Probate records have survived in England from the medieval period forward. Prior to 1857, ecclesiastical courts probated wills. After that date, this responsibility became secularized. The ecclesiastical courts were ordered in an authoritative hierarchy with the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) at the top. One of the reforms made by Oliver Cromwell, who at the conclusion of the English Civil War, held the title Lord Protectorate and temporarily removed the royal system, was to prove all wills in the PCC. This practice continued until King Charles II ascended to the throne in 1660 and this authority reverted back to the church courts.
This brief period is significant to genealogists for a number of reasons. First, genealogists will not find wills filed in the same jurisdiction where family members normally sent their wills in other time periods. Second, these records are much easier to access, because a complete index from 1384 to 1858 has been published online. This creates a nationwide index for 1653 through 1660 that does not exist in England until the year 1858 and makes it easier to track down mobile ancestors. Third, all of these wills can be viewed online for a small fee.
The National Archives has generated a complete online index to PCC wills. It is free to use. They have also scanned all of the original documents and allow instant access to these records at the price of £3.50 ($7.00) a will. Visit their site at www.documentsonline.nationalarchives.gov.uk to find out more.