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Legal history: England & common law tradition: Inheritance, wills & probate


Inheritance law to 20 & 21 Victoria

Real property/realty - land which was held or possessed (seisin)
Chattels real -  legal right to occupy land (eg leases for terms of years)


Suggested starting points

Real Property: inheritance & estates in Baker's IECL Legal Hist B167a5  & check for  index for chattels see p 386-7​ 

The Oxford History of the Laws of England. Vol. 6, chap. 39. Prof Baker goes into more detail about transfer of title & working of doctrine of estates and chattels in early modern period.


Chapter 7 Testamentary Law and Probate Jurisdiction in the work below:

To find what books earlier generations of legal practitioners and their clients may have consulted, try the big digital libraries such as 
EEBO (Early English Books Online)  or ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online)
If you don't already have an author/title in mind, subject searches to try in both of the above are 

Wills Great Britain
Forms (Law) Great Britain 
Guardian and ward--Great Britain 
Executors and administrators--Great Britain 

In SOLO to find works about inheritance law use these words in subject search

Inheritance  and succession early works
Executors and administrators

Limit by England also - then try again with Great Britain.

In SOLO subject search terms to try to find calendars of and works based on the documents/archives resulting from the legla requirements are
Wills -- England
Probate Records -- England
Inventories  of decedents' estates -- England



Archives for wills pre 1858

Where a will was proved depended - to a large degree - on the 3 factors

  • where the person died
  • value of the goods
  • how these goods were distributed geographically

For people of means

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury covered the south of England and Wales. It also dealt with wills involving property in both the south and northern provinces.

The Prerogative Court of York covered York, Durham, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and the Isle of Man.

For lesser people, try the local county record office for guidance as there were less grand diocesan courts.

In SOLO you may find that county historical societies have been active in producing indexes to (and sometimes transcripts of) surviving wills and probate inventories for their areas (Try Wills -- England -- county as a subject search)

You don't have to be a family historian to find the guide below useful!