Wills can be a goldmine of family history information and are especially useful in establishing family connections where parish records have proved to be inconclusive.
The sort of information you might find includes mention of various relatives and family members connected to the deceased such as:
Wives and Husbands
Ex-wives and ex-husbands
Sisters and brother-in-laws
Brothers and sister-in-laws
Sons and daughter-in-laws
Daughters and son-in-laws
Grandchildren and their spouses (if old enough to be married)
There may also be clues to where any of the above lived and their occupation at the time eg “to my brother John, Cordwainer of Coldred…”
Property (if owned) will be mentioned including the house name or number and the street name. If you’re lucky, the property may still be in existence. I have visited and have taken photographs of several properties that my ancestors once occupied.
Possessions – these can be very detailed and if so, can provide a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of your ancestor. They will also give you an idea of the relative wealth of your ancestors. An ancestor of mine from a family branch that I’m in the process of proving and establishing a link to owned and operated several fishing boats in the late eighteenth century. Until I found his will, I had assumed that he was a fisherman on someone else’s boat.
Witnesses to the will may also be important in establishing connections to locations.
From 1384 until January 1858, wills in the UK were proved by the church and other courts. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury held copies of the wills of the more prosperous individuals of the south of England and Wales and the Prerogative Courts of York held the wills for Cheshire, Cumberland, Durham, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Westmoreland, York and the Isle of Man, and you can search for these online at the National Archives website.
Three main factors determined in which of these courts a will would have been proved:
Where the person died
The value of the goods
How these goods were distributed geographically
Be aware that before 1733 wills were written in Latin, the only exception being the period of Oliver Cromwell’s Republic 1649-1660 (the Interregnum) when they were written in English.
From 1858 wills have been held by the Court of Probate. Unfortunately they are not available online but can be searched and viewed at First Avenue House, 42-49 High Holborn, London WC1V 6NP. You may also purchase copies here. If you cannot get to First Avenue House, you can order copies by post from the Postal Searches & Copies Dept, York Probate Sub-Registry, 1st Floor, Castle Chambers, Clifford Street, York, YO1 9RG. State the full name, address and date of death of the deceased, and enclose the appropriate fee.