The History of Wills

reading time 3 minutes

As Will Aid approaches, the annual month where people are encouraged to prepare a will in exchange for a donation to charity, we thought we’d look at the history of wills and how they came about.

Before the Statute of Wills was established in 1540, it wasn’t generally possible to bequeath land to people. Before this, if someone died without any living relatives, his land went to the Crown. Great for Henry VIII, but not so the landlords, and the Statute of Wills was a compromise between him and the country’s movers and shakers who’d grown frustrated with royal control of the land.

The Statute of Wills established requirements that survive to this day—a will must be written, signed by the testator and witnessed by two people.

Probate Registry

In 1858, the authorities established the Principal Probate Registry where a copy of every will provided was kept, as well as letters of administration. Up until that point, the Church ran probate courts to ensure the terms of a will were followed. In the mid-19th century, the bulk of people did not leave wills thanks to the vast differences between the rich and poor.

Embarking on a long sea voyage or taking part in military campaigns often encouraged people to leave wills. In those days, sudden deaths happened frequently, and often family members were forced to apply for letters of administration when a person who held substantial assets died intestate.

The Principal Probate Registry holds a record—an index of all wills known as the National Probate Calendar, and you can find archived copies of this on popular genealogy websites. When the registry was established, district probate registries were created around the country.

Gifts for mourners

Wills written in the 19th century tend to follow a general pattern, usually beginning with the words, ‘In the name of God Amen’. The testator then states his mental competence. Often, will writing only took place when death was imminent, and wills usually contained instructions about the disposal of the body and what form the memorial took. Gifts for mourners or local residents also featured in many wills, then the list of bequests. Wills usually ended with the date and the point that all former wills were revoked. Then, the testator and two witnesses signed the document.

Bequests in early wills often included bed linen and brassware—then items of great value. Terms used such as cousin, stepson or daughter-in-law didn’t have the same meaning as they do now, so modern interpretations of old wills can be tricky.

If someone died without a will and authority was needed to dispose of the estate, the court or registry would give a grant of Letters of Administration (Admon). These didn’t contain much information—usually just the name, residence and occupation of the appointed administrator—a family member most of the time.

Executors died

Admon with Will Attached applied in cases where the executors have died or have refused to execute the will.

Danny Curran, founder and managing director of Finders International, said: “The bulk of our work involves searching for wills, and the history of the document is fascinating. While most people in earlier centuries won’t have thought it worth their while to write one, nowadays this isn’t the case.

“If you don’t write a will, you risk your estate being distributed according to the laws of intestacy, which may go against what you wanted. I’d urge everyone who doesn’t currently have a will to take advantage of Will Aid this November and have one drawn up. It’s relatively inexpensive and will benefit charities too.”

With thanks to the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society.