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Duration 00:13:24

Introduction to wills

Matt Norman talks to Nigel Taylor about wills – the document used for centuries to control what happens to property when somebody dies. Who would have left a will? What information can you find in them? Are they all at The National Archives? Find out the answers from Nigel in this short podcast.

You can also use the research guides on our website to find out about wills or administrations before 1858, death duties 1796-1903, and wills or administrations after 1858.

Please note that at the moment The National Archives is closed to visitors until further notice. Advice in the podcast about visiting us and using the facilities in our reading rooms will apply once we re-open.


Matt: Hello. Welcome to The National Archives. We’re in the map and large document reading room. This is one of our public reading rooms here at the National Archives in Kew, and I’m here with Nigel Taylor, one of our legal records specialists, and we’re going to talk today about looking for records of wills — looking for wills and related records. So Nigel, I’m going to start by asking you first, why are wills interesting from an historical perspective or a genealogical perspective? Why might someone want to look at a will?

Nigel: Yeah, they’re very useful to establish family relationships because they mention the sons, daughters, cousins, nephews, also friends, and servants of families that had servants. So it is giving the information that you wouldn’t find anywhere else often. And it’s also mentioning of places as well, and properties held. So you can build a kind of geographical pattern for the family as well, so they are very useful in that sense, as well as newer, again, detailed information of the property held within houses, or held by families. So you can sometimes itemise, room by room, the possessions of a family.

Matt: Right, so really quite detailed documents. And how far back do wills go in this country? When did wills become formal documents?

Nigel: Yeah, it has been established, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon times, there are surviving wills, and that goes right back to the 9th century. So this is from very early times — that the people were leaving wills. Not so many compared with modern times, but certainly it was established in this country.

Matt: And so what have we got? I know we’ve got a significant set of wills here. What exactly are there?

Nigel: The main collection, apart from a few smaller collections that we have, is wills of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which is one of the ecclesiastical courts. There was Canterbury and York at the top, with the Archbishops of York and Canterbury. Canterbury covered, administratively, the southern part of the country. Those are the wills that we have starting in 1383 and going right through to the first few days of 1858, when it ceased to have that function.

Matt: So thinking about those dates — this starts in the mediaeval period. What kind of people that far back would have been leaving wills?

Nigel: Yes, probably the more of the higher strata of society, the landed gentry, the titled people. So yes, it’s quite a small number to start with. And did that begin to change? I mean, we’ve got them right up until 1858 — by that time, did you have a different class of people leaving wills? Presumably, there was some kind of progression?

Nigel: Yes, there was. More and more, certainly into the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s more of the middle classes. The middle classes were expanding, as well as business class people. So you’d have that added to that the traditional landed people that were owning land and property. It’s very much people creating their own sort of wealth, and wanting to pass that on.

Matt: And do we have a sense, let’s say by the 18th 19th century of what kind of percentage of the population were leaving wills?

Nigel: Yes it’s probably about sort of 10% by that time.

Matt: Yeah, so thinking about that 10% — there’s a decent chance, if you’re looking for a will of an ancestor, that in fact they didn’t leave one at all?

Nigel: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, most people didn’t have enough to leave, so you won’t find anything so, yes.

Matt: And what happened in 1858? Why do we suddenly stop holding wills from that point?

Nigel: Yes, at that point they decided to make it a more centralised and efficient process of proving wills. Taking it away from the various church courts. Because you had, below Canterbury and York that I mentioned, many courts covering one county or two counties, covering the country. So it became a civil function as we have it now. It’s effectively a government department that has responsibility for the probate of wills. And those wills have never been held by The National Archives. They’re held by the respective government departments.

Matt: So if you’re looking for a will from 1858 up until the present, then it’s very unlikely The National Archives will actually hold it, and you’ll need to go elsewhere — presumably, the probate courts. How does it work?

Nigel: Well now, luckily, there is an online function, if you just type in ‘how to find a will’, they’ve actually created – so you can search by name, and for many of the years, you do have abstracts, or short details for each will, which should give you the amounts, and who was the executor, and the address. So a bit of information. And then if you find the one you want, there’s a click-through where you can actually order the will from them, a copy?

Matt: Yeah. So going back to what we hold, how do you go about finding a will here, and what can you expect to see if you do find one? If I’ve got a will in front of me, what am I looking at?

Nigel: First of all, for the question of how to find it, luckily we’ve got all the wills that we have in that collection, Prerogative Court of Canterbury, actually indexed by name. And you can actually also put in, often, the place, as well.

Matt: So this is online?

Nigel: Yes, it’s online. And when you find it, you can actually click through and a digitised image of the will will come through. What you see on screen if you’re visiting The National Archives, then that is free to see the image and then you can download it to your own device, or your own email account. Or offsite, you just pay a small fee.

So what you’re expecting to see is, say, the whole will, and at the end a probate clause, which is the proving of the will. So all the content we were mentioning earlier, you’ll find in that the wording of the will. It does vary in terms of how difficult it is to read, and sometimes it was written out by the clerks of the court. Their hands vary, and some are quite difficult to read. Others are a little bit easier.

Matt: Are they all written in English? Right back to the mediaeval period, they were being written in English, were they?

Nigel: No. The earliest wills we have, starting in 1383, were predominantly in Latin. Some in Anglo-Norman, occasionally in English. But then into the 1400s, you get a higher percentage of it in English, and then they all become English. And then the only bits you’ll find in Latin will be the formulaic probate clause at the end. It’s just the court saying that it proves the will, and it goes to probate.

Matt: Right, and so you’ll get inventories with most of them, or just some of them? And you’ll get people listed? How does the information appear — in lists?

Nigel: Well an inventory, which is a list of goods — sometimes, before the death of the person, the testator, you get it written out in the will. But more typically, it’s after the will process of listing the goods, which is like an accounting process. We do hold those in separate collections. There’s various series of records that have all been catalogued on our online catalogue by name. You can search — they haven’t been digitised yet. You have to order them up as original documents.

Matt: So you need to visit us to look at those?

Nigel: Yes, I’d say. But of the ones that were produced, there’s only a certain percentage that have actually been retained with us, in our collection.

Matt: I see. And what about those instances where someone with a significant estate didn’t leave a will? Are there other kinds of documents people should search for in those instances?

Nigel: Yes, there is. It’s called a grant of administration. It’s usually where the estate is granted to the next of kin. Sometimes it might be something different — it might be even a legal representative, like a solicitor. And then the actual estate is distributed within the rules that governed when people died, in what they called ‘intestate’. They are usually very short. They’re in a series of court administrations again for the Prerogative Court of Canterbury that we have. Those haven’t been digitised, and we allow access here at The National Archives on microfilm in one of our reading rooms. And there are indexes to those, some alphabetical indexes for a certain period.

Matt: Right, so name indexes that contain the name of the deceased person? OK, so if you want to see those, again you have to visit The National Archives here in Kew?

Nigel: Yes, you do.

Matt: OK, thanks a lot, Nigel. So in summary, the wills themselves are online, and you can get to those through The National Archives website. And for the administrations, and for some of the inventories, you’ll need to actually visit us, which anyone can do here at our site in Kew. You can also have a look at our guidance on wills and on hundreds of other subjects. If you just go to The National Archives website and find the Help with your Research pages, you will find a number of guides on wills and related records there.