Last Will and Testament

What Information Does a Will Contain?

A Will contains the wishes of a person as to how they want their property and possessions to be divided up after their death. A Will could be made years before the actual death of the testator, but many of the older Wills were written when an individual was on their death bed.

Wills can vary in their length and detail, but usually they include the testator’s occupation and place of residence. Often they include detailed information about the testator’s immediate family – names and relationships – together with bequests. This can be invaluable to the family historian especially where baptism and marriage records no longer survive.

If the testator had no children of his own, the children of extended family may be named. These can provide mini family trees for the family historian! Deceased family members may also be mentioned, sometimes even parents, in-laws or grandparents. Married names of daughters can also be found in Wills.

Until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, married woman didn’t leave Wills as their possessions belonged to their husband. Although widows may have made a Will.

If a testator wanted to amend their Will for any reason, to save rewriting, a codicil would be added to the original Will.

A person who died without leaving a Will is said to have died intestate. In such cases a letter of administration was filed to allow the next of kin to wind up the deceased’s estate.


After death, a Will needed to be ‘proved’ and so probate was sought. Until 1858 this was done by the church courts.

Probate gives a person, usually the executor of a will, the legal right to deal with a deceased person’s estate – their property, money, and possessions – and to carry out the wishes laid out in the Will. Probate usually includes the date of death of the testator. Probate could be granted soon after a death, but sometimes it can be years afterwards if a dispute was involved.

Wills proved after 1857 in England and Wales were proved in the National Court for Probate. These probate records are public records which can be accessed here (fees are applicable). A copy of the Will may also be filed for probate, but not always.


Inventories are a fantastic way to provide your family history narrative with some detail other than dates!

From 1530 to 1782 a Will executor had to appoint several local men to appraise and value a deceased’s estate and provide the probate court with an inventory and valuation of goods. Inventories may give the family historian clues as to the wealth and status of the deceased. Often details of the contents of each room of the deceased’s house are listed; clothing and furniture, livestock and crops can be included. Inventories are a wonderful insight into their occupation and lifestyle. Unfortunately, it should be noted that not all inventories have survived. After 1782 inventories were not a legal requirement, but some continued to be produced.

Tips for Reading and Transcribing Old Wills

16th and 17th Century Wills are likely to be written in Secretary Hand. This can be daunting to an inexperienced researcher and challenging to read, but can be mastered with practice. The National Archives does a great introduction to reading palaeography.

Common Beginner Errors:

The long ‘s’ is often mistaken for an ‘f’. And the long ‘s’ was also used in words using a double ‘s’, firstly the long ‘s’ and then the normal ‘s’, such as ‘pofsefs’

The letter ‘c’ can look like an ‘r’ or ‘t’.

The capital ‘L’ can look like an ‘S’.

Parchment on which Wills were written was expensive, so abbreviations are common place. Often an apostrophe is used in place of a letter, such as gain’d for gained. Dashes used above a word indicate it has been abbreviated, as well as the use of superscripts such as wch for which and wth for with.

If the eldest son is not mentioned in the Will, it does not necessarily mean he has been disinherited or deceased. Rules of primogeniture may have already been applied whilst the testator was alive.

Spellings were inconsistent even within the same Will and can be different to how we spell them nowadays.

If a word is impossible to understand, try and say it phonetically.

Words that we would spell with an ‘i’ were often spelled with a ‘y’, such as ‘fyne’ for ‘fine’

The use of ‘Mrs’ could indicate a woman with high social status and not necessarily refer to a married woman.

When transcribing old Wills, a good idea is to keep the line lengths the same as the original document. That way if you need to go back over the transcription to fill in gaps, you can easily find the correct place.

Any words that you cannot transcribe, type xxxx and go back to it afterwards.

Are Gloucestershire Wills Online?

Gloucestershire Wills dated from 1541 to 1858 have been digitally scanned and are available to view on Ancestry (a subscription is required).  Gloucestershire inventories, where they have survived, are also available to view on Ancestry.

If you would like help in locating your Gloucestershire ancestor’s Will, please contact me

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