Willpower by Meryl Catty

Reading branch talk 30th March 2017

Meryl, as usual, gave a wonderful talk about wills and their uses to family historians. She started by stressing the fact that probate records are a valuable resource for family historians. Meryl then took us on a journey back in time to meet some ancestors. We met town folk, country folk, great landowners, tenant farmers, merchants, tradesmen, clergy, soldiers, sailors, men and women.

Firstly we went to 1984, the Pyte household in Suffolk. Mistress Mary is sick with smallpox and decides to put her affairs in order (make a will). She names items and who they were to be given to (friends, family and servants). John Pyte, her brother, is to be executor. Mr Aldous (will writer) would not enter the house but had the details for Marys will relayed to him. Unfortunately’ Mary died before the will was written up. ‘Death bed’ or unsigned wills are known as nuncupative wills.

Regardless of your ancestors apparent status or wealth, always look for a will – how do you know your ancestors were too poor to leave one, unless you look for one.

What is a will?

A will is a document by which a person specifies what happens to their property. A ‘will’ covers property and a ‘testament’ covers belongings.

One or more executor must be appointed, and once drawn up, a will must be signed by the testator (will maker) and 1 or 2 witnesses, unless it nuncupative, when people who know the testator may be asked to make an affidavit to say the will is the testators wishes. The testator can amend a will by making a codicil.

No will means the deceased died intestate. Letters of administration (letters of admon.) can be applied for.

If there is a non-legal will (no living executor, not witnessed, etc.) letters of admon can be granted with the will annexed.

Wills are personal and sometimes allow unexpected insight into the lives of ancestors.

In England and Wales, pre-1858 wills were proved in ecclesiastical courts (peculiar, archdeacon, consistory or prerogative court of York or Canterbury).

From 1858, wills are proved at either the principal probate registry in London or in local probate registries.

Some wills do not get produced for probate.

Bigsby Pytes will of 1806 mentions the will of his father Jeremiah, although no other trace of Jeremiah can be found. Never ignore a will. All sorts of people made wills. They can be a great source for family historians. They can detail family relationships, occupations, land holdings, status, personal property and even hints of feuds.

Elements of a will

Introduction – wills may start with one of the following

            In the name of God Amen …..

            The last will and testament …..

            In memorandum …. (likely to be nuncupative)


Name of testator

Statement of health (especially in older wills) – generally a statement of mental health. This practice seems

to have died out by the end of 1700s.

 Burial instructions

Distribution of property – beneficiaries are named

Appoint executor (male) or executrix (female) – it is customary for a man to appoint his wife as executrix.

The wording used in wills can give a clue as to the state of a marriage – ‘beloved’ would indicate a happy marriage.

Sometimes a widow’s legacy is conditional on her remaining a widow.

Family relationships can be described.

Wills can detail real estate (free- or copyhold property). Testaments detail personal property and leasehold property.

Executor, probate and burial costs all have to be paid out of the estate first and then any legacies are honoured.

Admons – these give little genealogical information, but do give an approximate date and place of death. Additional documents provided can lead to unexpected discoveries.

Meryl gave lots of examples from wills throughout her presentation. 

Additional information