Wills are an important source for genealogy.
They usually show immediate family members, i.e. beneficiaries
of the deceased's estate, other related persons e.g. executors
witnesses, and other people who are creditors or debtors of the
person making the will.
Persons who owed land and/or property
almost always left a will, others lower down the social scale
usually did not have sufficient assets to make the writing
of a will worthwhile, indeed, many of them could not read or
The property which they left behind - clothes, tools etc.
- were generally divided between their remaining family members
the formality of a will.
If a person died without previously making
a will, then he or she died "Intestate". In these cases, application
had to be made to the local court for "Letters of Administration" to
be granted to a named person - sometimes a wife, husband, brother
or sister or even a solicitor - who would then become
responsible for the deceased's estate and its eventual disposal.
Before 1858, when the process of probate,
i.e. the proving of a will in a recognised court, became the
responsibility of central government, all wills and their subsequent
disposal were under the control of the ecclesiastical, i.e. Church,
courts. These were established in the 12th century under the
Roman Catholic faith and continued after the Reformation with
the Church of England. The country was divided into parishes,
with each one being the responsibility of either the See of Canterbury
or that of York. In a
of cases "peculiar parishes" were introduced as a result
of some local conditions e.g. the ownership of a distinct piece
by a distant lord or monastery.
In English law, these were courts through which
the discretionary powers, privileges, and legal immunities reserved
to the sovereign were exercised. Prerogative courts were originally
formed during the period when the monarch exercised greater power
The royal prerogative is essentially the legitimate
exercise of the sovereign's authority. Various powers have been considered
part of it, including the coining of money, the creating of peers
(members of the House of Lords), the calling and dissolving of Parliament,
and the governing of the Church of England, all of which are formally
- though not substantively - prerogatives still retained by the British
sovereign. Formerly prerogatives, the powers to legislate, tax, and
deal with emergency situations have long belonged to Parliament.
By the time of the Reformation in the 16th century,
the crown's prerogative powers had grown considerably. Certain courts
had developed out of the king's council (Curia Regis) to give, in
effect, the king's relief in those cases in which the common-law
courts had failed to provide adequate remedy or in those areas in
which they did not deal. Those courts, all of which played an important
role in carrying out royal authority, became permanent specialized
institutions, such as the Court of Star Chamber, which dealt with
offenses against public order; the Court of High Commission, which
was established to enforce the Reformation settlement; the Court
of Requests, a poor-man's court that handled small-claims cases;
and the Court of Chancery, which was essentially a court of equity.
By the early 17th century, the prerogative courts
had provoked considerable opposition from the common-law courts,
which had lost a good deal of business to them and saw any further
extension of their jurisdiction as a threat to the survival of common
law. This opposition reached its zenith at the time when the parliamentary
forces were enraged at the determination of Charles I (reigned 1625-49)
to govern without Parliament and at his use of the prerogative courts
(particularly the Star Chamber and the High Commission) to enforce
his religious and social policies. Consequently, with the exception
of the Chancery, which had developed important procedures in the
areas of trust with which the common-law courts refused to deal,
most prerogative courts were either abolished by the Long Parliament
or ceased to exist after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
The sole prerogative court to survive the Restoration in some form
was the Court of Requests, which was itself abolished by the end
of the 17th century.
Source: Encyclopædia Britannica