England’s Origins.net has a remarkable National Wills Index database that you can search FREE of charge. The following newletter discusses their extensive collection along with an explanation of the value of wills to the family history researcher:
Between 1541 and 1836 the diocese of Lichfield and Coventry was extensive, covering the entire counties of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, north Shropshire and north Warwickshire. The bishop of Lichfield and Coventry had jurisdiction over probate in this area, which was exercised through the Lichfield Consistory Court.
The index to over 28,300 wills and testamentary documents recorded in the Lichfield Consistory Court 1650-1700 is now available to search on the National Wills Index. This index – British Record Society Volume 125 – includes names of testator / testatrix,occupation and place of abode, which will help you to locate the original document at Lichfield Record Office.
The National Wills Index is the largest online resource for pre-1858 English probate material, containing indexes, abstracts and source documents, most not available anywhere else online.
The value of wills to the family history researcher
Quite apart from the intrinsic interest of seeing what land or personal possessions belonged to an ancestor, wills are valuable documents because of the genealogical information they provide. And they are exceptional in the first-hand nature of their evidence.
At the most basic level, a will provides evidence of the death of an ancestor; the date on which the will is proved gives an approximate date of death. Where you have been unable to trace a death or burial record, the will may be the only evidence of death; or, in the case of a common name, it may confirm which of several burial entries in a parish register refers to a particular ancestor.
Unlike census records, which describe only an ancestor’s household, a will often provides evidence of the wider family, including nephews, nieces and grandchildren, and can be used to confirm family relationships deduced from records of birth or baptism. One of the great virtues of wills is they spell out the relationship to the testator of everyone mentioned. For example, bequests to a married daughter or her children should make it possible to identify the record of daughter’s marriage and the baptisms of the ancestor’s grandchildren.
Outside the gentry, who have sometimes left complete pedigrees, wills are almost the only independent source of confirmation for family relationships suggested by baptismal and marriage records. And if you are researching the period before parish registers, a will may be the only evidence for a lineage.
But the value of wills goes beyond the pedigree — they also provide information on theoccupation and social status of an ancestor, indicate the closeness or otherwise of therelationship to a spouse and children, and may allow you to identify in the present day ahouse or land owned by the family.
The National Wills Index is the largest online resource for pre-1858 English probate material.