Help & ResourcesHelp with collectionsNational Wills Index collectionsAbout Hertfordshire Wills IndexAbout Hertfordshire Wills Index 1415-1857
Scope of the Index
This index seeks to embrace in one alphabetical sequence all the wills (both original and registered copies), inventories, administration bonds, accounts and other related documents which survive among the records of the Archdeaconries of Huntingdon (Hitchin Division) and St Albans now held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS). Coverage may be summarised as follows:
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Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions in Hertfordshire
Throughout the country ecclesiastical boundaries are extremely complex and have been subject to many changes over the last 150 years. Hertfordshire is no exception. Before 1877, when the diocese of St Albans was created, Hertfordshire was divided between two large and powerful dioceses, London and Lincoln, and three different archdeaconries.
The medieval Diocese of Lincoln covered nine counties: Lincoln, Leicester, Rutland, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and most of Hertfordshire. Only the 35 Hertfordshire parishes east of an approximate north to south line from Royston to Cheshunt were excluded, being part of the Diocese of London (see map).
However, even within the Hertfordshire parishes of the Diocese of London there were three separate ecclesiastical jurisdictions. Twenty six parishes formed part of the Essex and Herts division of the Archdeaconry of Middlesex. 4 In addition there were two jurisdictions which retained considerable independence from the Bishop of London's control, known as 'peculiars'. Albury, Brent Pelham and Furneux Pelham formed part of the peculiar of the Dean and Chapter of St Pauls Cathedral which also included parishes in the City of London, Middlesex and Essex. 5 A further six parishes (Bishops Stortford, Broxbourne, Much Hadham, Little Hadham, Little Hormead, and Royston) came under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London's Deputy, or Commissary. 6In addition the Consistory Court of the Bishop of London would replace the lower courts when they were temporarily suspended, for example during the bishop's visitation. This would occur over a period of three months every four years. As a result a small number of Hertfordshire wills survive amongst the records of the London Consistory Court. 7
The remainder of the county was divided between the two Archdeaconries of Huntingdon (Hitchin Division) and St Albans within the Diocese of Lincoln. Seventy six parishes in the centre and the west formed the Hitchin division of the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon. The Archdeaconry of St Albans covered twenty six parishes: St Andrew (later the Abbey), St Michael, St Peter and St Stephen, within the town of St Albans; Chipping Barnet, East Barnet, Bushey, Codicote, Elstree, Hexton, Abbots Langley, Newnham, Northaw, Norton, Redbourn, Rickmansworth, Ridge, Sandridge, Sarratt, Shephall, St Pauls Walden and Watford in Hertfordshire; and the Buckinghamshire parishes of Aston Abbots, Grandborough, Little Horwood and Winslow. Not until a Statute of 1540 (31 Henry VIII c 13), which returned episcopal rights over former exempt jurisdictions to the diocesan bishops did this situation change. By letters patent of 1 April 1550 the Archdeaconry of St Albans was formally transferred to the Diocese of London.
Rationalisation of this complicated situation took place in 1845 when the Archdeaconry of St Albans was reconstructed to include the whole county, taking over the Hertfordshire parishes of the Archdeaconries of Huntingdon and Middlesex. This new archdeaconry was assigned to the diocese of Rochester. The four Buckinghamshire parishes were moved to the diocese of Oxford at this time. A diocese of St Albans was finally established in 1877 to cover not only Hertfordshire, but large parts of Essex and the part of Kent that lay north of the Thames. In 1914, when the diocese of Chelmsford was formed, the Essex and Kent parishes were removed to that diocese and the Archdeaconry of Bedford was annexed from the diocese of Ely thus creating the modern diocese of St Albans comprising the whole of the counties of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. Only minor alterations have taken place since 1914. In 1984 the Middlesex parishes of St Giles, South Mymms and Potters Bar were transferred to the diocese of St Albans. In addition the Archdeaconry of St Albans was split in 1997 on the formation of the new Archdeaconry of Hertford.
Archdeaconry of St Albans
Although nominally part of the Diocese of Lincoln before 1550, the Archdeaconry of St Albans, with the Abbot of St Albans at its head, stoutly maintained its freedom from episcopal control. Until the dissolution of the monasteries the archdeaconry was coterminous with the Liberty of the Abbey of St Albans, the abbot himself appointing the archdeacon to administer the liberty on his behalf. After a bitter dispute between the Abbot of St Albans and the Bishop of Lincoln, in 1163 Henry II declared the Liberty of St Albans exempt from episcopal visitation and all other forms of episcopal control. A charter of this date sets out the abbot's rights and privileges within his liberty. 8 Despite attempts made by some of the later Bishops of Lincoln to reinstate their episcopal jurisdiction over this area of Hertfordshire, the independence of the abbot and his liberty was largely respected. When Bishop Atwater visited his diocese in 1518, for example, he was careful to pay only a courtesy visit to St Albans. 9 Until the dissolution of the monastery of St Albans in 1539 the abbot remained one of the most powerful in the country. His appointed archdeacon presided over an ecclesiastical court whose duties included not only the probate of wills, for which fees were charged, but also the hearing of cases concerning irregularities in faith and morals touching the spiritual welfare of both clergy and laity. He had the power to excommunicate or prescribe penances for those found guilty. The general oversight of the parish churches within the Liberty of St Albans was also his responsibility.
The abbot was also a landlord, as he owned many manors within his liberty jurisdiction. It appears to have been the custom that villeins (nativus) were allowed to make wills which were then brought before the manorial courts for probate. References to them, however, are few before 1350, but from this date many wills are written out in full. In that year it was set out formally in the manorial rolls that the wills of villeins were to be proved before the Cellarer in the manorial halimote, whereas wills of freemen were to be proved before the Archdeacon. Wills are enrolled in the court books of the manors of Barnet, Cashio, Codicote, Croxley, Norton and Park in Hertfordshire and Winslow in Buckinghamshire. The earliest entry is for a will dated 1380 in the Manor of Park. 10
The archdeacon's registers and other records appear to have been kept in St Albans Abbey until the Dissolution of the monastery and thereafter in the St Albans offices of successive archdeaconry registrars and officials. They were transferred in 1868 to the Principal Probate Registry, Somerset House under the Wills Act of 1857 (20 & 21 Vict c 77) and finally to the Hertfordshire Record Office (now HALS) in 1954.
Registered Wills (AR)
Fourteen registers survive, forming an almost continuous series from 1415 to 1857, representing one of the earliest surviving series from an Archdeacon's court in the country. 11
They contain registered copies of wills handed into the Archdeacon's court for probate and grants of administration in cases where a person died intestate. Apart from four items dated 1518 and 1540 mentioned below, the registers contain the only surviving copies of archdeaconry wills proved between 1415 and 1545, as none of the original wills signed by the testators or their associated records, such as inventories, are extant. It does not appear to have been the court's usual practice to copy inventories or accounts into the will registers, although their existence is referred to on more than one occasion. 12 Only one account is known to have been written out in full into a register: that of Agnes Mayr in 1484 (see note above), and her executors are asked to produce an inventory within eight days. The registers are written almost totally in Latin until 1505. They are numbered sequentially from 1 to 14 with the suffix AR. The references given in this index include a second number, which is the number of the page within the register, for example 12AR42. In addition the entries in the registers are identified by the name of the testator written clearly in the left hand margin.
Two registers, covering the periods 1637 to 1653 and 1772 to 1785, are known to have been lost. From 1653 to 1660 all testamentary jurisdiction throughout England and Wales was transferred to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC). 13 However the gap 1772 to 1785 has been reputedly filled by a register created in 1879. The staff at Somerset House took it upon themselves to enter into the registers copies of wills not previously registered 'to render the book more complete for the period it embraces'. 14 The legal status of these 1879 registrations and creations is not known, so for this period it may be wise to rely on the original filed wills instead.
Filed wills (AW)
These represent the original surviving wills handed in to the Archdeacon's court for the purpose of probate. The wills are arranged alphabetically by the name of the testator within a yearly bundle – an organisation probably imposed on them while the documents were in the custody of Somerset House. Each bundle has been given a separate number running from 1AW to 307AW. This is followed in the index by the number given to each individual document within each bundle, for example 4AW10. 6,889 wills survive for the period 1518 to 1857. However only one will is extant for 1518 and three for 1540 so the main series actually begins in 1545. The number of wills proved in any one year is fairly consistent, on average 20 to 30. The highest is a staggering 132 in 1558, a year noted for an epidemic of influenza. 15 In only ten other years do the numbers of wills proved exceed 50. 16 From the latter half of the eighteenth century numbers begin to decline and only 700 wills are to be found in the period from 1777 to 1857. 17
Administration bonds are also filed with the wills at the end of each bundle in a separate alphabetical sequence. Comparatively few of these survive before 1609. From the latter part of the 18th century, other documents such as allegations and warrants are also filed in the bundles. The presence of this type of document for each testator is noted in the index. Readers should note that the index does not include references to all grants of administration which are noted in the separate series of Archdeaconry Act Books held at HALS (ASA26).
Probate Inventories (A25)
Some St Albans inventories have been filed with their associated will in the yearly bundles mentioned above, and this is noted as such in the index. But this does not seem to have been common practice at any period. The bulk of the surviving inventories are filed alphabetically in a separate series of annual bundles (HALS: A25). They have been numbered sequentially from 1 to 5,032. They date from 1518 but only seventeen items survive for dates prior to 1546. There are no inventories after 1764 in this series.
Archdeaconry of Huntingdon (Hitchin Division)
An archdeaconry comprising the counties of Cambridge, Huntingdon and part of Hertfordshire was founded by Remigius, Bishop of Lincoln (1067-1092). On the formation of the See of Ely around the year 1110 Cambridgeshire transferred to Ely and the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon became a separate entity within the Diocese of Lincoln. In 1837 the county of Huntingdon was removed to the Diocese of Ely but the Hertfordshire part of the archdeaconry remained within the Diocese of Lincoln as before. This situation finally changed in 1845 when the Archdeaconry of St Albans was reconstituted to include the whole of the county of Hertfordshire. Thus, for most purposes, 1845 is the terminal date for this archive.
By a composition made in 1441 between the Bishop of Lincoln and his archdeacons, the Archdeacon of Huntingdon paid £21 a year to the bishop for the right to hold courts, grant probate of wills and letters of administration and issue marriage licences etc. Separate registrars for the Huntingdon and Hitchin Divisions were appointed by the archdeacon and confirmed by the bishop but they were seen as acting together in court as branches of one registry. 18
Hitchin was the centre from which the Hertfordshire parishes were administered. Early partners of the firm of Messrs Hawkins, solicitors of Portmill Lane, Hitchin were the archdeacon's registrars and officials. It would appear that they continued to act in this capacity even after 1845, when the Archdeaconry of St Albans was reconstituted, as the Hitchin series of filed wills continue to 1857. It is from their offices that many of the Divisional records were transferred to Hertfordshire Record Office from the 1930s onwards. The probate records were transferred by Hawkins to Somerset House in 1857 and from there to Hertfordshire Record Office in 1955.
Registered Wills (HR)
There are twenty five volumes of registered wills covering the period 1557 to 1843. The first of these dated 1557 (one will only) and 1607-1609 is part of an original volume from a different series of registers originally held at the Peterborough Probate Registry and removed to Somerset House in 1956. This part of the volume was found to consist solely of 18 The workings of this archdeaconry are described by the Rev W Mackreth Noble and S Inskipp Ladds in their account of the Records of the Archdeaconry of Huntingdon Transactions of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, Vol IV (Ely, 1921)
Hertfordshire entries so it was rebound by Somerset House as a separate volume before being transferred to HALS. 19 The remainder of the series dates from 1609 to 1843 with gaps 1624-1659 and 1671-1687. As with the St Albans wills, the gap from 1653 to 1659 can be filled by probates registered at the PCC, but the remainder undoubtedly represent missing registers.
The archdeacon's officials did not always keep totally separate registers for the Hitchin Division. Three registers now held at Huntingdon Record Office covering the periods 1566-1569, 1574-1583 and 1580-1614 contain a mixture of both Huntingdonshire and Hertfordshire wills. These Hertfordshire entries are not included in this index. 20
Filed Wills (HW)
Some of the earliest surviving Hitchin wills dating from 1585 to 1613 were bound together in three volumes in the seventeenth century (HALS: 1-3HW). They have been placed in roughly chronological order within the volumes, and occasional inventories, administrations and probate acts are to be found in the third of these (HALS: 3HW).
The remainder, unlike those from the Archdeaconry of St Albans, have been arranged in one alphabetical sequence under the initial letter of the testator's surname. They are then arranged in date order under each letter of the alphabet. Several bundles may exist for some letters but each bundle has been given a separate number running from 4HW to 152HW. Each document within the bundle is numbered and this number forms the second part of the document reference, for example 5HW8. There are 10,889 surviving wills, the majority dating from 1609. As with the St Albans series, the number of wills proved declines rapidly from 1770 after which date there are only 2,133. Many of the wills have inventories, or, less frequently, administration accounts and other papers filed with them. The presence of these papers under the HW reference is indicated in the index.
Probate Inventories (H22)
It was much more commonly the practice at Hitchin than at St Albans to file the inventory with the will of the person whose goods are listed. Consequently the number of inventories preserved in this separate series is far smaller than the St Albans inventories (1,554 in total). Many are also filed with the series of administration bonds and accounts (see below H23). Like the Hitchin wills they are arranged in alphabetical bundles and then in date order within the bundles. They have been given reference numbers in one continuous sequence from 1 to 1,554.
Administration Bonds and Accounts (H23) 21
As with the other series of original documents kept by the Hitchin Division, this group is also arranged alphabetically, then in date order within each bundle. Inventories are included with these papers and there are a few tuition bonds and renunciations. They have been given reference numbers in one continuous sequence from 1 to 2,709.
We thank Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), for the provision of their Wills database. This introduction is an edited version of Susan Flood’s introduction to British Record Society (BRS) vol.120 (2007), Probate Records at Hertford. The editors of BRS vol. 120 would like to thank Miss Eileen Lynch for her painstaking and meticulous compilation of the original card index on which this volume is based, and other members of staff of HALS, both past and present, for their help in the preparation of the computerised index. Thanks are also due to Mrs June Thomas and Mrs Alison Cassidy for their painstaking work in checking the typescript; Dr Peter Spufford and Nesta Evans of the British Record Society for their helpful advice; and also Mr Cliff Webb for compiling the indexes of places, subjects, and trades and occupations..
© OMS Services Ltd, British Record Society, Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, Susan Flood