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Understanding Common Record Types: Wills

Guide to understanding common types of archive documents: abstracts of title, accounts, annual reports, charters & letters patent, constitutions, diaries, household books, land deeds, letters, manorial records, maps & plans, minutes, photographs, & wills.

“Anyway, if you stop tellin' people it's all sorted afer they're dead, they might try sorting it all out while they're alive”

Terry Pratchett, Good Omens 

Introduction to wills

Administrative documents recording the intentions and wishes of an individual in relation to the disposal of their assets.

Why they were created

To facilitate the settlement of an individual's personal estate following their death.

Who might have created them

Any individual with assets to dispose of.

Where you might find them

Usually found with bundles of deeds, with documents relating to the administration of trusts, or with material relating to bequests. Commonly found in the following collections:

  • Landed families
  • Estates
  • Solicitors
  • Trusts
  • Prerogative Courts

Period from which they most commonly survive

Examples survive from the medieval period, becoming more common from the 17th century, and survive in large numbers from the 18th century.

Key features

Physical features

  • Manuscript on parchment or paper
  • Single sheet, or multi-leaf attached together
  • Signature or mark made by the person leaving the will (the presence of a mark rather than a signature usually indicates that an individual cannot write)
  • If will has been proved, a probate clause will be included as an inscription at the foot of the document or on the reverse, or as an additional attached sheet

Informational content

  • Date of will creation (and date that probate was granted if it is a proved copy)
  • Name of person making the will
  • Occupation of person making the will
  • Place of residence of person making the will
  • Names of executors
  • Names of witnesses
  • Names of beneficiaries under the will
  • Familial or other relationship between person making the will and the beneficiaries
  • Outline of how estate is to be divided

U DDSY/9/6

Will of William Rousby, Gentleman, 15 Dec 1713

U DDPA/7/225

Copy will of John Tate, unsigned, 5 Jun 1792

U DDJ/14/234

Grant of Administration of the Will of John Brown of Thorganby, attached to the original signed will, 24 Nov 1841


First page of the will of Nurse Dowdall, in this instance a copy of the original, 1842

Note on critical analysis

Things to consider:

  • Wills may have been written down by the individual making the will (the testator), or may have been dictated by them and recorded by someone else on their behalf and in their presence
  • They are legal documents with a specific purpose, and require certain key elements to be considered legally binding, i.e. the signature of the testator
  • These documents record intention not outcome, as many were contested after the death of the testator
  • An individual is likely to be considering their own mortality at the point of making a will, reflecting on and judging their own past behaviour and actions

Potential research uses

Wills can be useful when undertaking research into the following areas:

  • Property ownership amongst the lower classes
  • Female property ownership
  • Deathbed philanthropy
  • Inheritance
  • Familial relationships
  • Estates of notable individuals
  • Land ownership and transmission

Specialist skills and knowledge

Further reading in the following areas will help researchers when using these sources:

  • Common terminology used in wills
  • Secretary handwriting conventions, or mixed Secretary and Italic handwriting styles, for pre-19th century wills
  • Set phrase Latin used in wills and on grants of probates

Resources at Hull History Centre

Search for further examples of wills using our online catalogue. Try using search terms such as will, inventory, probate, etc. Or, if you are looking for the will of a particular individual, try including their surname in your search.

Alternatively, if you prefer to browse, the file below contains a list of wills held at Hull History Centre. Please note that this list is not comprehensive, but represents key examples of the document type.

Further help

Help available online:

The following secondary literature provides guidance on understanding particular aspects of wills, including their features and survival, as well as highlighting some of the ways they are useful to researchers: