Find your ancestors in Wills and Administrations Exeter Principal Registry 1559-1799 (Devon and Cornwall) ans Wills and Administrations Archdeaconry of Exeter (Devon) 1540-1799, Introduction

Introduction to Original Volume

Wills and Administrations Exeter Principal Registry 1559-1799 (Devon and Cornwall)

Wills and Administrations Archdeaconry of Exeter (Devon) 1540-1799

British Record Society volume 35

Published 1914

It is somewhat difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the records in the Probate Registry at Exeter to find his way through the intricacies of the various calendars, so the following notes are offered chiefly as a guide for beginners.

Assuming that the searcher knows the residence of the testator or intestate, and the approximate date of his death, he may learn from the accompanying descriptive list in which calendars search should first be made for the probate of the will, or the administration of the estate, and as a rule he should search (i) the calendar of the Archidiaconal Court in whose jurisdiction the residence was situated, (2) the calendar of the Bishop's Principal Registry, and (3) that of his Consistory Court. But if this search should fail to disclose the record of the desired will or administration, he should patiently examine one calendar after another; for, as has been well said, the method adopted by the registrars of the various courts in the old days resembled a game of 'grab', each one desiring to enter a cause in his own court, probably with an eye to the fee. This frequently resulted in the entry of a will and various copies of the same in several courts, to the discomfort, no doubt, of the heirs and to the diminution of the estate. It will be seen how this was possible through the overlapping of the different jurisdictions.

The old wills now preserved in the present Registry were transferred from their various depositories in 1858, under Statute 20 and 21 Vict., c. 77, sect. 89. Before that date they were scattered throughout the diocese. The Episcopal Principal Registry kept its documents in the Bishop's Muniment Room over St. James's Chapel in the Cathedral Church of Exeter; and over the north porch of the Cathedral were deposited those of the Consistory Courts of the Bishop, of the Dean and Chapter, and of the Archdeacon of Exeter; those of the Peculiar of the Vicars Choral were preserved in their Registrar's office; and those of the other archdeaconries were stored, one in the parish church of Barnstaple and the other in a house in Totnes; with respect to the eighth court, the Peculiar of the Dean of Exeter, the last Deputy-Registrar also filled the same office in the Consistory Court of the Archdeacon of Barnstaple, and it is believed that the wills of the Peculiar Court were also kept at Barnstaple, or, at any rate, during his Deputy-Registrarship, and probably in the same place as those of the Archidiaconal Court.

It was, therefore, a red-letter day for the archaeological student when all these documents were transferred to their present resting-place in Exeter. The above system of keeping them, and the alterations that possibly occurred from time to time as changes of Registrar took place, may account for the loss of a good many of the very early wills.

A curious custom explains certain gaps in some of the calendars, viz., that during the two months in which the Bishop visited the different archdeaconries their courts were inhibited, all testamentary business during that period being transacted in his Principal Registry. As his visitations formerly included the Archdeaconry of Cornwall, and as he had jurisdiction over ail persons dying within the Diocese of Exeter possessed of personalty in more than one subordinate jurisdiction within the said diocese, and over all beneficed clergy dying within the said diocese, not possessed of bona notabilia in any other diocese, a large number of old Cornish wills are in this registry. Many more are also to be found in the Consistory Courts of the Bishop, and of the Dean and Chapter of Exeter. But it should be mentioned that all the wills proved in the Consistorial Archidiaconal Court of Cornwall, including those of the Devon parishes of North Petherwyn, St. Giles in the Heath, Northcot, and Werrington, and in the Court of the Royal Peculiar of St. Buryan (which also included the parishes of St. Levan and St. Sennen), are at Bodmin. There was one other court, that of the Prebendary of Uffculme in the Cathedral Church of Salisbury, which had jurisdiction over the whole parish of Uffculme, and the records of this are not in Exeter. The documents belonging to it prior to 1800 are preserved at Somerset House, and from that date in the District Registry at Salisbury. Its earliest recorded will is dated 1623, and the calendar contains 329 entries between that date and 1857, or an average of something less than one and a half wills per annum. 1

It will be apparent from the foregoing statements that although there are eleven courts mentioned as belonging to Devon in the Parliamentary Paper (No. 177) dealing with the authorities for granting Probate of Wills and Letters of Administration in England and Wales, printed in 1829, the records of only eight remain in Exeter, the two belonging to Cornwall and the one belonging in the above circumstances to Salisbury being elsewhere.

Genealogists should also note that wills from the parish of Thorncombe, now in the county of Dorset and diocese of Salisbury, will, prior to 5th October, 1836, be found at Exeter, but that wills from the parishes of Stockland and Dalwood, now in the county of Devon and diocese of Exeter, will not, prior to the above date, be found there, the respective jurisdictions having then been exchanged by Order in Council. For Thorncombe wills since such date, and Stockland and Dalwood wills prior thereto, search must be made at Blandford. 2

It should be mentioned that there are not many Act Books at Exeter devoted to recording letters of administration, and that there are no books of registered wills from the early part of the seventeenth to the latter part of the eighteenth century, so that, during that period, the genealogist, even though he has the 'literary permit' of the Principal Probate Registry, will, when he has been so fortunate as to find the will or administration wanted, be obliged to pay the search fee of 1s for the production of the original documents.

It will be noticed that the earliest date of any will now extant at the Probate Registry in Exeter is 1532, in the Consistory Court of the Bishop, but a small number of originals and transcripts are still preserved in the archives of the Dean and Chapter, viz. thirteen original and five copy wills, together with the probate of a will and an extract from some court rolls relating to another will, and seventeen of these documents are prior to the Act 21 Henry VIII (1529), which amended the law as to probate and administration. The dates of the whole range from 1257 3 to 1786. Two of these wills, and many others entered in the Episcopal Registers, have been given at length in the various volumes of Prebendary Hingeston-Randolph's Registers of the Bishops of Exeter.

Other single wills or groups of wills may be found scattered through various more or less ephemeral publications, most of them being copies of those at the Probate Registry. Several wills, dealing with legacies to the city or its charities, were copied and preserved among the Exeter City Muniments; some of these were printed in Notes and Gleanings, an archaeological journal published in the years 1888-92. 4

There is also a work by the late Charles Worthy, entitled Devon Wills, which sounds promising, but it contains only abstracts of wills that possessed some particular interest to the editor.

In most of the calendars there are gaps during the disturbed period of the Civil Wars. In the Archdeaconries of Barnstaple, Totnes, and Exeter no wills were proved between 1645, 1648, 5 and 1653, respectively, and 1660, while in the Dean's Court the gap is from 1651 to 1660; in the Dean and Chapter's Court from 1652 to 1660 (but there are in the calendar of this court notes of three wills proved and five administrations granted in London from 1654 to 1659); and in the Bishop's Principal Registry from 1653 to 1660; but the other two courts have a few stray documents even down to 1659.

In the year 1858 the separate courts were abolished, and since then ail Devon wills and grants of administration (including those of the three Devon parishes mentioned above as being in the Archdeaconry of Cornwall) have been recorded either in the District Probate Registry at Exeter or the Principal Probate Registry in London.

By Order in Council of 5th August, 1875, two other Devon parishes, viz. Broadwoodwidger and Virginstowe, were transferred from the Archdeaconry of Totnes to that of Cornwall, and on 23rd March, 1896, under the Local Government Act of 1888, there were transferred Churchstanton from Devon to Somerset, and Chardstock and Hawkchurch from Dorset to Devon, but none of these changes affected the various testamentary jurisdictions.

It is only necessary to add, for the benefit of those who are ignorant of the course of procedure in Probate Courts, that the wills proved in each provincial court were of testators possessing property within the jurisdiction of that court alone; if a testator possessed property in more than one diocese, it was necessary that his will should be proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the records of which are at Somerset House in London.

List of Calendars at the District Probate Register at Exeter

Date of Earliest WillStyleExtent of jurisdiction for Probate of Wills and Letters of Administration
1553Principal Registry of the Bishop of ExeterOverall persons dying within the Diocese of Exeter possessed of personalty in divers archdeaconries or other jurisdictions within the said diocese all beneficed clergy dying within the said diocese not possessed of bona notabilia in any other diocese; and all persons dying within the archdeaconries during the inhibition by the Bishop of the archdeacons.
1532Consistory Court of the BishopOverall persons dying within the following thirty-seven parishes, which were Peculiars :— 
  Bishop's Nympton
  Bishop's Tawton
  Bishop's Teignton
  Stoke Gabriel
  West Teignmouth.
  Padstow {in rurc)
  St. Anthony in Roseland
  St. Breoke
  St. Buclock
  St. Erney
  St. Ervan
  St. Eval
  St. German's
  St. Gerrans
  St. Gluvias
  St. Issey
  St. Mabe
  St. Mcrryn
  St. Petrock Minor
  South Petherwyn
  Also to grant Probates of Wills per testes over the whole diocese, when there were not bona notabilia within two or more jurisdictions within the diocese.
1547Consistory Court of the the Dean and ChapterOver all persons dying within the following of the Dean and twenty-eight parishes, which were Peculiars of the Dean and Chapter:- 
  Clyst Honiton
  East Teignmouth
  King's Carswell
  Littleham with Exmouth
  St. Mary Church
  Salcombe Regis
  Stoke Canon
  St. Agnes
  St. Winnow with St. Nectan.
1632Peculiar Court of the DeanThe Close of the Cathedral Church of Exeter and the parish of Braunton, Devon.
1633Peculiar Court of the Custos and College of Vicars Choral of the CathedralParish of Woodbury, Devon.
1540Consistorial Archidiaconal Court of ExeterThroughout the archdeaconry, with the exception of the above-named Peculiars of the Bishop, Dean and Chapter, Dean, Vicars Choral, and Prebendary of Uffculme.
1563Consistorial Archidiaconal Court of BarnstapleThroughout the archdeaconry, with the exception of the above-named Peculiars of the Bishop and Dean.
1600Consistorial Archidiaconal Court of TotnesThroughout the archdeaconry, with the exception of the above-named Peculiars of the Bishop and Dean and Chapter.

The Prebendal Court of Uffculme.

(For six months, during the Dean of Salisbury's triennial inhibition, his Peculiar Court had jurisdiction, and that of the Prebendal Court was in abeyance.)

From 1623 to 1799 the documents have been transferred to Somerset House, London. From the year 1800 they are still at Salisbury.

The Mayor's Court, at the Guildhall, Exeter. Contains a good many Wills commencing at 1263.

King's Court or Customary Court of the City of Exeter at the Guildhall, Exeter. Contains Wills commencing at 12S1.

In the Library of the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth there are preserved 35 Wills and 30 Administrations of Devon, persons dying within the province of Canterbury; a full list of all these documents is given in The Genealogist. Wills in vol. v, 211, 324; vi, 23, 127, 217. Administrations in vol. vii, 204, 271. New Series, vol. i, 80. They range from 1358 to 1581.



1. From a list kindly furnished by Mr. H. Elliott Fox, District Probate Registrar for Wiltshire, it appears that the highest average of wills per annum was reached between 1661 and 1699, when there were 2*66; arid the lowest between 1720 and 1780, when they scarcely reached o'6.

2. Two or three Thorncombe wills were proved at Exeter about 1840, possibly in error.

3. It may be interesting to note that the document of this date is an early, but not contemporary, copy of the will of Walter Gervase, the public-spirited citizen and former Mayor of Exeter, through whose efforts the first Exc Bridge was built and lands purchased for its maintenance, at the cost of 10,000, and who is said to lie under the church of St. Edmund " on the Bridge " as it then was.

4. The City Council has in its custody seventy-one wills (or copies), together with a grant of administration, extracts from two wills, memoranda of a will, and instructions for a will (the dates of the seventy-six documents ranging from 1555 to 1772); and also 212 inventories (ranging in date from 1560 to 1721), forty-five of which apparently belong to a like number of the above wills.

5. There is one will in the Totnes Court as late as 1659, and in the bundle for 1647 is the will of John Harvay, of North Petherwyn, proved in 1650, which, as that parish (as above stated) is in the Archdeaconry of Cornwall, ought, presumably, to be among the documents of the Bishop's Principal Registry, or of his Consistory Court.