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Wills and probate records

Wills are a frequently overlooked source of information for family historians, but they can be very fruitful sources. It is commonly believed that only wealthy, well off people made wills and that the wills are difficult sources to find, understand and use. To a degree this is true, since wills can be problematic to find (especially prior to 1858). The good news is that the quality of the information available in wills make the effort of searching worthwhile. Of all the soures available to family historians, wills are one of the few sources that show the emotional links that bind the person to family and friends.

Whilst it would be unwise to assume that everyone left a will, but it would be unwise to presume that your ancestor did not leave a will simply because they were not wealthy. The amount of money or goods left in a will may be small but the will itself can prove to be very worthwhile for the family historian.

Types of will and probate record

There are two main types of probate records, the will, and the grant of probate or administration. Wills were proved in special courts with jurisdiction to authorize the executors to carry out the terms of the will by means of a grant of probate. When a person died intestate (without making a will) the estate was subject to letters of administration. A large proportion of wills were nuncupative, which were oral instructions before three witnesses. Both wills and letters of administration contain similar information about your ancestors.

Wills can help you discover:

  • Information about the social status and wealth of your ancestor (servants may be left money or goods)
  • Information about land and property
  • Names of spouses and relations – it has been suggested that wills name around 10 people on average
  • The relationships within a family, especially useful where more than one person shared the same name within the family
  • The burial place and any requests made about the internment.
  • Information about professions and occupations. Tools were often bequeathed from one generation to the next
  • Relationships to a child who may have been ‘cut out’, and their reasons for doing so
     

How to find wills

A single, simplified system of probate became responsible for the administration of probate during January 1858.  Prior to this date, the church was responsible for proving wills, which were proved in a variety of church courts, depending on where the property being bequeathed was located. Some manorial courts also enjoyed jurisdiction over probate.  Leaving land in more than one Welsh diocese necessitated the will to be proved in the Prerogative Court of Cantrebury. Around 1296 wills from Anglesey, Caernarfonshire and Meirionnydd proven at the PCC survive.  The indexes to the wills at the Pergogative Court of Canterbury can be searched online. The system of wills and probate may sound complicated, but as a general rule, the researcher ought to search for pre-1858 wills from the Gwynedd area at the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

The National Library holds wills for the diocese of Bangor from 1635 to 1858, and the diocese of St Asaph from 1565 to 1858.

Gwynedd Archives hold indexes of wills for the period 1635 – 1858, also Annual Calendars of Grants of Probate for England and Wales (1858 -1935. The Calendars show dates of death, addresses, names of administrators / executors and the value of estates.

Tips:

  • Most married women could not leave property before 1882, since their land and property became the property of their husbands
  • Property may not be mentioned at all, as this may have been arranged prior to the will. Don’t assume that the eldest son has been punished just because he has been left a small token amount of money
     
  • Provision for the widow may have been arranged before the drawing up of the will
  • It can be worthwhile to search for around 10 years around the known date of death as probate was not always applied for immediately

 

 

 

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