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Wills and probate

Church Courts - probate records before 11 January 1858

Church courts were responsible for proving wills and granting letters of administration until 1858.

There were three levels of church court which related to Norfolk:

  • The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (the Archbishop’s court) had overriding jurisdiction in the whole of England and Wales, and therefore over every parish in Norfolk.
  • The Norwich Consistory Court (the Bishop's court) had jurisdiction over the Diocese of Norwich and therefore over every Norfolk parish, except Great Cressingham (see peculiar courts, listed below) and Emneth, which was in the Diocese of Ely. Until 1837, the Consistory Court also had jurisdiction over most of Suffolk, which was part of the Diocese of Norwich until this date.
  • The Archdeaconry and Peculiar Courts were the lowest level of ecclesiastical courts. Most parishes came under the jurisdiction of either the Archdeacon of Norfolk or the Archdeacon of Norwich, but a few parishes were under the authority of one of the three peculiar courts which existed in Norfolk:
    • The Dean and Chapter Peculiar Court covered the Norwich parishes of St Helen, St James, St Mary in the Marsh, and St Paul, as well as Arminghall, West Beckham, Catton, Eaton, Hindolveston, Lakenham, Martham, Great Plumstead, Sedgeford, Sprowston and Trowse. Before the Reformation it also covered the parishes of Hemsby, Hindringham, Scratby, Taverham and Winterton.
    • The Castle Rising Peculiar Court covered Castle Rising, Roydon, North Wootton and South Wootton.
    • The Great Cressingham Peculiar Court covered Great Cressingham only. Great Cressingham, unlike the other peculiars, was exempt from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Norwich, as well as the archdeacons. 

A will was generally proved in the lowest court which had jurisdiction over the whole of the area in which the testator held property, ie:

  • In the Archdeaconry (or Peculiar) Court, if all his or her property lay within its jurisdiction
  • In the Consistory Court, if his or her property lay in different archdeaconries, but within the diocese
  • In the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, if his or her property was spread over two or more dioceses

Generally speaking, the greater the extent of an individual’s property or wealth, the higher the level of court likely to have proved the will, or granted the administration.

However, while the above is the general rule, not all wills were proved in the court you would expect.

If the individual lived in Norfolk, but had land elsewhere, you may need to try records for other counties.

Anyone who owned land outside the United Kingdom should have had their will proved by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

This court also dealt with the probate records of those who died abroad or at sea.

Although wills would normally have been proved at the lowest possible court, there was a prestige value to having them proved at a higher court.

Clergy wills were often proved in the Consistory Court (the bishop’s court), rather than by an archdeacon.

At times when the position of bishop or archdeacon was vacant, probate proceedings were held in the next highest court.

During bishop’s visitations (which took place about every seven years), the business of both archdeaconry courts was conducted in the bishop’s court.

During the Commonwealth period (1653-60), church courts were suspended and all wills were considered before the Court of Civil Commission. These records are now included with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills.

A few wills were registered in the borough courts of Norwich, Lynn and Yarmouth, from the 13th to the 16th century.