Find your ancestors in Wills at Salisbury, 1464-1858

Wills at Salisbury, 1464-1858

British Record Society Volumes 122 & 123

Published 2009

Introduction to Original Volume

Probate jurisdictions included:

  • Salisbury Probate Documents
  • The History of the Documents

Note: For Chart references below see the Volume images.

Probate jurisdictions included

One of the best collections of local probate records is held by the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives. These 105,000 records, comprising over 400,000 individual papers the archive of the various probate courts of the diocese of Salisbury. The main courts were the Bishop's Consistory Court, the two Archdeaconry courts (the Archdeaconry of Wiltshire in the north; the Archdeaconry of Sarum in the south of the county), the Sub-Dean's Court covering Salisbury and Stratford sub Castle, and the Dean's Court. In addition, there were several small jurisdictions covering either a single parish or group of parishes, attached to various lay or clerical dignitaries. As a result, there are records for 29 different jurisdictions at the Record Office, covering the whole of Wiltshire, parts of Dorset, Hampshire and Berkshire and the Devon parish of Uffculme. There are a small number of strays from Somerset, Gloucestershire and a number of other counties. In spite of the transfer of the deaneries of Malmesbury and Cricklade to Bristol Diocese in 1836, wills from these areas continued to be proved in the courts of the Archdeacon of Wiltshire and Bishop of Salisbury. A parish map of these jurisdictions is appended to this introduction.

The situation is complicated by the 'inhibition' or taking-over of the jurisdiction of most of the lower level courts every three years by the Bishop's or Dean's courts for a period of about six months. Thus the Consistory Court of Salisbury inhibited the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon of Berkshire. During the Bishop's visitation, wills that were normally proved at the Archdeacon's Court had to be proved in the Bishop's Court. The Dean's Court 'inhibited' those of nearly all the peculiar jurisdictions, the main exception being that of the Dean and Chapter.

Chart 1 shows the proportion of wills from each county. As will be seen, fully one in five of the wills have non-Wiltshire testators.

Salisbury Probate Documents

As elsewhere Salisbury diocesan probate records are concerned generally with people of a lower social status than those whose wills were proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. They are therefore mostly from the ranks of farmers, yeomen, tradesmen and artisans.

Most of the records are original wills and bonds, that is those actually signed by the testator or administrator, although some wills survive as (and sometimes only as) copies entered in registers. Where a person died leaving no will, the right to administer the estate might be applied for to the court. The court required a bond to be entered into (to distribute the estate properly) before granting this. In addition, administrations could be granted even where there was a will, when the executor had died, refused to act (by renouncing their rights) or where the heirs were under age or lunatics, for example. Administration bonds give only the names of next-of-kin and of two or three bondsmen or sureties, who might or might not be relatives. However, they may be made many years after the death, and give details of the surviving family not easily obtainable elsewhere. Inventories of the dead person's goods and chattels also survive, though these are rarely found after about 1750. They vary greatly in length and detail. There arc also about 2,000 16th and 17lh century administrators' accounts.

The relationship between a master or mistress and servants is an interesting one. Popularly supposed to be exploitative or even cruel, the many bequests in wills from masters to servants, often stated in affectionate terms, shows that this was not always the case. Even more touching is the will of Gilbert Pether of Arborfield, who in 1569 left all his estate to his master, Richard Bullocke 'for seeing me kept and cherished while I was sick'. It was not uncommon, indeed, for servants to leave bequests to their masters.

A very interesting will is that of Elizabeth Martyn, the last Prioress of Wintney Priory, Hampshire. Since the priory was suppressed in 1536 at the latest, Elizabeth must have been quite an age when she died in 1587. Although she died at Wokingham, she left money for her body to be conveyed to, and buried at, Hartley Wintney. She gave directions that "a stone should be layd over my grave, with a picture made of a plate of a woman in a long garment with wyde sieves hir handes ioyned together holdinge upon her brcst and figured over her head In te dominc speram non confundor in aeternam. In iustica tua libera me, et salva me." She also directs that "an herse should be standinge over my grave by the space of an whole yere covered with black cotton with a croisse of white fustyan."

Life was very hard for many nuns forced to leave their religious houses, for they had taken lifelong vows of celibacy, and could not marry; Elizabeth Martyn, indeed, describes Jesus as "the only spouse of my sowle", but luckily she had had relatives to turn to in Wokingham, many of whom were remembered in her will. One of her bequests is of her "great ringe with thecrapowlde (toadstone) in itt", and she also left a jacinth ring. She must have given one of them away before her death, though, as her inventory refers to only one ring "that was uppon her fynger when she dyed." It was valued at 2s 6d.

William Payne of Winterslow in his will proved in 1558 left to Thomas Bundy a harness girdle decorated with 62 silver fleur de lys which was to be passed down among future generations of the Bundy family. In 1558 the vicar of Chitterne St Mary made a bequest of his horse with a glass eye. Rather then referring to a cosmetic device it is far more probable that the animal had a cataract which made his eye glazed.

The History of the Documents

In January 1858 civil registries became responsible for probate matters. The Diocesan probate records were sent from Salisbury to the new Principal Probate Registry at Doctors' Commons in London. Conditions there were far from ideal, as Charles Dickens described in David Copperfield:
"I replied ... that perhaps it was a little nonsensical that the Registry of the Court, containing the original wills of all persons leaving effects within the immense province of Canterbury, for three whole centuries, should be an accidental building, never designed for the purpose, leased by the registrars for their own private emolument, unsafe, not even ascertained to be fire-proof, choked with the important documents it held, and positively, from the roof to the basement, a mercenary speculation of the registrars, who took great fees from the public, and crammed the public's wills away anyhow and anywhere, having no other object than to get rid of them cheaply."
In 1874 the wills were moved to Somerset House, home of the General Register Office. Somerset House was not able to cope with the volume of documents it received. Undertaking research there was a challenge: the search room was below ground level and had no artificial light. It closed for 6 weeks in the summer and for a further six weeks it was only open between 1lam and 2.30pm. Furthermore, you were not allowed to visit on more than two days per week!

After the Second World War, the development of a network of county record offices provided a sensible alternative place of deposit for the probate material. The Salisbury wills and administrations were transferred to the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office (renamed Wiltshire and Swindon Archives in 2007) which became the official repository for the records of the diocese of Salisbury.

Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Cocklebury Road, Chippenham, opened in Autumn 2007 and comprises Wiltshire and Swindon Archives and also Local Studies, Archaeology, Conservation and Museum services and the Wiltshire Buildings Record.

The Wiltshire Wills Project

For many years the collection of probate documents had been poorly stored. Instead of lying flat in boxes of a suitable size, they were folded into small parcels and forced into inadequate containers. A significant quantity of the material was in poor condition.

Until recently there was 110 comprehensive, all-embracing index to the records. Each of the courts had its own manuscript index, some arranged chronologically and others by the initial letter of the testator's surname and then by date.

The Wiltshire Wills Project (in fact covering all probate records of the whole diocese of Salisbury), supported by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) of £200,000 and funding from other charitable bodies and individuals, was developed to catalogue and repair the documents and compile a database of them, to be made available freely on the Internet. Once the database was published the Record Office foresaw an increased demand for the collection from researchers. As increased usage would make the material even more vulnerable to damage, it was decided to produce surrogate images of the collection by digitisation.

The documents were flattened and repackaged by a team of volunteers (led by the conservation team), conserved where necessary, and filmed using the digital camera. A state of the art "leaf-casting" machine was used to repair damaged documents. A paper pulp mixture was drained through the holes in the will. The pulp filled the gaps and, as it dried, paper patches formed in the document. In order to ensure that the images produced by the Project are those most suitable for researchers, the Record Office conducted a user evaluation of images of wills, digitised at different levels of colour and resolution. Over 200 readers were consulted and the results of the survey defined the specification for the images. The images were then checked to ensure they were of the highest quality. Full colour images have been made available on DVDs at the Wiltshire and Swindon Archives, and at the Central Reference Library in Swindon. Some 25% of the wills have images available on the online catalogue.

Work progressed steadily, and cataloguing was completed in early 2006. During the cataloguing many misplaced documents were found. A marriage licence bond was discovered with the Dean's wills and has been placed in the main licence scries. An administration bond for the goods of Elizabeth Pratt of Faringdon, issued by the Peculiar Court of Faringdon, was sent to the Berkshire Record Office where it was reunited with Elizabeth Pratt's nuncupative will - the documents had probably been apart for centuries.

Series P30 originally contained over 2,000 documents which while they were transferred to the District Probate Registry had remained in diocesan custody. An index to the Wiltshire documents was published by C.R. Everett in Wiltshire Archaeology Magazine volume 45, 1930 and to the non-Wiltshire material in the Genealogists' Magazine. Some documents were lost between 1930 and 1958 when they came into the Record Office. As the work progressed items from this series were returned to their appropriate court and in many cases matched up with other documents relating to a particular testator. At the conclusion of cataloguing only about 200 documents remained in class P30.

As the printed index was prepared, a large number of further errors and discrepancies were noticed and where necessary corrections made. Indeed this process is one, though only one, of the justifications for the continued production of printed indexes.