Once upon a time, the location of wills was such an arcane subject that books were written on the subject. So before ordering a copy of a will, you had to find out where it was, track down the will you wanted to order and work out how to order it. Things have become a lot simpler over the past twenty years; the internet has made locating things easier, and ordering too. However it’s still not straightforward, and the National Archives refers people to Wills and their whereabouts by Anthony J. Camp, even to this day.
So what can you find out from a will? Just as today, wills may have a lot of information and go on for pages and pages, or they may have very little. The very least you can expect to find if you locate a will for your ancestor is their name and address and probably occupation, their next of kin, and an idea of the extent of their possessions or fortune. If you are lucky, you may get an extensive list of their relations and who they are married to, the relationships in the family, occupations for some of them and a detailed list of possessions and who they are willed to. If you are exceptionally lucky, you may get some very obscure information. As they do today, some people put a lot of detail into their wills, and others very little.
In my family tree, I have an Archibald Campbell MD, married on 6 March 1776 to a Mary Lycett. Further research brought me the information that her father, Francis Lycett (1712-1773), was married to an Ann Tompson or Thompson, a very common name. Searching for information to pin down the link for “my” Ann Tompson, from Mary Lycett I came across a will for Francis Lycett, her husband, with an extremely rare annotation in the margin of the registered copy, which gave me not only the link, as it referred to Mary Campbell, wife of Archibald Campbell, doctor of physic, in the list of appointed executors, along with her brothers and sisters. The reason for the annotation was that Francis Lycett had appointed his brothers in law to be his executors, but they predeceased him. His son, Francis Lycett was then appointed executor in their place, but he tragically died by falling downstairs before he could complete the probate on his father’s estate. His brothers and sisters were all then appointed as executors in his place. So that one little annotation to the will’s contents gave quite a lot of genealogical information in one lump.
English wills and probate from 1858 to present, and serving soldiers wills from 1850 to 1986, have to be ordered through the Government wills and probate service. The search is online, there is a £10 cost and up to a ten day delay and the delivery of the will is an online download. You only have a few days to download the will, and it may not take as long as ten days to get the download link, and so it is best to keep vigilant for the email from them.
English Wills before 1858 were dealt with by prerogative courts at different centres in the country. The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) dealt with the south of England and Wales, although if you are looking for a Welsh will, try the National Library of Wales (see below) because access to the images is free (although downloads are not). The National Archive has a guidance page on what can be found on their website, and you may find some wills available free of charge in archives around the country. Access to the wills held by the National Archive is free if you are physically at the national archive but they make a charge for access remotely. The last time I ordered one it was around £3.50, but it may have gone up. You will get a warning about the charge applicable before you order, however. Some of these images are available free from Ancestry or Find My Past with a current subscription.
The Prerogative Court of York (PCY) dealt with wills from York, Durham, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and the Isle of Man. The index for these files is on Find My Past, and copies of either the original probate file (complete with ancestor’s signature) or the registered copy (which will not have ancestor’s signature) can be ordered on their site. Original probate files cost £13.50 at the time of writing (February 2018) and the registered copies are £7.50.
If you have Welsh ancestors and are looking for a will before 1858, the National Library of Wales gives online access to copies of wills among a great deal more. Their search facility allows you to search by name or more generally by surname. You can enlarge the image on your screen and see it for free, and they do offer a copy of the will for a charge.
It seems utterly unfair to me that Scotland is a different case again. Wills proved in Scotland up to 1925 are on the Scotlands People website and charges are made for access to them. (They charge 10 credits for access to will images.) This page on the National Records for Scotland website gives some detail about wills in Scotland.
The main image at the top of the page shows a page of Shakespeare’s will from Wikipedia/Wikimedia commons and is in the public domain.