Wills before 1858 were generally proved in the church courts, of which there was a hierarchy extending from an individual parish up to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ministers of some parishes had a right to prove the wills of those of their parishioners who had property solely in their parish - known as a peculiar jurisdiction. This could be 'inhibited' by the Dean or Bishop at certain times.
The more important churches within the dioceses, and the cathedrals, often held their own courts. Courts of Dean and Chapters, and of the Prebends, of Cathedrals are numerous - their jurisdictions were over the places from which their revenues derived. In addition, Rural Deans supervised a group of parishes (normally not less than 12, and not including peculiars), and in some parts of the country had authority to prove wills within that area.
A larger number of parishes was headed by an archdeacon, and there would be one or more archdeaconries in a diocese, headed by a Bishop. The archdeaconry courts would normally grant probate for persons with property in their area of jurisdiction. The bishop's court (or consistory court) would grant probate for any person having property in more than one archdeaconry within the diocese. The dioceses in the south of England with the Channel Islands and Wales, formed the Province of Canterbury, of which the Archbishop of Canterbury was the head. His Prerogative Court of Canterbury proved the wills of those with property in more than one diocese or peculiar in the Province. In the north of England, the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of York acted in the same way for northern dioceses.
Canterbury claimed overall jurisdiction in probate matters when persons had property in both Provinces or had died abroad. (However, this did not always happen in practice.)
Wills in England and Wales
Wills could be written for males beginning at age 14 and females at age 12. In 1837 the age was changed to 21 for both men and women, although in the case of women, these were primarily unmarried or widowed women, since a woman’s property by law was the property of her husband until 1882.
Please note that images are not always in the order in which they were created. Ensure that you check all images within the same reference number in the browse e.g. if looking for reference P27/2REG/8B, please also look at images located under P27/2REG/8.
NB: The Practice of Inhibition When the Bishop and Dean carried out their periodic visitations, if he encountered a vacancy in the office of a presiding probate court official, he could close the court. In addition, during the visitation, the subordinate court was 'inhibited' and the probate powers and functions taken over by the higher official making the visitation. What this means in effect is that if you cannot find a will in the normal jurisdiction for the location of the testator, you may need to try other probate jurisdictions, especially P1 and P5.
- P1 - Records of the Consistory Court of Sarum. This was the largest court, representing the Bishop's own probate jurisdiction in his diocese. This court was able to "inhibit" the operation of certain other probate courts (Berkshire, Sarum, Wilts Archdeaconries, and the sub-dean of Sarum), in effect dealing with cases which would have come before them for 6 months in every 3 years. The Court also had jurisdiction over the Bishopric peculiars of Berwick St James; Devizes St John and St Mary; West Lavington; Marlborough St Mary and St Peter; Preshute; Potterne; Stert and Trowbridge with Staverton.
- P2 - Records of the Archdeaconry Court of Sarum. The Archdeacon of Sarum had jurisdiction over the southern part of Wiltshire, excluding peculiars. This court was "inhibited" for 6 months in every 3 years by the Consistory Court.
- P3 - Records of the Archdeaconry Court of Wiltshire. The Archdeacon of Wiltshire had jurisdiction over the northern part of Wiltshire, excluding peculiars. This court was "inhibited" for 6 months in every 3 years by the Consistory Court.
- P4 - Records of the court of the sub-dean of Sarum. The sub-dean's jurisdiction covered the five parishes in and near Salisbury, namely, St Thomas, St Edmund, St Martin, Stratford-sub-castle and Milford (the inhabitants of the latter, having no church of their own, used St Martin's). The court was "inhibited" by the Bishop for 6 months in every 3 years. There are almost no surviving records for the years 1589-1610.
- P5 - Records of the Peculiar Court of the Dean of Sarum. The Dean's jurisdiction covered The Close, Salisbury, 8 Wiltshire parishes, 7 Berkshire parishes and 27 Dorset parishes. The Wiltshire parishes were: Baydon, Heytesbury, Hill Deverill, Horningsham, Knook, Mere, Ramsbury and Swallowcliffe. The Berkshire parishes were: Arborfield, Blewbury, Hurst, Ruscombe, Sandhurst, Sonning & Wokingham, with the Chapels of Upton and Aston Upthorpe. The Dorset parishes were: Alton Pancras, Anderston, Bere Hackett, Bere Regis with Winterborne Kingston, Bloxworth, Candlemarsh, Castletown, Charminster, Folke, Haydon, Hermitage, Holnest, Lillington, Long Burton, Mapperton, Nether Compton, North Wootton, Oborne, Over Compton, Ryme Intrinsica, Sherborne, Stockwood, Stratton, Thornford, Turner's Puddle & Winterborne Thompson. Clifton Maybank was also under the jurisdiction until 1824 when it was united with Bradford Abbas and came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Bristol and the Archdeacon of Dorset. For 6 months in every 3 years the Dean also "inhibited" the Prebendaries of Salisbury Cathedral, the Dean and Canons of Windsor, the Warden of Savernake, and various peculiars. (Information from the Return of Courts granting Probates of Wills and Letters of Administration, 16 April 1829).
- P6 - Records of the Prebend of Bishopstone. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Bishopstone, North Wiltshire. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P7 - Records of the Prebend of Chute and Chisenbury. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Chute, Winterbourne Dauntsey and Chisenbury, Dorset. The Court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P8 - Records of the Prebend of Coombe and Harnham. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Coombe Bisset and Harnham Chapel, Wiltshire. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P9 - Records of the Prebendal Court of Durnford. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Durnford, Wiltshire. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P10 - Records of the Peculiar of the Prebend of Highworth. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Highworth with the chapels of South Marston, Sevenhampton and Broad Blunsden. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P11 - Records of the Prebend of Burbage and Hurstbourne Tarrant. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Burbage, Wiltshire, but not the parish of Hurstbourne Tarrant, Hampshire. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P12 - Records of the Prebend of Netheravon. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Netheravon, Wiltshire, including the hamlet of Chisenbury de la Foley. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P13 - Records of the Prebend of Wilsford and Woodford. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Wilsford (near Amesbury) and Woodford, Wiltshire. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years. Only 6 items date before 1628.
- P14 - Records of the Prebend of Chardstock and Warnbrook. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Chardstock, formerly in Dorset, but transferred to Devon in 1896, and Wambrook, formerly in Dorset, but transferred to Somerset in 1896. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P15 - Records of the Prebend of Fordington and Writhlington. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Fordington, Dorset, but not that of Writhlington, Somerset. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P16 - Records of the Peculiar of the Prebend of Lyme and Halstock. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Lyme Regis and Halstock in Dorset. The court was "inhibited" for 6 months in every 3 years by the Dean of Sarum.
- P17 - Records of the Prebendal Court of Netherbury. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Netherbury and Beaminster, Dorset. It was "inhibited" for 6 months in every 3 years by the Dean of Sarum.
- P18 - Records of the Prebendal Court of Preston and Sutton Poyntz. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Preston and Sutton Poyntz, Dorset. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P19 - Records of the Prebend of Yetminster and Grimstone. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Yetminster, Dorset. The court was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years.
- P20 - Records of the Prebend of Uffculme. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Uffculme, Devon. It was "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years. There are no records for the years 1554-1574 and 1576-1622. The earliest records are contained in a small register kept by John Toser, Prebendary of Uffculme, containing notes and memoranda relating to a variety of prebendal and personal matters. This volume, although repaired many years ago, remains very fragile.
- P21 - Records of the Peculiar of the Lord Warden of Savernake Forest. Covers the parishes of Collingbourne Ducis, Great Bedwyn and Little Bedwyn. In some records, the official is described as the official of Sir Edward Seymour, within the parishes of Trowbridge, Collingbourne Ducis and Great Bedwyn. Collingbourne Ducis was "inhibited" by the Bishop for 6 months in every 3 years. The Bedwyns were "inhibited" by the Dean of Sarum for 6 months in every 3 years. After 1829 this court ceased: probate records from the Bedwyns will be found in the Dean's court (P5) and from Collingbourne Ducis in the Consistory Court (P1).
- P22 - Records of the Peculiar of Trowbridge. At some time before 1717, Trowbridge became a Bishop's peculiar. After 1717, the probate work of this court was absorbed by the Bishop's Court, the Consistory Court of Salisbury, P1. No records survive after 1646.
- P23 - Records of the Dean and Canons of Windsor. This jurisdiction covered the following parishes: Hungerford, Berkshire (including Charnham Street, Eddington, Hidden, Newtown & Sanden Fee); Wantage, Berkshire (including Charlton, Grove, Tulwick & West Lockinge); Shalbourne, part in Wiltshire, part in Berkshire (including Bagshot); Ogbourne St Andrew, Wiltshire (including Ogbourne Maizey and Rockley); and Ogbourne St George, Wiltshire. After 1840 this court was in abeyance in consequence of there being no official; the wills were proved in the Dean of Sarum's court (P5). There are several gaps in the series, notably for the years 1613-1639 and 1642-1667.
- P24 - Records of the Dean and Chapter of Salisbury. This peculiar jurisdiction covered the parishes or chapelries of Stourpaine in Dorset, Bramshaw in Hampshire, and Bishops Cannings, Britford, Homington and Southbroom in Wiltshire.
- P25 - Records of the Precentor or Chanter. This peculiar covered Westbury, Wiltshire, with the chapelries of Bratton and Dilton. A few records dealt with in the Dean's court remain in P5.
- P26 - Probate records of the court of the Treasurer of the Cathedral Church of Salisbury. The jurisdiction covered the parishes of Alderbury with the chapelries of Pitton and Farley, Berwick Bassett, Calne, Calstone Wellington, Cherhill and Figheldean. Two entries for 1574 and 1599.
- P27 - Records of the Royal Peculiar of Gillingham. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Gillingham (including the chapelries of Milton on Stour and Bourton) and Motcombe, Dorset.
- P28 - Records of the Peculiar of Castle Combe. This jurisdiction covered the parish of Castle Combe, Wiltshire. For later records, see the Archdeaconry of Wiltshire probate indexes. Some items (the latest of which was dated 1786) included in the original index have been missing for many years, and are not given in this index.
- P29 - Records of the Peculiar Court of the Perpetual Vicar of Corsham. This jurisdiction covered the parishes of Corsham and Stratton St Margaret, Wiltshire. The place of residence of the deceased is frequently not given, but has been assumed to be Corsham (this is usually indicated by other evidence); only a small proportion of the wills (less than 3%) are from Stratton St Margaret. The earliest entries in the first register (1Reg) are later, 17th century, transcriptions. In addition to the three registers containing copies of wills, etc, there is a series of original, unbound wills, arranged alphabetically by surname, which partially overlap in date; many individuals therefore appear in both a register and the alphabetical series. The second register (2Reg) contains 54 marriage licence entries, as well as wills.
- P30 - This series comprises probate records that were never sent to the General or District Probate Registries after 1857 but remained with the diocesan archives. Originally it numbered about 2000 items of almost entirely unproved wills and inventories but many documents have been placed into their appropriate series (P1-P29), in many instances being reunited with associated papers. Among the records is a series of copies of wills and inventories dated around 1540 from parishes in the archdeaconry of Sarum. A box containing unidentified fragments has not been indexed or digitised.
Tips for Using this Collection
- Wills were sometimes recorded years after the testator’s death, so search broadly after the date of death.
- You may find your ancestor's estate was dealt with by 'letters of administration' if he/she did not leave a will. These documents are included in this collection.
- Bear in mind that our ancestors, particularly in early years, often weren’t consistent with the spelling of their names, so search for variants if you’re not finding them using a traditional spelling.
- Married women could not own property at this time, and were not allowed to make wills without their husband’s permission, so there will be few wills for women in this collection.
- Keep in mind that the location of the court was dependent on the location of the property being devised, not the testator’s residence or place of death.
- While most of the documents are in English, the handwriting in old documents can be very difficult to read. In addition, the probate section will be in Latin. Ancestry.com has a Latin glossary in the Research Center, and The National Archives has a helpful section with a guide to reading old handwriting.
For More Information on Wills and Probate, see The National Archives website.