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Wills and Probate
Finding wills is a rather complex business. For people who lived (and died) in Cornwall there are a number of places their wills could have been proved and deposited. Fortunately those that survive have now settled in one of two places, either the CRO at Truro or the PRO at Kew
There are now a selection of Probate Records on this site.
Deanery of St. Buryan
First, starting at the very local level, the Deanery of St. Buryan was a Royal Peculiar consisting of the parishes of St. Buryan, St. Leven and Sennen. As such it had its own Probate Court until 1857.
- CRO. Index to Cornish Estate Duty and Deanery of St. Buryan Wills. CRO, Truro:1987. This index covers all Wills and Administrations from 1650–1857 in class DSB at the CRO.
See also below.
These probate records are to be found at the CRO as follows:—
1605–1799 (none in 1679 & 1738)
1605–1790 & 1801–57 [DSB/305–415]
1605–1855 (none in 1750–53) [DSB/416–521]
1692–1845 [DSB/522–537]. LDS [1471659/3–15]
Wills 1605–1857 LDS 
Administrations 1641–1857 LDS .
Archdeacon of Bodmin
Next comes the Archdeacon’s Probate Registry at Bodmin. This was used if your property was all fairly local. It accounts for by far the largest collection of Cornish wills. I am told that if the estate was of sufficiently low value (nominally less than £5) then it could be handled by the parish priest, but I have not come across such cases in this area. Records would probably be found in the Parish Chest (i.e. the CRO now).
- CRO. Index to Cornish Probate Records 1600–1649; (5 volumes) Truro: 1984–88. ISBN 0 902319 58 2.
- Glencross, R. M.(ed). Calendar of Wills and Administrations of Cornwall proved at Bodmin …(2 volumes) 1569–1699 and 1700–1799; British Record Society Index Library vols 56 and 59:1929 & 32. Apparently included on English Parish Records: Cornwall, Devon, Dorset & Somerset CDROM from Ancestry.Com but not acknowledged. Part two has a separate chapter entitled “Deanery of the Royal Chapel of St. Buryan comprising the parishes of St. Buryan, St. Levan and Sennen 1700 to 1799”, whereas in the Part 1 they seem to be contained in the main volume. Copies of most of these probate papers can be obtained from the CRO. As a guide, those marked “A” are Letters of Administration (Admons in the jargon). Those marked “*” are missing (reputedly, in fact some of them can be found).
- Hull, Brenda L. (ed). Cornish Probate Records at the Cornwall Record Office 1800–57; 1982. I have not seen this one.
There is a magnificent accumulation of Cornish will abstracts from this source, many in West Penwith, on Kathie Weigel’s Cornish Database page. There are also indexes by parish. All parishes in West Penwith are included except the Deanery of St. Buryan as mentioned above. There are entries on here that are not listed in the indexes above. The dates covered (as of 11 March 1999) are
- Gulval 1660–1773
- St. Ives 1660–1773
- St, Just in Penwith 1660–1730
- Lelant 1660–1773
- Ludgvan 1661–1772
- Madron (inc. Penzance) 1660–1730
- Morvah 1664–1771
- Paul (inc. Newlyn) 1661–1730
- Sancreed 1660–1727
- Towednack 1660–1772
- Zennor 1666–1773
There is also a supplemental index which contains these and other parishes with a wider year range.
Bishop of Exeter
If your property extended over the border into Devon, or your family thought that it was too important to be administered by a mere Archdeacon, then the Bishop’s Probate Registry in Exeter was used.
- Fry, E.A. (ed). Wills and Administrations relating to the counties of Devon and Cornwall, proved in the court of the principal registry of the Bishop of Exeter, 1559–1799; British Record Society Index Library vol 35: 1908. Apparently included on English Parish Records: Cornwall, Devon, Dorset & Somerset CDROM from Ancestry.Com but not acknowledged.
- Fry, E.A. (ed). Wills and administrations relating to the counties of Devon and Cornwall, proved in the consistory court of the bishop of Exeter, 1532–1800; British Record Society Index Library vol 46: 1914. Republished by Kraus reprints:1968. Apparently included on English Parish Records: Cornwall, Devon, Dorset & Somerset CDROM from Ancestry.Com but not acknowledged.
These are frustrating because the majority of the actual wills at Exeter were lost in the 2nd. W. W. however abstracts of some of them were deposited at the CRO so you may get lucky.
Prerogative Court of Canterbury
Finally, if your property was scattered all over the country, or your family thought you were a Very Important Person, then the Archbishop’s Court was used (which despite it’s name, was in London). During the Commonwealth period (1649–60) all Wills were proved here. There are surviving wills dating back to 1383 if you are very lucky, but they are sorted in a most peculiar fashion, alphabetically by Christian name. Again Kathie Weigel’s Cornish Database page is a useful reference She hopes to list all those people who held lands in Cornwall from 1383–1660. The wills that survive are all at the PRO in Kew. An index, and maybe abstracts, to some of these (1750–1800 incomplete) are online at English Origins in associaltion with the SOG.
Probate records (wills and administrations) after 1858 can be searched and copies obtained from
Principal Registry of the Family Division,
First Avenue House,
42–49 High Holborn, London.
These are indexed in the National Probate Calendar which is available in many county record offices or District Probate Registry (Exeter is the nearest) where copies can be ordered.
The CRO holds copies of a good number of the wills where relevant to Cornwall.
Ann and Mike Hicks are producing an index of these in Cornwall on CD-ROM in (roughly) 5 year chunks. 1858–70 are ready (4 volumes) and they are working on 1871–75. These are/will be available from the Parish Chest under the name Magpie Collections. They are hoping to go as far as 1900.
A deposition is a written, sworn statement of evidence used as a basis for criminal proceedings. The depositions go to show that there is a case to be tried, and in the case of a serious offence, the person charged is committed for trial on the basis of the depositions, unless the defence has been able to show that there is no case to answer.
Thanks to Christine Trenorden for the definition above. Kathie Weigel has a file of some of these on her Cornish Database.