How to look for records of... Famous wills 1552-1854

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

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What are these records?

These records are the wills of 102 famous people which form the series PROB 1.

The wills date from the 16th to the 19th centuries. They include the wills of:

  • William Shakespeare
  • Admiral Lord Nelson
  • Jane Austen

What information do the records contain?

The information found in wills includes the following:

  • where the person lived
  • name of person responsible for carrying out the wishes (executor)
  • date of the will
  • witnesses to the will
  • chief beneficiaries

Some of the wills, including Jane Austen’s, are accompanied by affidavits sworn by witnesses attesting their authenticity.

Nelson’s will is accompanied by a private diary which he wrote in September and October 1805.

How do I search the records?

You can search the records in Discovery, our catalogue, by filling in the form below.

You don’t need to complete every field to find a record.

Please note, your results will show all instances of the term(s) you searched for within the record descriptions, as this is currently a keyword search.

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You may prefer to browse through PROB 1.

What do the records look like?

Shakespeare’s will and signature

You can view the original will of William Shakespeare, the famous playwright, who died on 23 April 1616.

The will is dated 25 March 1616, less than a month before he died. It includes bequests to his fellow actors, his neighbours in Stratford and the famous gift of his second-best bed to his wife.

His will shows the typical style of writing at the time. It also contains three of the only surviving six examples of his signature.

You can download Shakespeare’s will free of charge:

William Shakespeare’s will (PDF, 0.64MB)

Other wills

You can download the wills below free of charge to see the typical styles of writing used over the years.

The wills of Susanna Smith and Jane Austen have been annotated to show the different parts of a will:

14th century: Thomas Kennardesle 2 December 1391 (PDF, 0.22MB)

15th century: William Mavehy 27 January 1479 (PDF, 0.20MB)

16th century: John Yardley 2 July 1522 (PDF, 0.17MB)

17th century: Henry Purcell 7 December 1695 (PDF, 0.21MB)

18th century: Susanna Smith 19 July 1709 (PDF, 0.91MB)

19th century: Jane Austen 10 September 1817 (PDF, 0.72MB)