How to find readable copies of English wills

If you’ve found an English will on Ancestry or the National Archives, you may struggle to read it. That’s because both sites have reduced the quality of the images substantially, presumably to save on bandwidth. Reduced from what? you may wonder. The open secret of the genealogy community is that one organization, the LDS church, scans a large percentage of the documents in the world, even the ones that are offered on Ancestry, Findmypast, the National Archives, and many other sites and country archives. 

The National Archives copy of the 1674 will of Lord William Grey versus the FamilySearch copy.

The LDS church has been scanning documents around the world for decades, cutting deals with archives to photograph their records, publish them on the FamilySearch site, and give the archive a digital copy of their records in return. Because the process is extremely expensive, archives, churches, and municipalities have jumped at this opportunity. But many of these groups had contracted with the LDS church years ago, before FamilySearch made their records available online, and these deals specified that the records would only be made available to the public within a FamilySearch center. So while these record collections are listed in the FamilySearch catalog, they are not available on the site when you’re searching from home. 

The good news is that most of these images are available in all of their high-quality glory at FamilySearch centers or affiliate libraries, and most people live within a reasonable distance of one or the other. These days many local history or family history societies are affiliate libraries, plus there are FamilySearch centers in most major (and many minor) cities. Many of the affiliate libraries are not listed on the FamilySearch site, so be sure to ask your local family history center if they are, or would consider becoming, an affiliate library.

Here’s how to find a high-resolution copy of an English will on the FamilySearch site

Once you’ve found a will on Ancestry or the National Archives, the information page will look something like this: 

The Ancestry information page for the 1674 will of William Grey.
The National Archives information page for the 1674 will of William Grey.

Both sites tell you that these records come from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, in Canterbury, England.

Now, go to the FamilySearch catalog. The next step is the most difficult part, because the catalog is frankly a mess and you need to be a little creative to find what you’re looking for. Using FamilySearch is a specific skillset that you’ll need to develop, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Using the catalog you can either search for “Prerogative Court of Canterbury” in the title field, or Canterbury, England in the place field, and then refine the search by looking for records that are available online. You can ignore anything that says it’s a collection of abstracts, indexes, calendars, or have a person’s name as the author. We want the records that are created by the court itself, not a book of abstracts in the LDS library. You may have to search through several pages of documents, but eventually, you will find what you are looking for. 

FamilySearch catalog results for Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

Now, you can explore this record collection — but only from inside a FamilySearch center or affiliate library. In this collection there are indexes and wills. In this case, we know the will is from 1674, so the correct index is ‘Index to Wills & Admons., 1669-1676.’ Within this file you can navigate to where you think 1674, just use a combination of guesswork and common sense (i.e. it’s going to be near the end if the folder only goes up to 1674). Once you get to 1674, look for the pages of Gs, and once there be aware that they are not alphabetical, so you will need to look on every G page until you find our boy Lord William Grey. Once you do, you’ll see he is listed as “Aug 100,” 100 being the folio number.

The index listing for the 1674 will of Sir William Grey, Baron de Warke.

Now go back to the directory and find folio 100 for 1674: Reg. will copies of Bunce, v. 345. 1674 Folios, 54-103.

FamilySearch directory showing the volumes of wills, with folio numbers, from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.

Unfortunately neither the National Archives nor Ancestry offer up the image number, so you’ll need to page through until you find folio 100. The folios are only numbered every once in a while (some multiple of four, but I haven’t counted because this particular folder has doubles of so many images), so you’ll need to page through, jump ahead, and keep going until you find it. 

The folio number is in the top right, in this case 78.

Within each folio there are several wills, so check the fancy names in the margins once you’re in your target folio until you find the one you’re looking for. In this case, William Lord Grey. Now isn’t that better?

All of this came up because as part of an assignment for the Strathclyde genealogy MSc (the genealogy master’s program at University of Strathclyde) we were given an assignment to transcribe a will that was low-resolution and blurry, which would be impossible to transcribe perfectly because so many characters had been washed out due to to the image quality reduction.

Here’s an example with the FamilySearch copy first, and the copy we were given for this assignment second: 

The word “mainteyne” from the FamilySearch copy of the will and the National Archive copy of the will.

I transcribed this word as “mainteyne” (trust me on that e if you haven’t done paleography before). But the answer key that we were graded against said “mainteane,” so those who transcribed it correctly had it marked wrong. In this case the meaning of the word didn’t change, but in other cases it would.

I was surprised that none of the Strathclyde genealogy leaders and tutors seemed to know that there were better copies available, particularly as they are working genealogists themselves. So when we got this assignment I went and downloaded the high-quality copy from FamilySearch to use for my transcription. I was very pleased with my ingenuity, but was rewarded by having more than a dozen items on my transcription marked wrong that weren’t. What’s the lesson to take from this? I’m not really sure, but I’m certainly glad that I know how to find records on the locked FamilySearch site, even if I lost points on nearly every one of my Strathclyde assignments for doing more thorough research than their answer keys. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *