such nearby courts regardless of court and/or county boundaries.
- Instead of the geographical radius search for a surname outlined in step 1, read all the wills of any person associated with the last known place of residence. Shorten this search to 20-30 years or less depending on the size of the place and the time period. This approach is more useful for rural areas before 1800.
National Search Strategy for 1812-1857
The search for probate records of a specific individual in this time period was made easier by the central government's tax levy or duty placed on estates of deceased persons that began in 1796. The result was a nation-wide index that is online for 1796-1903 on FindMyPast.com. It is also on microfilm at the FHL. This index includes wills and administrations and leads to abstracts of these records as well as the name of the church court where the records were probated. Admittedly the index is incomplete, but by 1815 the duty had been widened to cover the majority of estates. There are actually several indexes in this system. The classification used by the National Archives for all of these indexes is IR 27. The three indexes of greatest interest on microfilm are those to:
- Administrations of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1796-1857 (IR 27/17-66)
- Administrations of all other courts, 1812-1857 (IR 27/ 94-139)
- Wills of all the courts, 1812-1858 (IR 27/140-323)
See London: Estate Duty for further details. Also consider doing the Local Search Strategies.
Keeping Up To Date
The switch from an ecclesiastical probate system to a civil one occurred 12 January 1858. District courts were established throughout the country with a central court in London designated the Principal Probate Registry (hereafter PPR). The PPR handled original probate matters for the London area and annually received copies of all probates granted in the districts. To see the entire collection of films, type in the initial film numbers listed below using the FamilySearch Catalog.
Online Calendars, 1858-1966, 1973-1995
The calendars of the PPR are now available on the Ancestry.com database entitled "National Probate Calendar." The calendars are available from 1858 to 1966 and 1973 to 1995. FindMyPast.com has probate calendars from 1858 to 1959. Both of these are subscription sites but it available free on the computers at the FHL, the Family History Section of the BYU Library, and through an account with FamilySearch (through Partner Access).
Microfilmed Calendars, 1858-1957
There is one master calendar for both the district courts and the PPR. It has been filmed through 1957. This index also provides the date of death of the testator or intestate. The initial film for this series is 215221. For an overview of all the films, see the binder "Principal Probate Registry" (FHL 942 S2cp 2001) in the FHL reference area on the British Floor. An earlier version made in 1964 is at BYU. It is labeled "1858-1957 Probate Registry" and will be found on their reference tables in the back of Binder 11d for the British Isles.
Microfilmed Wills, 1858-1925
The wills at the PPR are available at the FHL through 1925, but the administrations were not filmed. The wills are in 3 series under the initial films that follow:
- Copy Wills for the various Districts, 1858-1899, start with film 1239289.
- Copy Wills for the various Districts, 1900-1925, start with film 1566070.
- The Wills probated at the PPR, 1858-1925, start with film 1836412.
The calendars compensate for the lack of administrations on film by giving the address of the administrator and relationship to the deceased from 1858-1892. Also see London: Estate Duty. Some district probates may have been filmed and filed at the FHL under the names of the counties.