Introduction to Original Volume

British Record Society volume 88

Published 1976

The Ely Archdeaconry probate records were transferred to the Cambridge University Archives from the Principal Probate Registry at Somerset House, London, in 1956. These records had previously been held in the Peterborough District Probate Registry. They are all now housed in the Cambridge University Library, in the care of the Keeper of the University Archives, and application to consult them, in the manuscript reading room, should, if possible, be made in advance.

This index to the probate records of the Ely Archdeaconry brings together, for the first time, in an alphabetical sequence of testators, information concerning the extant original wills, registered copy wills, administrations, original bonds and inventories and other related documents. Arrangement under each surname is chronological. Users are strongly advised to read with care the explanatory key which follows this Introduction in order to make the fullest use of the index.

Geographically, the Archdeaconry of Ely covered a good deal of the southern part of old Cambridgeshire. However, for probate purposes, the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon was limited to fifty-three parishes in the three deaneries of Bourne and Shingay in the extreme south-west of the county, and Cambridge itself, and Haddenham and Wilburton in the Isle of Ely. Moreover, the Archdeaconry Court was 'inhibited by the Bishop for fourteen weeks in four years, during his visitations'. It follows, therefore, that any researcher should always examine the indexes to the records of the Consistory Court of Ely as well as that of the Archdeaconry. It should be noted that there are also transcripts of early wills in mediaeval archiepiscopal reigsters: for example, in the register (1414-43) of Archbishop Chichele (edited by the late Professor E. F. Jacob assisted by the late H. C. Johnson).

In addition, the indexes to the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, now in the Public Record Office, should always be consulted, as this Court had overriding jurisdiction throughout England and Wales. Technically, it was necessary to take out probate in this Court if a testator had land or property worth over £5 ('bona notabilia') in more than one diocese, but, in fact, executors often used the Prerogative Court even when not legally required to do so, not only for those of wealth, but also not infrequently for people of small and humble means. Indexes to the wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury have been published to 1700, and to administrations to 1660 (mostly by the British Record Society). Inventories in that Court are regrettably sparse, but the List and Index Society has published an index of most of the 18th century ones (Volumes 85 and 86), and the Public Record Office is preparing an index to the late 17th century ones. It should be remembered that even the Prerogative Court was subject to appeal, to the Court of Arches, an index to whose records, 1660 to 1857, has also been published by the British Record Society (Volume 85).

Testators with 'bona notabilia' within the diocese, but only partly within the jurisdiction of the Archdeacon, would also have been subject to probate in the Consistory Court.

Within Cambridge itself, the Chancellor of the University had jurisdiction over 'matriculated persons' — the Court later became known as the Court of the Vice-Chancellor. In 1828 the then Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Gilbert Ainslie, reported that 'when a privileged person in the University dies possessed of goods and chattels within the University, and also within a particular diocese, the Probate or Administration must be taken out before the Chancellor of the University and the other Ordinary (that is, it may be required to be done). The privilege of the Ordinary had been asserted, against the University, in 1711 by the Archdeacon of Ely, but the Vice-Chancellor's Court nevertheless continued to prove wills until 1765. While it continued, the jurisdiction extended to all privileged persons, children and servants of scholars or of any privileged person and to their family at the time of their death, and to all widows of scholars or privileged persons at the time of their respective deaths and to all their children resident within the jurisdiction of the University, which extended one mile on every side of the town and parishes of the town of Cambridge. During the second half of the 18th century the practice of proving wills in the Vice-Chancellor's Court fell into disuse. An index to this Court, Wills Proved in the Vice-Chancellor's Court at Cambridge, and almost certainly edited by H. Roberts, was published in 1907. This index, which is not very reliable, has been superseded by a much more detailed card index compiled during recent years. The influence of the University in the town of Cambridge was far-reaching until the latter half of the 19th century, and for researchers interested in the inhabitants of the town this is clearly another source which should be consulted.

The Peculiar Court of King's College had jurisdiction in the precincts of the College only.

A few wills, principally of clerks, were proved in the Bishop's Court of Audience, and are recorded in the registers (see Ely Records, D. M. Owen, 1971, pp. vii-ix and 1-4). A list and transcript of these early wills was printed by Alfred Gibbons, Ely Episcopal Records, 1891, pp. 193-223. In addition, Gibbons listed (pp. 15-17) some loose 17th century wills apparently found as exhibited in ecclesiastical court causes and two bundles of 19th century wills. These remain among the diocesan records and may be consulted in the manu­script reading room of the Cambridge University Library (ref. EDR A/F/l and 15).

Heather E. Peek Keeper of the University Archives, Cambridge