Probate records are concerned with the proving of wills, and can include associated documents such as inventories, letters of administration etc. These records can be used to find information about individuals, their families and their way of life. Why not have a look at our Stories from Suffolk Wills to discover some of the fascinating facts that wills can reveal to us.
The process of making a will
Wills were not restricted to wealthy people. They were often made by those who were quite poor, but a person generally had to have goods worth more than £5 for the will to go to probate. A man making a will was called the testator, a woman the testatrix. Married women could not make wills until 1883. A member of the legal profession usually wrote the will, although people could write their own will if they wished. The testator was legally obliged to name an executor who would administer the will after probate. The testator was required to sign, or make his mark on the document and the signatures of two witnesses were also required. The testator kept the will until it was proved.
A nuncupative will was a deathbed will. This had to be declared in the presence of four witnesses. It could not cover freehold land and it could not revoke a former will. The declaration could be written down after the testator died. Such wills often began with the words ‘memorandum quod’.
Proving a will
The will would name one or more people as executors. These would usually be trusted family members, friends or associates. They could renounce this duty if they thought it would be a burden (e.g. if the testator was in debt).
The executors would exhibit the will in the probate court and if it was found valid, a grant of probate would be made. This grant was recorded in the court’s Act book, and also on the original will. A copy of the will was made and kept in the court’s Register of wills. The executors were given a probate copy of the will with letters of probate attached.
Wills were proved in ecclesiastical courts. There were three levels of courts:
- The Archdeacon’s Court: this was used if the testator’s property lay entirely within the Archdeaconry.
- The Bishop’s Consistory Court: this was used if the testator’s property lay within more than one archdeaconry but within a single diocese.
- The Archbishop’s Court: this was used if a testator’s property lay in more than one diocese. In the south of England, this was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). In the north of England, this was the Prerogative Court of York (PCY).
Occasionally another court could be used, the Peculiar or Local Court. This was only used for probate if the property of the deceased lay totally within the Peculiar. A Peculiar is a parish, which lies within a Diocese but is exempt from the Bishop’s jurisdiction.
From April 1653 to May 1660, the Court for Probate based in Westminster, London, covered the whole country, assuming the probate function of the ecclesiastical courts. Its records are held in The National Archives. The old system for probate was restored in 1660.
All wills have been proved in civil courts, either in the Principal Probate Registry in London, or in District Probate Registries.
If a person died intestate (i.e. without making a will), the court would grant Letters of Administration (often abbreviated to ‘admon’), usually to the next of kin. This would be recorded in the Act book. The Administrator had to take out a bond to make a list of the deceased’s goods and their value (an inventory).