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Britons Abroad: Using the Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills Database

During the past four centuries, the British have been involved in foreign trade and colonization, which displaced their citizens throughout the world.


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During the past four centuries, the British have been involved in foreign trade and colonization, which displaced their citizens throughout the world. Linking British ancestors who settled overseas back to the British Isles has always been a painstaking task for the genealogist. Previous researchers have focused mainly on two principal emigration destinations: America and Australia. However, in reality the Britons established themselves throughout the world. The National Archives previously known as the Public Record Office), in Kew, England, has produced a very useful online resource to identify emigrants' origins • the PCC wills database.

The Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) is a probate jurisdiction in Great Britain. Created in the 14th century, it served as one of two superior courts where English and Welsh testators, who owned property in two or more dioceses, filed their wills. The PCC also proved the wills of English and Welsh property owners who died abroad [Mark D. Herber, Ancestral Trails: the Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd. in association with the Society of Genealogists, 1997), 183].

Both rich and poor emigrants fell under this jurisdiction, including merchants, seamen, and foreign dignitaries. Several books have been published documenting testators who died in Britain's America Colonies, such as Peter W. Coldham's American Wills & Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857 [Peter W. Coldham, American Wills & Administrations in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 1610-1857. (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1989)]. Although this index provides a valuable list of British testators who settled in America, it does not identify American legatees found in the wills of English residents. Such a prodigious index has not been generated. Less attention has been paid to Britons who settled elsewhere.

The National Archives recently completed a database that indexes individuals' names, residences, occupations, and dates of probation of all persons who left PCC wills between the years 1384 and 1858 [The PCC wills database does not include administrations of intestate individuals proven in the PCC]. The database is available online at Being able to search by name locality, trade, and time period provides a wonderful resource to both historians and genealogists who are studying British emigration. The PCC wills database has endless possibilities for research in this field. For example, few genealogists think of searching records in London to understand more about ancestors living in Russia and Egypt. Many of these wills date from the 17th century and identify the testator's previous residence in Great Britain, providing a concrete origin for immigrants. Descendants still living in these foreign countries will receive invaluable assistance from this new resource and British residents can use this database to locate their ancestor's brothers and sisters who emigrated. Place searches reveal the following number of testators per location:

Africa • 189
Belgium • 133
China • 80
East Indies • 3000
Egypt • 13
France • 1777
Greece • 11
Holland • 5000
Italy • 89
Ottoman Empire • 29
Portugal • 400
Russia • 59
Spain • 400
Sweden • 72
Switzerland • 293

In addition to visiting the National Archives in person, there are alternate ways to access copies of PCC wills. The National Archives will provide scanned images of the original to interested researchers for a fee of £3. After the online order is placed, the images will be immediately accessible in a PDF file that can be saved to your computer. Microfilm copies of PCC wills are also available via the Family History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its more than 3,400 satellite Family History Centers located throughout the world. Their library catalog, available at: , provides the catalog references needed to request PCC wills in microform. Locate the collection entitled Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Probate Records, 1383-1857,, listed under the author "Church of England. Province of Canterbury. Prerogative Court." View the film notes to match the year and quire number of your ancestor's will, identified on the National Archives' Web site, with the identical Family History Library reference to find the film number. These microfilms can be ordered at your local Family History Center, where they will arrive within a few weeks, for the price of $3.25.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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