The National Archives at Kew holds copies of the "Death duty registers" on microfilm in class IR26.
The page How to look for records of... Death duties 1796-1903 gives a detailed description of the
records. A simplistic explanation is that tax was payable on the estate of a person who died, so the registers
contain a summary of the legacies and legatees, and the amounts of tax due. In some cases, there is more information
in the Death duty register than there is in the will so it is worthwhile to look at the registers.
The Death duty registers are indexed by the first 3 letters of the surname, and the indices which survive can
be searched online on the FindMyPast web-site (the site
charges for viewing the records).
It is possible to view or order copies of the registers for the period 1796-1903 at The National Archives, Kew.
The index to the "Death duty registers" can be used as a way to find out whether a will or administration exists
for a person, and to identify the court in which the grant of probate was made.
Here is an example entry from 1813:
William Wright of Boxford, Suffolk
Bishop of London's CommissaryCourt (Essex + Herts.)
Before 1858 Wills were administered by the Church of England (except for the period of the Civil War)
and there were several levels of courts. For 1653-1660, all wills and administrations are now held as
part of the PCC (Prerogative Court of Canterbury).
Usually there are 2 copies of a will - the original which was written by the testator (or his/her
Attorney), and the registered copy which was created when the will was proved in the relevant court.
Occasionally one of the versions may not exist so, if it is possible, you should check both
collections. Note that for the PCC, the wills available are the registered copies.
I have seen many examples of wills which have been proved in courts other than the ones applicable to
where the person lived. Especially if a person held property, you should check other courts just in case.
Using the Archdeaconry of Suffolk for the period 1444-1700 as an example, here are some counts for places of residence
outside of the area covered by the court:
Cambridgeshire - 2
Essex - 7
Kent - 1
Lincolnshire - 3
London/Middlesex - 6
Norfolk - Many
West Suffolk - Many [i.e. parishes within the Archdeaconry of Sudbury]
Surrey - 1
The British Record Society publishes indices
to the wills and administrations proved before 1858 and you may find it worthwhile to buy or look at the books that
they have published. Many of these books have now been added to the FindMyPast web-site.
These have all been indexed, digitised and published on the Essex Archives Online web-site. Searching the index is free but it is necessary to buy
a subscription to be able to view and/or download the images of original wills.
Canterbury Cathedral Archives has published the full calendar of wills and administations proved in the
Canterbury Archdeaconry and Consistory Courts (note that this does not include the Prerogative Court of
Canterbury) on the page
Canterbury Probate Records (1396-1858)
The lowest level was the local manorial court which could administer transfers of land. I've only
come across one (possible) example of this so far.
The next level up was the courts of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury [West Suffolk] and the
Archdeaconry of Suffolk [East Suffolk].
The deaneries in the Archdeaconry of Sudbury were:
Clare [south-western Suffolk].
Fordham [Mildenhall area and some parishes in Cambridgeshire].
Hartismere (until 1837, but see below).
Stow (until 1837, but see below).
Thedwastre [the area to the east of Bury St. Edmunds].
Thingoe [Bury St. Edmunds and the parishes to the west of it].
The deaneries in the Archdeaconry of Suffolk were:
Carlford [north-east of Ipswich].
Colneis [Felixstowe area]
Hartismere (after 1837, but see below).
Loes [Framlingham area].
Samford [the southern part of Suffolk bordering Essex].
Stow (after 1837, but see below).
Note that for the period 1837-1858, the parishes within the deaneries of Stow and Hartismere
still belonged to the Court of the Archdeaconry of Sudbury even though the deaneries
were moved to the Archdeaconry of Suffolk Archdeaconry of Suffolk for other purposes.
Several parishes were in Peculiars - they were administered by other courts. The parishes were:
Rushford was in the Archdeaconry of Norfolk.
Bramford and Thetford were in the Archdeaconry of Norwich.
Freckenham and Isleham were in a Peculiar of the Bishop of Rochester, Kent.
Hadleigh, Monks Eleigh and Moulton were in the Peculiar of the Archbishop
of Canterbury in the Deanery of Bocking.
These wills are held at
Essex Record Office at Chelmsford.
The page Suffolk Parishes shows the Deanery or
Peculiar to which each parish belonged.
The next level up was the Consistory Court of Norwich which covered most of East Anglia.
These wills are held at
Norfolk Record Office.
The highest level was the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (except for very complex cases involving
These wills are held at The National
When you look at the indices, if you see 'Pts' as the county this means that the
person was either on a ship or held properties abroad (e.g. in the Colonies, India, USA, etc.)
How did this work?
The court which granted probate was determined on two criteria - the value of the estate; and whether
the court had jurisdiction over the location of the properties in the will.
Taking the Fuller family of Buxhall/Stowmarket as an example:
Most of the wills were proved and administrations granted in the Archdeaconry Court
of Sudbury because all of the farmland was in the Buxhall area.
John Fuller of Stowmarket's will was proved at Norwich (3) because some of the property
was in East Suffolk and possibly because the executor, Alexander Dykes, was a Quaker.
The wills of Robert Fuller of Buxhall and the descendants of John Fuller of Long
Melford were all proved in the PCC (4) because of the value of the estates, the complexity of
ownership of Leffey Hall in Buxhall and because of other properties scattered around East Anglia.