Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Pre-1858 Wills in the Essex Record Office

National Probate Calendar at Ancestry.co.uk

A look at finding Wills proved before 1858 and those archived in the Essex Record Office.

Wills can be useful source of information for the family tree researcher. To read how Wills can help you and how to obtain Wills proved after 1858, see the article Wills and Adminstrations after 1858

In England and Wales until 1858, Wills were dealt with by the Ecclesiastical Courts. This was a complicated system involving as many as 250 different courts.

The two principal courts were the Prerogative Courts of Canterbury which covered southern England and Wales, and the Prerogative Courts of York which covered Northern England and the Isle of Man. These were then split into dioceses and then archdeaconries. Each had their own court where a Will may have been proved depending on where the person died, the property involved, and its location.

Unfortunately, there is no central index of Wills for the period before 1858. For more information on this complicated system see this National Archives in-depth research guide.

If you seeking a Will of a person who died in, or with an Essex connection, then these are the most likely places to try.

The records for The Prerogatives Court of Canterbury (PCC) can be found either on Ancestry.co.uk or the National Archives(series PROB 11). There are thousands of Wills proved between 1384 and 1858. What you will be able to see are the registered copies of the Wills which have been written out by the church clerks and bound in large volumes. As a consequence, the handwriting is sometimes difficult to read or may be in Latin.

Nevertheless, this is a great resource, so don't be put off by the challenge of trying to read the handwriting. Take a piece of paper and line by line identify the words you can read and leave gaps for those you cannot. Look out for the squiggles at the beginning and end of the lines, they were added to ensure there were no blank spaces. Now, look at the words and letters you know and try and guess the words you don't. Many of the Wills will contain standard preambles. Look on the internet for examples of transcribed Wills. Also see our page on reading Latin and old handwriting.

The Essex Wills from the Diocese of London which covered Essex most of this period are mainly held at the Essex Record Office.

Also included are Wills from these courts:

  • Archdeaconry of Colchester
  • Archdeaconry of Essex
  • Archdeaconry of Middlesex (Essex and Herts. Division)
  • Bishop of London's Commissary (Essex and Herts. Division)
  • Peculiar of the Deanery of Bocking
  • Peculiar of Good Easter
  • Peculiar of the Liberty of the Sokens
  • Peculiar of Writtle with Roxwell

The Essex Record Office (ERO) has over 20,000 wills on their SEAX catalogue. You can now view them online. They cover from 1400 to 1858. It is a pay to view service, but reasonable day or week rates are available.

Again, some of these Wills are very difficult to read or may contain Latin.

This familysearch guide provides details of each Essex parish and the primary and sceondary courts in which jurisdiction the parish lay.

It is possible than the Will may be held with another Record Office. Some Essex Wills are held at the London Metropolitan Archives (one index on Ancestry.co.uk +2,300 Wills) see also another index, the Consistory Court Index (bottom of the page on link). Others are held at the Guildhall Manuscripts Section (A to Z of names index).

Findmypast.co.uk are now regularily adding indexes of Wills and Probate from across the country.

You could also use Archon to find other surrounding Record Offices to check all their holdings. Or try the Will indexes held by the Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

 

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