Registered wills – filling in the gaps

Wills can tell us all sorts of things about the lives of people in the past, and are a brilliant resource for genealogists and social and economic historians alike.

As we have mentioned before, our collections include some 70,000 original wills made by people in Essex between 1400 and 1858. These wills have all been catalogued and digitised, and can be searched for by name and viewed on our online subscription service Essex Ancestors.

We have now begun work on an additional set of records which can help to fill in any gaps in our series of original wills, which will ultimately result in about 10,000 more wills being added to Essex Ancestors.

Decorative I

A decorative initial ‘I’ from a book of registered wills dating from 1500-1515 (D/ACR 1)

Before 1858 when somebody died leaving a will, their executor would take the original will to the relevant court so that probate could be granted. The original wills would be kept by the court and filed; it is these wills proved in the ecclesiastical courts in Essex which have been digitised and are available via Essex Ancestors.

Clerks at the courts would also usually write out a copy of the will into large volumes called will registers (references beginning D/ABR, D/ACR, D/AER and D/AMR). There are approximately thirty 16th and 17th century registers for the courts in Essex where there are no original wills surviving.

Registered wills 1500-1515

The will registers are books into which clerks copied wills being proved at the ecclesiastical courts. Sometimes a will might survive in the book when the original copy of it has been lost, providing a useful second chance for researchers.

The wills in the registers are listed in the three volumes of Wills at Chelmsford, but do not currently appear on Seax. To make these records easier to find, we have started a project to add the details of individual wills in the registers to Seax, so they will be searchable by name. To begin with, only a written catalogue description will be available, but in the long term we plan to add digital images too. In the meantime, registered wills are viewable on microfiche in the Searchroom, or copies can be ordered through our reprographics service.

The first register for which details have been added to Seax is that for the archdeaconry of Colchester (D/ACR 1) which covers the north of the county for the years 1500-1515. 

Some of the wills in the volume are in Latin and as it dates from before the Reformation, the testators would all have been Roman Catholic, evidenced by the use of Catholic phraseology such as ‘I bequeath my soule to almyghte god and to our blessed lady saynt mary and to the holy all hallowes’, which appears in the will of Roger Burgon of Colchester below. Following the English Reformation and the invention of the Church of England references to Mary and the saints all but disappeared.

Roger Burgon’s will is dated 16 December 1507 (D/ACR 1/127/1).  After bequeathing his soul to God he went on to request that his body be buried in the Church of St. Francis within the Convent of the Friars Minor [Greyfriars] in Colchester.

Roger Burgon will

The beginning of the will of Roger Burgon, 1507 (D/ACR 1/127/1)

The majority of the wills are for men, but a number of women do appear, such as this one for Agnes Tomson of the parish of St Leonard in Colchester, dated 8th December 1502 (D/ACR 1/50/5).

Agnes Tomson will

The beginning of the will of Agnes Tomson, 1502 (D/ACR 1/50/5). The heading to the will reads ‘Testm Agness Tomson de High’ – Testament of Agnes Tomson of the High, then a new area of Colchester

Agnes’s bequests included a ‘blake gowne’ (black dress), a ‘petycote’, a ‘greene gowne’, a ‘russet gowne’ a ‘floke bed’ (flock bed), pots, plates and a kettle, a ‘blankett’, a ‘bolster’, and a ‘long knyff’ (knife), all of which helps us build up a picture of Agnes’s life.

Agnes Tomson will

The section of Agnes’s will leaving a ‘blake gowne’ (black dress)

Examples of English HandwritingIf you would like any further advice on using wills in your research, please ask a member of staff in the Searchroom or contact us on If you would like any help with reading old handwriting, our publication Examples of English Handwriting 1150-1750 by Hilda Grieve is a very useful guide. It can be purchased for £6 (+P&P) from the Searchroom or by phoning 033301 32500.

If you get really stuck, our Search Service can transcribe wills for you – please contact for details.

Boston trip: some documents are coming with us

We have even more exciting news about our Boston trip – we will be taking some original documents with us.

Two historic wills will be making the trip across the Atlantic for visitors to our events in Boston to come and see, one made by Richard Knight in 1703 and the other by Richard Fitzsymonds in 1663.

Knight was an innkeeper from Rochford. His will (D/AEW 30/7) was made on 3 January 1703 and he died a few days later (he was buried in Rochford churchyard on 15 January).

Burial of Richard Knight, 15 January 1703 in Rochford (D/P 129/1/1 image 27)

Burial of Richard Knight, 15 January 1703 in Rochford (D/P 129/1/1 image 27)

He was a prosperous man, and left his mother Love Wood a hundred pounds and three houses for life.

These houses – and two more in Moulsham, Chelmsford – were to pass after his mother’s death to his brother George Knight of ‘Herford in New England’, the place now known as Hartford, Connecticut.

Extract from Richard Knight's will, leaving his brother George Knight in Connecticut five houses, and his brother John Wood 1 shilling (D/AEW 30/7)

Extract from Richard Knight’s will, leaving his brother George Knight in Connecticut five houses, and his brother John Wood 1 shilling (D/AEW 30/7)

Court records show that the will was contested by Richard’s half-brother John Wood, who had been left just one shilling (5p.). Trouble was brewing even before Richard’s death. On 9 January, under pressure from Wood, the executor gathered together three extra witnesses, led by a local gentleman, Thomas Wheeler. Asked whether he was willing to have the will read over to him, the dying man replied ‘noe it is well enough’. Later he allowed Wheeler to break open the sealed will and to read its contents – but only after John Wood’s wife had left the room. Richard then confirmed his original intentions, ‘putting his forefinger upon the marke by him before made’, and the three new witnesses signed the will as it was re-sealed.

Sadly we do not have the Woods’ side of the story, but the court of probate found for the will as written. Whether George in Connecticut ever got his houses remains to be discovered.

The other will is of Richard Fitzsymonds of Great Yeldham, gentleman (D/AMW 9/1).  He made his will in 1663 but did not die until 1680, which is an unusually long gap between a will being made and the testator’s death. The will has a particularly fulsome religious preamble and includes bequests to the poor of three parishes where he owned property.

Will of Richard Fitzsymonds 1663

The detailed religious preamble to the will of Richard Fitzsymonds and bequests to the local poor (D/AMW 9/1)

He also leaves a bequest to his brother and those of his nephews and nieces who were born in England and went out to New England with their father.  He mentions a number of other brothers, nephews, nieces and kinsmen and leaves money for them all to have a gold ring worth twenty shillings.

Extract from the will of Richard Fitzsymonds, 1663, leaving property to his brother Samuel Symonds and his nieces and nephews in New England

Extract from the will of Richard Fitzsymonds, 1663, leaving property to his brother Samuel Symonds and his nieces and nephews in New England


The family was clearly wealthy and had lands in several parishes and two seal rings.  He also asks for a jewel to be purchased for his daughter in law as a token of his love for her.

If you’re in the Boston area next week (3-7 August 2015), do pop in to see ERO staff and these original documents at one of the locations they will be going to – all the details are here.

Both of these wills, along with 70,000 others, are available to view online on our subscription service Essex Ancestors.