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Wills for Family History


Wills are an under exploited resource, overshadowed by the more easily used and accessible census, parish registers and GRO certificates.

Unless they are proved at Canterbury and thus are easily found online, they are not generally easy to locate and access.

We’ll start by looking at a few facts.

Not everybody left wills:

Probably around 10% did though, and it wasn’t necessarily those that had lots to leave who wrote a will.

In an agricultural parish like Kirkby Malham, the majority of testators are either gentry or farmers (yeomen or husbandmen), and poorer inhabitants are sparsely represented. In a town many small, relatively poor, tradesmen are likely to leave wills as well as the richer merchants and factory owners.

Wills are left mainly by men:

Until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 only Spinsters, Widows or a very few Wives who had their husband’s consent, could leave a will.

Oral wills

Wills were not generally made until the testator was aged or ill, nuncupative wills, spoken requests for the handling of the estate often written down after death, were made when they left it too late and were legal if made in front of 4 witnesses. They were often brief and challenged and were abolished in the 19th century.

Finding pre 1858 wills can be a challenge:
From the 14th century, wills were granted probate in a whole range of ecclesiastical courts, until 1858 when the process was simplified by a single civil registry.

The value of the pre 1858 will and the location of the property bequeathed, determined which court would prove the will.

If the personal estate was valued at £5 or more it had to be proved in the Ecclesiastical court. In the 14th century, this was a large sum of money, but over time more and more people needed to have their wills proved in the church courts.

If all the estate was held within one archdeaconry, the will would be proved in an Archdeacon’s court.

If the property was spread over more than one archdeaconry, but within one diocese, it would been proved in a Bishop’s diocesan court.

Property held in more than one diocese would have to have the will proved by the higher, Archbishop’s prerogative court.

There were two Archbishop’s courts responsible for proving wills, each covering different parts of the country: The Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of York (PCY) covering York, Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and the Isle of Man; and the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of Canterbury (PCC) which covered the South of England and Wales, which was the highest court of the two.

However there were also Peculiar or local courts, each covering a small area with a single parish or group of parishes, usually under the control of a particular cleric. An example being the Peculiar at Masham which provides the name for a well known beer!

Obtaining wills:
The Principal Probate Registry will search for and provide copies of Post 1858 wills, or you can search the more recent indexes yourself at their York Office and order any copies you want. Searches and ordering are not available online at present. Apply by post giving the full name, address and date of death of the deceased, stating what you require and enclosing the fee, currently £5. They will search up to a 4 year period and supply a full copy of the probate grant and will (if any).

The Borthwick Institute at York University hold most of the original Yorkshire wills and you can order copies (£5-12). Original wills often consist of several parts, with inventories and obligations attached to them. Their microfilm room has copies of the Probate Registers, which are will copies made by the courts. You can search these for free and make relatively cheap photocopies.
They also have will indexes available, mainly the YAS publications, but also their own to cover gaps. Coverage is from 1389 -1858.

The YAS have published a series of indexes to Yorkshire wills most of which can be found in Skipton and other major Yorkshire Libraries, though they are time consuming to use and would benefit from being transferred to computer.

Information on how to order copies of post 1858 wills from the Principal Probate Registry or earlier wills from The Borthwick Institute plus other useful information including two guides to finding pre 1858 Yorkshire wills by Colin Blanchard-Withers and the Borthwick Institute, can all be found via links on the KirkbyMalham.info website.

During the Interregnum wills were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and these are fully indexed and available from the National Archives in their Documents Online section.

Death Duty Registers
If an estate was liable for death duties, the Indexes to Death Duty Registers may be used to identify the court where a will was proved, or letters of administration granted before 1858. Death Duties were introduced in 1796, but before 1815 many estates were exempt from the tax, although from that date onwards most were liable. The Death Duty Indexes from 1796 to 1857 are therefore the nearest substitute for a national probate index before 1858. They provide a very brief idea of what a will contained, but little of the detail. They can be searched and copies obtained online from The National Archives Documents Online section.

Will structure
Originally, there were two parts to a “Will”, with real estate and personal estate being dealt with separately, though in England they are more usually combined into one legal document the Last Will & Testament.

The Will part deals with this Real Estate ie. buildings, land etc, and any copyhold land held from the manor court. For a yeoman farmer this could represent the bulk of his estate and is usually dealt with at the beginning, just after the religeous preamble.
The Testament part deals with Personal Estate, consisting of household furniture and equipment, clothes, food and provisions, working tools, stock in trade, animals, cash in hand, debts owing and securities for money lent etc. Leasehold houses and land are also included, even where the lease is very long. This was dealt with under Ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

You may find no mention of any Real estate in an early “Will” because this was governed separately under manorial and common law, in which the eldest son automatically inherited the Real estate. Daughters would often be given their share of an inheritance on marriage, in the form of a dowry, therefore, they might not be mentioned either.

Having obtained your copy of a will, what can you hope to discover?
Download a copy of the will and resulting family tree included in the workshop.

Probably the most important use for family history is the confirmation of how the individuals link together within the family or to discover additional information which enables the sorting of individuals into family groups. This is especially the case as you move further back in time and are relying on Parish Registers.

Wills can provide useful information not always included in parish records. Early entries in parish records often provide rather scant information ie.
John so Robert Preston bpt 7th July 1767
or if you are lucky,
John so Robert Preston of Calton bpt 7th July 1767
Not many parishes have Dade registers which provide great detail, with 3 generations of family shown at a glance.

However in Malhamdale there are multiple Robert Prestons alive and scattered throughout the Dale’s townships, all having families at the same time. The will can provide valuable information about where they lived, often what they did and lists many of their family and relations. This is a great help in sorting the numerous Parish record entries into families.

Wills often contain references to several generations, the naming of uncles, cousins etc. making it easier to construct accurate family links between different family lines.

Family Ties
Be aware that terms used to describe other family members are not always those used today.
Brother may refer to a step brother or brother-in-law;
Cousin can be any relative other than a parent, child or sibling of the testator and may refer to nephew or grandson;
Father-in-law is often a step father;
Mother may be a step mother or refer to his Mother-in-law;
Natural child may mean illegitimate.
Junior/Younger & Senior/Elder the use of these terms doesn't necessarily mean they are father and son, or even necessarily related. On the death of Robert Preston the elder, Robert Preston junior may become the elder if there is another RP in the village, which can be confusing.

Other information - roughly in the order it might appear in a will:

Charitable bequests
These usually figure at the beginning and can give clues about the origin of the person making the will. Many early wills make bequests to have services or prayers said for them to help speed them through purgatory.

Provision for the widow
Some older wills refer to the widow’s “thirds”, a legal entitlement to one third of her husband’s estate for life, essential in a time when a wife’s property became her husbands on marriage.
For early records, around the start of the parish records, where a marriage can’t be found, this might be the first time you can identify his wife. At her burial she will be just Isabell Iwo John Preston, but which John Preston?

Provision for the children
The eldest son normally inherited all the real estate and the largest house. However this might not be stated in the will as you will see later. Younger sons may get secondary real estate, which will appear.

Daughters may have been provided for with a dowry when they married. If there are large discrepancies between the amounts left to various children, this is normally the result of provision already having been made, rather than a sign of disfavour, but legacies are often granted to their children.

Surprises - The testator might use his will as the last chance to acknowledge and provide for children born out of wedlock or the family black sheep.

Servants and friends often receive small bequests.

Wills are an obvious pointer to wealth and lifestyle, especially when still accompanied by their inventories. Yeoman farmers though relatively well off, lived quite simply, with few possessions and a lot of their trading would be by barter. An inventory from a yeoman’s will proved at harvest time is likely to be be considerably more valuable because of the harvest and livestock than one proved at the end of winter.

The Death Duty Registers are all about assessing wealth for taxation so that is the main thing the extracts show, besides confirming the existence of a will or probate.

There are several websites where you can convert the sums of money found in wills and inventories into “today’s equivalent”

You may find no mention of any Real estate in an early “Will” because this was governed separately under manorial and common law, in which the eldest son automatically inherited the Real estate. Daughters would often be given their share of an inheritance on marriage, in the form of a dowry, therefore, they might not be mentioned either.

And on the subject of wealth, of course you can’t believe everything you read in wills, tax evasion is certainly not a new invention.

Other useful web links:

Notes on wills and the Death Duty registers at FindmyPast.com
Information on wills from FamilyRecords.gov.uk
Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills index free search and online copies from the TNA
Death Duty Indexes free search and online copies from the TNA
BBC History guide to wills
Colin Blanchard-Withers comprehensive guide to Finding Yorkshire Wills in the various courts
The Borthwick Institute guide to Finding Probate Records
The National Archives Research Guide to Wills before 1858
West Yorkshire Archive Service Guide to Yorkshire Wills.
Her Majesty's Court Service guide to obtaining Copies of Probate Records after 1858.
The British Origins online subscription service has The Prerogative & Exchequer Court of York Probate Index 1731-1858 : York Peculiars Probate Index 1383-1883 : York Medieval Probate Index 1267-1500. You can subscribe for 72 hours for £6.50.
Measuring Worth is a website from Economic History Services that allows you to compare the relative historical value of the UK Pound. There are several calculators and one looks at the Relative Value of £ from 1830 to the Present, another looks at the Purchasing Power from 1264 - the Present. With both you can choose to use a series of different factors which affect the calculated value.
The Current Value of Old Money provides links to many websites about the subject.

Notes from a talk by David Tippey at the Pennine Testimonies - Wills & Probate Study Day held at Skipton on Saturday 4 July 2009