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The Probate Series

Volumes in Prospect

A note by Cliff Webb (General Editor, Probate)

It may be useful for subscribers (and potential subscribers) to know what volumes we expect to print in the next few years, and what longer-term prospects we are working on.

Historically, there is a very long lead time between commencement of work on a project, and the final appearance of indexes. Traditionally, slips would be written and checked, typed and typeset, checked again and supplementary indexes of places and occupations compiled, and typed and typeset in turn. A generation could come and go while this took place; one of the volumes produced and one anticipated still in the next few years (Hertfordshire and Herefordshire) were started in the 1960s.

Lately, computers have immensely speeded the process at every point. Even more recently, we are seeing more and more Record Offices seeking to digitise their probate records (usually with the aid of substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grants). The first result of this from our point of view is Salisbury, but other areas are at various stages in this process. The speeding of the process is displayed by the fact that Salisbury went from inception to printing in just about a decade, despite being a huge series with nearly 100,000 documents.

It may be asked why we are still printing indexes, when many of the indexes we produce have or will be available on the Internet. The answer is complex. First, we know that books stand the test of time, we also know that Internet sites can come and go. We also know that many users still prefer the printed book. Books are easier to look at as part of a group of materials being used together than electronic pages. The compilation of the text and the generation of the supplementaries also shows up errors and omissions that could not be spotted except with publication in prospect. All in all, we believe that production in book form remains invaluable and complementary to any Web-based publication.

As has been pointed out by Peter Spufford in his centenary history of the BRS (Genealogists' Magazine, 1988), the Society has often been most active when relatively few volumes were coming out, while volumes continue to appear when little is going on.

A list of publications which are far advanced follows. I have also singled out just some of the many remoter prospects, to show that much material is at some point in the pipeline. The entries here for the first three items are in still under construction.

Peculiar Court of the Deanery of the Arches

This Peculiar Court had jurisdiction in the Deaneries of The Arches, Croydon and Shoreham. Its records are held at Lambeth Palace Library. BRS has already published an index to the Deanery of the Arches material and this volume, which will provide an index to the material in the other two Deaneries is in the press (2024).

Kent Wills

BRS inherited an index on slips to wills and administrations in the Archdeaconry of Canterbury 1577-1649. The slips have been digitised and an index in two volumes will appear in 2024/5

Commissary Court of Surrey: Administrations 1660-1752

Indexes have appeared for most of Surrey's probate records proved in the local courts. However, one major gap in the printed and/or online coverage is of Administrations ('admons') granted by the Commissary Court of Surrey from 1662 to 1752. Admons do not give the wealth of information of wills; on the other hand, their entire informational content can be included in an index entry, and therefore make them suitable for publication in the Index Library. Until 1733 they are in Latin, here calendared in English. This volume is far advanced and should be produced in 2025.

PCC Adminstrations 1650-1700

Cards were written for these many years ago, and the Friends of the National Archives (then Friends of the Public Record Office) keyed in about 40% of these. The cards have now been scanned and the untyped ones keyed by our pay per view partner with a view to publication. This will be a multi-volume publication and fill the last gap in indexes to the main series of PCC probate records pre-1700.

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<p align="justify" class="BodyText"><strong>Other London probate courts</strong></p>

<p align="justify" class="BodyText"> The Dean and Chapter of St Paul's first register has been calendared and will, unusually for the Society appear as part of an overall index to this court's work. Much work has also been done on another minor court, that of St Katharine by the Tower and on medieval wills in the Bishops of London's registers. <p align="justify" class="BodyText"><strong>Wills at Durham</strong></p> <p align="justify" class="BodyText"> A Heritage Lottery Fund grant has been made enabling Durham to do as Wiltshire has done. Durham has half as many probate documents again as Wiltshire. It was agreed in principle that BRS would print the resultant index. However other work has held up this prospect.</p> <p align="justify" class="BodyText"><strong>Wills at Reading</strong></p> <p align="justify" class="BodyText"> At Berkshire Record Office, they digitised their probate records. Again, we have expressed an interest in printing the resulting index.</p> <p align="justify" class="BodyText"><span class="BodyBoldText">National Wills Index</span> <p align="justify" class="BodyText"> It has been hoped to establish a national index of testators, intended to provide a single online index to all pre-1858 English probate material. Most of the BRS volumes have been digitised and added to the FindMyPast site. However financial constraints have made it impracticable to rekey the volumes, as had been planned. At the moment, in most cases, the link is simply to a pdf of a page. BRS is considering how it might improve this situation.<a href="http://www.nationalwillsindex.com/"><span class="EmailText"><span class="EmailText">

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<p align="justify" class="BodyText">The intention was not only to provide a single index to testators. but where possible, to provide links so that copies of the original material may be supplied digitally to researchers. This will provide much needed income to Record Offices and to BRS to plough back into more records. In addition there are long-term plans to index all names appearing in probate material, providing a key to the 9/10ths of names not disclosed by an index of testators. </p>

This section is still under construction In these notes I have generally tried to avoid using terms such as he/him except where they are dictated by facts, such as when referring to priests.

Records of the distribution of the property of deceased people give a unique insight into individuals. Until 1858, the Church had the sole right to deal with such matters. They did so in a bewildering array of some 300 courts. We are fortunate in England and Wales that extensive series of records survive from medieval times. Indeed their overwhelming profusion is in many ways a problem. While virtually all extant records are now safely housed in Record Offices, means of access to them vary very considerably. At the best, indexes can be used to find wills of interest and then download images of them. At worst, there are often unique manuscript indexes, organised by initial letter rather than lexicographically and with no indexes of places and occupations to assist local historians.

Legacies (or the lack of them) was a fruitful source of litigation and some testators make very clear their adverse views of individuals in their family. This again, makes them a fruitful source for all manner of studies.


A few very early wills are in Norman French, but these will generally only be need to be consulted by specialist historians. Latin however, could be used up to 1733. It is increasingly unusual after about 1500 and very rare indeed after about 1550. The exception is the clause at the end granting probate, which remained in Latin until 1733, apart from the Commonwealth period 1650-60. This is also true of any other annotations of further actions by the court. Some Huguenot immigrants had wills in French, Dutch or German, but there are translations provided in these cases.


Where there was a will, the normal procedure was for the executor or executors to approach the Court they believed appropriate. If there was not a will, if there was an estate left of any size, a grant would be given to someone to administer the estate. In many parishes the incumbent had been appointed as the Commissary of the Bishop, this appointment enabling him to prove wills and grant administrations (formally known as Letters of Administration and often referred to as 'admons') in his parish. Up to about 1750, it would seem that often executors did not bother to go to the extent of proving a will if there was no dispute about its contents. Thus many people who one would expect to have left wills, do not appear to have done so. Furthermore, there was a widespread reluctance to make a will until the testator felt that death was near. This intimation is often hidden - one frequently find testators proclaiming themselves fit and well, only for their will to be proved only days or weeks later.

It is also the case that some testators literally left it to the last minute, where they were too weak to sign a will and had to make what was known as a nuncupative will. Here witnesses would attest to the testator's spoken wishes so that the will could be proved.

Sometimes, even if there was a will, letters of administration had to be 'annexed' to it - in Latin cum testamento annexo or c.t.a. There were many reasons for this. The commonest was that the executor named in the will had died or refused to act (known as a renunciation). Sometimes, the named executor was under 21 and so could not act. Indeed, it is not infrequent to find administrations issued many years (over 100 years is not unknown) after the will itself was proved, because not all the estate had been distributed. These can give invaluable genealogical information about the testator's descendants.

If there was an executor who had died or otherwise failed to complete the distribution the Court would issue Letters of Administration d.b.n.c.t.a. (de bonis non cum testamento annexo - "of goods not yet administered" or after a previous Admon 'dbn' (de bonis non - "of goods not" [yet administered]). These abbreviations are frequently found in will registers or on original wills.

Where there were more than one executor, probate might be granted to all of them or to one with the right of the other executor or executors to power to prove the will, and if they did this was referred to as Double Probate.

The original will was then copied into a register, and then filed. In addition, the probate clauses were copied into an act book. In some cases, all three of these survive, in others only one.

The hierarchy of the Church Courts

These are listed with the most senior courts listed first.

1. The High Court of Delegates In the medieval period, appeals on probate matters could in extremis be made to the Pope in Rome. In 1532/3 this was abolished and the High Court of Delegates established. In addition to dealing with appeals from the church courts, such as the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the High Court of Delegates also heard appeals from judgments of the High Court of Admiralty in instance causes. It also exercised an appellate jurisdiction from the Court of Chivalry and the Courts of the Chancellors of Oxford and Cambridge Universities. It was in turn abolished in 1833 and its jurisdiction transferred to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Its records are held in The National Archives (class DEL). 'The Genealogist' new series XI and XII provides an index to grants of probate and administration issued by the High Court of Delegates and the Judicial Committee.

2. The Court of Arches This heard appeals from the church courts in all matters where those courts had jurisdiction. Most records prior to 1660 have been lost. However, a vast amount remains and is at Lambeth Palace Library. BRS produced an index to Cases in the Court of Arches 1660-1913 in 1972. Lambeth Palace Library have made very considerable progress in listing more fully the 17th century material, and adding it to their online catalogue https://archives.lambethpalacelibrary.org.uk/CalmView/.

3. Prerogative Court of Canterbury This holds the largest number of wills of any court. From 1650 to 1660, it was the only probate court, and in the 19th century it became more and more wills to be proved in it, especially as the Bank of England started to refuse to accept probate issued by any other court.

  1. Prerogative Court of York
  2. Bishops' Courts
  3. Dean and Chapters' Courts
  4. Archdeaconry and Commissary Courts
  5. Peculiar Jurisdictions


It seems to have been customary for an inventory of the goods of the deceased to be drawn up for the use of the executor or administrator. Such inventories survive rather haphazardly. They are almost universally written on long, narrow strips of parchment. Each room of the house is listed with its contents and the value assigned to each item, with a total at the end. These values were sometimes written on the original will, even when the inventory itself has not survived.

Some inventories can be extraordinarily long. Perhaps the largest is that of Henry VIII (1547) which contains no less than 17,810 items - three manuscript sources survive and were published in 1998. Most inventories are, of course, much smaller than this.

Inventories may be in a separate series, or folded into original wills.

Estate accounts

Will Abstracts

Over the years, many record agents and genealogists have made abstracts of wills, and in some cases these have been printed and, latterly, others are available on the Internet.

Abstracts can vary from full transcripts down to very brief notes. The F.G. Emerson abstracted many thousand of Essex wills. Great efforts have been made by many people to recover lists and abstracts of the wills of Devon and Somerset lost in World War II.

I have personally abstracted all the Surrey wills in the Archdeaconry and Commissary Courts of Surrey right up to 1858. They are available on FindMyPast. I have also abstracted all Surrey wills in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury up to 1700 and these are gradually also being made available on the Internet. My work continues abstracting the early registers of the Dean and Chapter of St Paul's and the wills of various Livery Company members.

It may be helpful to explain my own method which differs slightly from Dr Emmison's, mainly as I was continuing abstracting right into the 19th century. Once it became the norm to have solicitors draw up wills (c1750), wills became more verbose and, all too often, lost the personal touch and even detail. Citizens of London frequently failed to mention their Company, complicated trusts were set up with repeated details and, worst, sometimes wives and children were mentioned but not named.

Even early wills have a lot of verbiage which can be expunged without loss of significant information. The first obvious details are the full name, parish and occupation or status of the testator. The date should be brought to that first element, even if it comes at the end of the text of the will. Following this I put any instructions as to burial place and manner, and any charitable gifts. Some early wills have a date where the year is a regnal year or where it is dated by a festival. These are rendered in modern form, as are wills with Quaker dating - though this fact is noted.

Virtually all early wills, and many later ones, include an introduction commending the testator to God. Sometimes this is extremely brief, sometimes the opposite. However, it seems likely that these clauses frequently reflected the views of the writer, which was often the parish priest. They were therefore omitted, but especially unusual or prolix clauses are noted. Pre-Reformation wills almost always contain some small monetary gift to the Cathedral church of the diocese and to the parish church. The latter is often described in a formulaic way as for unpaid tithes - though some testators protest they know of none!

From the main text, all names and places are taken with relationships. It is assumed that sons but not daughters share the surnames of their father, so where the surname of a daughter is given, it is of course given. If it is the same as the father the first letter is given to show this. It must be remembered that the names of relationships can have changed meaning. Father in law, for example, can hold its present meaning, but often refers to a second husband of the mother. Cousins are often, in present parlance, nephews and nieces. Personal remarks, e.g. "to my unworthy son" are recorded.

With land, where the acreage is given, these are recorded, as with all boundaries, neighbours etc. Monetary gifts are given, in pre-decimal form, but modernising units such as nobles.

The main thing to be decided was what goods to be detailed. Some items recur endlessly and seem of little importance and so are frequently merely listed as "furniture", "goods", "tools", "clothes", "crops" or "livestock". However all books with titles are listed, and every effort made to identify them and their author. Similarly, details are given of all items made with precious materials, paintings, musical instruments and anything else relatively unusual.

Art is long and life is short, and there seemed little point in entering every pair of sheets, piece of linen and every cow. However, if an unfamiliar term was used, it is transcribed and if possible identified. This practice was also followed with tools and clothes. Sometimes domestic animals are named - "the spotted cow called Daisy" and this is recorded, as are unusual animals.

In addition to an executor or executors, many early testators appointed "overseers" or "supervisors". They were to assist the executor and make sure they followed the wishes of the testator. They often were there also to protect the interest of under age heirs.

Wills were supposed to have at least two witnesses, and normally this is the case. Those who made their mark are rendered, e.g. John Smith (X).

The probate clause is in Latin until 1733, except for 1650-60. It is usually very simple Latin, and is rendered in abstracts in a basic English transcription. All marginal annotations, usually later administrations, are, of course abstracted.