A will is a document that details how a person’s real estate is to be disposed of after his death, whereas the testament part concerns personal property.

An executor(s) was appointed by the deceased and pre-1858 they had to apply to the Ecclesiastical courts for probate. For Northamptonshire, this would have been the Archdeaconry of Northampton or the Consistory Court of Peterborough (which includes wills for Rutland as it was part of the diocese at that time).

The index to these wills can be searched online on FindMyPast. The original documents are held at Northants Record Office.

After 1858, probate was granted by the Principal Probate Registry. You can search the Calendars and order copies of the wills at www.probatesearch.service.gov.uk (The Calendars, with some gaps, are also available on Ancestry).

Even if your ancestor was not wealthy it is still worth checking to see if he left a will. If he was a tradesperson (e.g. blacksmith, shopkeeper or husbandman) then he would have had tools and stock to pass on. Wills can contain many clues to the status and wealth of the deceased and also give information on family relationships or lead us to other sources to research.

Now some examples

lastwillRichard Winn, yeoman, (1733) left the sum of 5 shillings each to his sons John and William and to his daughter Elizabeth (Budd). To his other five children he left £50 each at age 21. This does not mean that the first three were cut off but that they were older and had already received their portion of £50, Elizabeth presumably at the time of her marriage.

Bennett Kemp, farmer, (1837) left to his daughter Ann Smith “my book ‘The Rev John Wesley’s Notes and New Testament’ in 2 vols and ½ of my bound and unbound Wesleyan Methodist Magazines”. This tells us he was a Methodist and indeed, entries can be found in the Towcester Methodist Circuit registers.

John Richardson in 1801 left to his son John his milk leads, bucket, churns and dairy utensils together with a copper for brewing, barrels and other brewing utensils. Just these small clues show that he reared cattle on his farmstead and brewed his own ale.

At the other end of the social scale Nicholas Hackett in 1720 made the following bequests: “I give to my gardener and coachman and to my cook, maid and chambermaid that shall live with me at my decease £40 a piece also to my present coachman I give to him all my wearing apparel, swords boots shoe and spurs saving and except my three nightgowns which I give to my two maidservants the cook and chambermaid . . .”

Elizabeth James in 1722 gave to her sons Peter and William various closes of land and money “and I order that my son Peter make payment £3 a year to my son Thomas to be paid quarterly provided that he doth behave himself civilly towards all his brothers and sisters and not to commence any vexation suits either in law or equity”. Thomas did not take too kindly to only having a quarterly allowance. In 1730 he commenced a suit in the Chancery Court suggesting that his brother Peter had coerced their mother in depriving him of his inheritance, but that’s another story!

Up to around 1770, probate records would also include an inventory of the deceased possessions and these can add fascinating details to our ancestors’ lives including, if we are lucky, the number of rooms in their home and the contents within the rooms, and perhaps stock and implements of trade. Some inventories can be very detailed, others less so.

George Odell’s (1682) cottage included a parlour with a bed and 1 old coffer, a chamber over the firehouse with “a sorry bedstead, broken”, the firehouse itself houses one old kettle and old table. In the barn was a “small quantity of hay with a little wood and 8 sorry sheep”.

What will you find in the Probate records?