The history and utility of wills to the family historian

What is a will?

A will was a written instrument providing for the disposition of a person's real estate (land and buildings) while a testament disposed of a person's property (money, pictures, furniture, tools and leasehold land). These two terms have now come to be synonymous.

To be valid, a will must be dated, described as the last will and testament, the author must be of sound mind, have property worth at least £5, it must be signed by the author at the bottom of each page and at the end in the presence of two witnesses. Codicils are additions or modifications which can be affixed and must be dated, signed, and witnessed as the will is. A will names the person or persons, the executor, to carry out the deceased wishes. The executor obtains the official documents from the court, the 'grant of probate', to prove that he/she is legally authorised to administer the estate. A person dies intestate when no will is left and then letters of administration (ADMONS) must be obtained by the next of kin.

Church & State

Prior to 1858, English wills were proved in church courts, either locally or centrally, with each court keeping its own records. Since that date the administration of probate has been the responsibility of the state, with local probate offices but a central register of wills. Finding a will prior to 1858 can be difficult, since the probate the court used will depend on the value and location of the estate, among other factors.

Wills before 1858

Finding a will prior to 1858 can be difficult, since the probate court used will depend on the value and location of the estate, among other factors. We are fortunate in that two of our local record offices have readily available indexes to wills. 


The Bristol Archives website contains downloadable (.pdf) indexes to wills proved at Bristol 1793-1858.


The Gloucestershire Record Office provides an on-line genealogical database including wills, which can be searched.


Most pre-1858 Somerset wills were destroyed by German bombing in 1942. However, some information is available and there is a useful guide on the website of the Somerset Heritage Centre.

Wills since 1858

All wills proved in England and Wales since 12th January 1858 are listed in annual indexes, which contain brief details usually sufficient to identify the deceased. 

Copies of the Indexes published since 1900 up to the present day are available openly in Bristol at the District Probate Registry, The Crescent Centre, Temple Back, Bristol, BS1 6EP, telephone 0117 927 3915. A microfiche copy of the probate index from 1858 to 1943 is available at Bristol Archives.

PCC Wills before 1858

Prior to 1858, the national court for obtaining probate was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, which was a church court based in London. It was intended to deal with wealthier people who held property located in more than one of the local jurisdictions. However, it was commonly used by other people, perhaps as a matter of prestige. PCC wills can be viewed at The National Archives at Kew, London.

The National Archives has an index to over one million PCC wills from 1384 to 1858 which is available on the Internet. Copies of wills can be downloaded for £3.50. Details can be found at The National Archives. The National Archives have a guide on searching for wills.