Wills

If a person dies leaving a will, it is sent to the appropriate court of probate to be proved. If someone dies intestate (without making a will) or did not appoint an executor, an administration bond is issued by the court to a named person or persons to administer the deceased’s estate. Before January 1858 church courts (or ecclesiastical courts) dealt with this process, known as probate. Since then it has been dealt with by civil courts.Will of John Levitt, 1685 [U DDHO-48-194]

History of wills
Before 1858, the Church presided over the process known as probate. The executors took a copy of the will to the relevant ecclesiastical court, where a probate act would be granted. The seal of the court would be attached to the will, signifying that the executor had authority to carry out its terms. The probate act would be copied into the courts act book and, if requested, a copy of the will was recorded in separate will registers.

Where a will was proved or letter of administration granted depended on the value of the estate and where the deceased’s lands were situated. Probate for goods and property held solely within an archdeaconry was granted at the archdeacon’s court. This was the norm for people of little
property or wealth.

Probate for goods and property held within more than one archdeaconry, but within one diocese was granted at the bishop’s diocesan court.

Probate for goods and property valued at over £5.00 or held within more than one diocese or jurisdiction was granted within the archbishop’s prerogative court. Consequently, the Prerogative Courts became much busier as more people found their estates valued above £5.00.

There were two Prerogative Courts, one for the Southern province of Canterbury and one for the Northern province of York, which includes Hull.

Probate for goods and property valued at over £5.00, or held within more than one diocese or jurisdiction was granted within the archbishop’s Prerogative Court. Consequently, the Prerogative Courts became much busier as more people found their estates valued above £5.00. 

The Principal Probate Registry was set up in 1858 and from then on was responsible for all wills and administrations in England and Wales.

Obtaining pre-1858 wills

  • The Prerogative Court of York documents are kept at the Borthwick Institute  at York. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury took precedence if property was held in both provinces. During the Commonwealth period, 1653–1660, a court of civil commission had sole jurisdiction over probate in England and Wales. Its records are filed with those of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury at the Public Record Office, now the National Archives.
  • There are also a number of wills within the Family and Estate collections - search for the person's name on our online catalogue.
  • Welsh wills are in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.
  • Scottish wills are at the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh or in the Sheriff's Courts.
  • Surviving Irish wills are either at the National Archives of Ireland or at the PRO at Belfast.

Obtaining post-1858 wills

  • The National Probate Calendar is available on microfiche at the History Centre. It records key details of all wills proved and letters of administration granted for 1858-1943.
  • Indexes from 1858 to date can also be consulted by visiting a Probate Registry.
  • Copies of wills for England and Wales can be obtained for a small fee by contacting the Leeds Probate Office.