Reading Branch meeting 29th September 2022

Speaker: Sue Ellis

Sue took us on a liberally illustrated look at wills, what they look like, what terminology they include and what information they can give a family historian.

Wills were first recorded by the ancient Greeks mainly to explain how to dispose of a person’s estate of there were no male heirs. Roman wrote wills too.

272-337AD saw the start of the church’s involvement in wills.

From the Middle Ages, there are two wills still in existence, those of King Alfred and his nephew. During this time wills were proved exclusively by ecclesiasts. Wills have been used to estimate that 60% of the country’s population of 60,000 died in the black death.

Wills cover land (real estate) which id ‘devised’ to beneficiaries, and personal estate (belongings, jewellery, clothes, furniture, etc.) which is ‘bequeathed’. Prior to 1837, wills that included real estate only covered land that belonged to the testator up to the date of the wills writing. Land acquired after the writing of the will and before the testator’s death were not covered. This changed in 1837 to cover all land owned by the testator at their death.

A nuncupative will is one that is spoken in front of a clerk and witnesses but remained unsigned. These were quite often death bed wills.

A holographic will is one written by the testator. Before 1837 they were regarded as legal even if they were not signed. These must be witnessed to be valid these days.

A codicil was an add-on to a will. These could be to revoke, amend or add a legacy.

Grants of administration – ‘admons’ are grated when no will was written or found or where a named executor did not/was not able to complete their duties.

An ‘admon with will annexed’ is where a will is complete, but no executor has been named.

An ‘admon with will annexed of goods not administered’ is where the testator dies, shortly followed by their spouse. Meaning that the estate goes to the testators’ child/children instead of the spouse.

Anyone who had belongings to dispose of upon their death could write a will. But not everyone was legally entitled to write one, such as married women (until 1882), criminals, those deemed not capable (deaf, learning difficulty or mental health issues), and children/adolescents. Until 1837 this was girls under 12 years, boys under 14 years, and after 1837 was anyone under 21 (unless they were in military or maritime service).

In a will you will find a standard layout starting with a preamble/beginning (name, address, occupation and a possible date of writing) and a statement of mental capacity (may state ‘weak of body’ which could indicate an aged or ill testator). The old style of preamble died out in the mid 1800s and became much simpler. Will also started to be written earlier in a person’s life rather than shortly before their death.

The main content of a will would describe the bequests of property. This is where you can find details of relationships, married names of daughters, names of grandchildren, remarriages and family disputes.

Inventories can sometime be found attached to wills (all wills should have one, but this is not the case. They list the testators’ belongings at their death. They tend to stop being completed by the 19th century.

To find a will, you need to know when it was proved. Prior to 1858 wills were mainly proved by the local bishop or archdeacon. Wills proved in the prerogative Court of Canterbury can be found at The National Archives. After 1858 wills were, and are, held by the Probate Office. A National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations) is viewable on subscription websites for wills 1858-1966.

Useful Sources

Berkshire Wills Index 1480-1857

Family Search


Berkshire Record Society:
Berkshire Archdeaconry Probate Records 1480-1652 Parts I (Names), II (Place Names) and III (Occupations)
Berkshire Probate Accounts 1583-1712

British Record Society
Index to wills proved and administrations granted in the Court of the Archdeacon of Berks 1508-1652 (pub 1893)
Index of the probate records of the Court of the Archdeacon of Berkshire Vol 2. 1653-1710 (pub 1975)

Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) Wills 1384-1858

Probate Office Records – post 1858