Online wills and probate records of the rich and famous

Celebrity, Family History
12 December 2015
by

William Shakespeare (<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shakespeare.jpg" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Wikimedia Commons</a>)

  • Fortunes of famous names, including William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Sir Francis Drake, revealed
  • Collection covers almost five centuries and comprises more than a million records
  • Records predate civil registration, making them a valuable family history resource

You can’t take it with you. But you can sure decide who gets it when you’re gone.

That’s what makes the probate records from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury that you can now search and view online so interesting. Until 1858, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, or PCC, had wide jurisdiction, with responsibility for probating wills where the value of assets was greater than 5 pounds in the south of England, Wales, and for those who died abroad. Five pounds may not seem like a fortune today, but back in the 14th century, when some of the PCC wills were proved, it represented a tidy little sum. Which means the PCC was the court of choice for the rich and famous.

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Folks like William Shakespeare, who (in)famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway, “my second best bed with the furniture” in his will dated March 25, 1616. He also left a sum of £150 to each of his two daughters (over £380,000 today), and 26 s. 8d. to each of seven male friends and business partners to buy mourning rings in his remembrance. His clothes (“all my wearing apparel”), on the other hand, went to his sister Joan.

When Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, she possessed assets totalling around £800 (£60,000 today). The majority went to her sister, Cassandra, aside from £50 to her brother Henry, who served as her literary agent, and another £50 to a Madame Bigoen, who had previously acted as a nurse to her family.

Sir Francis Drake, by Marcus Gheeraerts
Sir Francis Drake

Privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake turns out to be something of a real-life Robin Hood in the wills. Having plundered many Spanish naval vessels and earned a fortune during his adventures in the Americas, Drake left 40 pounds to the ‘poore people’ of the town and Parish of Plymouth in 1596—the equivalent of £150,000 today.

Lord Nelson had no qualms about putting his mistress, Emma Hamilton, before his wife in his will—though he provided for both. Nelson’s will also shows that last wishes aren’t always respected. He asked that his body “be interred in the parish church of Burnham Thorpe in the county of Norfolk aforesaid near the remains of my deceased father and mother and in as private a manner as may be…” unless His Majesty dictated otherwise. His Majesty did direct otherwise. Nelson’s very public funeral was held in St. Paul’s, attended by thousands, and went on for 4 hours.

The PCC wills are now available at Ancestry.co.uk, the UK’s favourite family history website. They span nearly five centuries and feature more than a million probate records waiting to be pored over by descendants, history buffs, or the curious looking for how much people owned and who they left it to.

Other famous names in the collection include:

  • William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778) An acclaimed politician, Pitt left £3,500 to his son William, £1,750 to his son James Charles Pitt and the same amount to his daughter Lady Harriet Pitt, a cool million in today’s money
  • George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) This German born composer left £600 maximum to build a monument of himself in Westminster Abbey. That’s about £90,000 today.
  • Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) A philosopher, scientist and author, Bacon’s will reveals his generosity towards his staff. He left servant Robert Halpeny the equivalent of £800,000 on top of provisions of hay, firewood and timber and fellow worker Stephen Paise £700,000 and a bed.

The original records are held at The National Archives and some of the earliest records in the collection cover males as young as 14 and girls as young as 12. This changed in 1837, when it was decided by the court that both genders must be over the age of 21 to have a will proved.

On top of monetary matters, these records tell us more about the private lives of some very public figures and will help historians discover more about the dynamics of their personal and familial relationships.

The majority of the PCC wills also pre-date civil registration, the government system established in 1837 to keep accurate accounts of citizens’ lives in documents such as censuses. This makes the PCC wills a valuable resource for anybody looking to trace an ancestor living before the mid-19th century.

And how else are you going to know who got the bed?