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.
What can I find in these records?
There were seven dioceses or their equivalents in Wales. The following list shows the areas of probate jurisdiction and the dates of the wills included in the collection:
Diocese of Bangor: Anglesey, most of Caernarfonshire, most of Merioneth, parts of Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire Original wills 1576-1858 (majority dated 1635-1648, 1660-1858) Copy wills 1790, 1851-1858
Archdeaconry of Brecon: Breconshire, most of Radnorshire, and some parishes in Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire and Herefordshire Original wills 1557-1857 (mainly 1609-1653, 1660-1857) Copy wills 1543-1858 (mainly 1570-1589, 1694-1858)
Diocese of Chester: four parishes in Flintshire and Holt in Denbighshire. Original wills 1521-1858 (mainly 1557-1650, 1660-1858)
Peculiar of Hawarden: parish of Hawarden Original wills 1554-1858 (mainly 1554-1641, 1660-1858)
Diocese of Llandaff: Monmouthshire and Glamorgan (except for Gower) Original 1568-1857 Copy wills 1695-1844
Diocese of St Asaph: most of Denbighshire, Flintshire and Montgomeryshire, and parts of Merioneth, Caernarfonshire and Shropshire Original 1557-1858 (mainly 1583-1649, 1660-1857) Copy wills 1548-1709 (mainly 1565-1648, 1660-1669, 1684-1709)
Diocese of St David’s: Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire and part of Glamorgan (Gower) Original 1556-1858 (mainly 1564-1653, 1660-1858) Copy wills 1703-1858 (mainly 1703-1731, 1814-1858)
You may be able to find the following information (where available):
- Date will was proved
- Place will was proved
Parts of this description have been taken from the National Library of Wales website. You can find out more about their collections on this page.