Wills and Probate Records

Cheshire Record Office holds over 70,000 original Cheshire wills and probate records 1540-1857, proved in the Archdeaconry of Chester.  We also hold about 60,000 microfilm copies of wills proved in the Chester Probate Court between 1858 and 1940. Surviving Cheshire wills are online via the Cheshire Collection on Find My Past

Sample will

What are wills and probate records?

  • Will - a written document disposing of property after death.
  • Testament - originally, the will dealt with ‘realty’ or real property (land, buildings) and the testament with ‘personalty’ or personal property (goods, money, leases), but the two were soon combined.
  • Letters of Administration (or 'Admons') – granted to the next of kin or other adult when someone died intestate (leaving no will) or where a will was unprovable.
  • Codicil – a later addition to a will.
  • Probate inventory – a list, drawn up by executors or administrators, of all the deceased’s property and estimated value.  They are rare after c1750.

What is 'probate'?

  • Probate is granted when the relevant court accepts a will.
  • Until 1858 – the responsibility of proving a will lay with the church.
  • From 1858 – probate was granted anywhere in the 40 local civil probate registries.  These keep their own registered copies of wills and send copies to the Principal Probate Registry.

Who made wills?

  • Between 1540-1837, a will could be made by any male over 14 and any unmarried female (ie single or widowed) over 12.
  • After 1837, a will could be made by anyone ‘of full age’ (21).
  • People unable to make a will include prisoners, lunatics, traitors and, between 1540-1887, married women (as their property was deemed to pass to their husband at marriage).
  • Prior to the 19th century, only a small percentage of people left wills (possibly around 10%)
  • Families would often settle estates before death (eg at a child’s marriage)

What information will I find?

  • Wills vary considerably in both size and content, from virtually no detail to the extremely detailed (sometimes enabling you to construct a family tree of several generations).
  • Up until the mid 18th century, it was customary to use the opening few phrases to dispose of one’s soul and body to God and Christian burial. 
  • The will consists of a series of itemised directions, usually starting with any ‘real’ property and then ‘personal’ property.
  • Wills usually end with the appointment of executors and sealing and signature/mark in front of witnesses.
  • Probate inventories can also vary considerably in detail. They will often list household furniture and utensils; livestock, crops and equipment.

How do I find a Cheshire will?

Search our online database  to either order original wills in the Record Office searchroom, free of charge, or order copies online.

I can't find the will I'm looking for.  Can I try anywhere else?

If you think that a will was made, but you haven't been able to find it on the wills database, there are a number of options:

Before 1858

  • Unfortunately a number of wills which we know existed in the early 20th century were lost prior to their deposit in the Cheshire Record Office.
  • Prior to 1858, if a person held property in more than one diocese their will would have been proved in an archbishop's court (or Prerogative Court).  The records of the Prerogative Court of York are held at the Borthwick Institute in York, while records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury are held at the National Archives.
  • Cheshire wills proved between 1650 and 1660 are to be found within the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

After 1858

  • Check the calendars of grants of probate, which we hold on microfiche for the years 1858-1943 (also available via the Peoples Network's Ancestry subscription. These will tell you the  court at which probate was granted.  They will also give you the names of the executors, the value of the estate and the address of the deceased.
  • Once you have found the date and name of the probate court you can apply to any probate registry for a copy of the will (see http://www.courtservice.gov.uk/cms/wills.htm).  You can also write to:

York Probate Sub-Registry
First Floor
Castle Chambers
Clifford Street
York
YO1 7EA

More information about wills and related records can be found on The National Archives’ website.