Wills and how to transcribe them

I posted an answer on a facebook group this morning about how I go about transcribing wills, and it ocurred to me that I hadn’t blogged about that here. I’ve become much better at doing this as I’ve gained experience, which I will share.

One of the first things to check if you use Ancestry, is that someone hasn’t already posted a transcription of the will. Until recently it hadn’t occurred to me to do that, I’d attach the original of the will to the person, but my transcription would be stored in my folder for the individual on my computer. Having been collaborating with a really wonderful researcher on one family I am looking at, I noticed that she attaches everything to her individuals including transcripts, and I am determined to do the same from now on.

I learned only relatively recently that there is a facility in windows to split the screen.  I had always placed documents side by side and been frustrated by their tendency to suddenly go full screen and fight with me. My son observed me wrestling with a document which wouldn’t stay in its place, and showed me how to do this formally.

How to split your screen properly

You open the two things you want to see side by side. Then, grab the one you want on the right as though you were trying to move it off the screen altogether, by taking hold of the top of the window, and dragging it towards the right hand side.  Keep it below the top of the screen or you may get four sections instead of two! (If you want four sections, you drag the first item to the top right hand corner, and can then choose three more.)

The right hand window will be fixed in place and the computer will offer you a thumbnail of the other windows you have open.  Choose the one you want to open on the left hand side, and it will click into place.  You can vary the relative size of the two windows by dragging the central divide to one side or the other. When I am transcribing wills I generally make the source document on the left larger than the document I am typing into on the right.

It’s one of those things you either know or don’t know.  I didn’t know, and it has been a revelation I wanted to share!

How to transcribe

People approach this in different ways.  Some print out the will and then transcribe, some dictate into a microphone, but in general I find having the document on the screen, so that I can enlarge it if necessary, is best for me. I tend to type up the will as quickly as I can, leaving ?? where I can’t read a word or am unsure of it. How hard a will is to read varies very widely; a secretary hand will can be very difficult indeed. If it IS in secretary hand, you may want to print out one of the guides available online. I tend to find the capital letters in secretary hand a lot more difficult than the lower case letters.

Once you’ve been through the will once, you may find that things you couldn’t decipher on that first run through start to become easier to read. Somehow, once you have started to recognize the way that people write, you begin to find you’ve “got your eye in” and can interpret the less readable things more easily.

Common phrases in old wills

Some of the ease with which I read wills has just come with experience. You begin to recognise the phrases used in wills over and over, and so once you have deciphered one word or two in a sentence, can guess much more easily what the rest will be.  For example, “their heirs, administrators and assigns” is a phrase used frequently. Here is a list of the ones I see over and over again:

In the name of God amen

I [name of testator] of [place] [occupation]


This is the last will and testment of me [name of testator] [occupation of testator] of [place].

being ancient and infirm in body but of sound and disposing mind and memory

I do hereby give, devise and bequeath

Item I give and devise and bequeath

my messuages lands tenements and hereditaments with the appurtenances

situate lying and being

during the term of her natural life

of lawfull English money

unto the said [name of beneficiary] for the term of his natural life

unto the said [name of beneficiary] his heirs administrators and assigns forever

unto the said [name of beneficiary] and the heirs of his body lawfully begotten

sett my hand and seale this [four and twentieth (for example)] day of the year of our Lord [One thousand six hundred and eight three (for example)]

Latin texts and wills in other languages

I can’t really advise on Latin texts. Often there are abbreviations which make it impossible to put the words through a translator and make sense of the result, although Google Translate does translate Latin.  The Latin used in legal documents is different from classical Latin too.

Translating wills from other languages is tricky, because one often has to guess at what word is meant, and that it so much more difficult to do in another language, and impossible if you don’t speak it at all.  Both Google translate and Deepl will be helpful in trying to translate a foreign language document. Deepl is the better of the two for modern languages.

If you are stuck, there are a lot of people willing to help out on Facebook groups or on Rootschat.

Help with deciphering wills

If you’ve done your best and are still defeated by a will, there are places to go for free help with deciphering wills. Rootschat has a forum dedicated to it, and with advice on reading wills of a particular vintage.

Ancestry has a page on deciphering old handwriting and another on reading secretary hand. Looking at a printed alphabet with alternatives for characters is certainly a help with that.

The Bodleian Library has a step by step course on Paleography within its materials on Rycote, and be warned, there’s a rabbit hole of historical wonders surrounding the course! It includes actual examples of letters in its alphabet.

The National Archives also have a free course on Paleography here.

Pharos sell a course in reading secretary hand which costs £62.

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