Exploring People in the Past Using Probate Records


Among the many documentary sources available to historians, wills and inventories are some of the most deeply personal, allowing us to reconstruct the character and circumstances of individuals and families and their networks of kinship, friendship and social interaction. They may illuminate themes such as slavery, industrialisation, war and religious belief. Probate inventories inform us about the setting and patterns of daily life, including furnishings, household goods and cooking equipment, livestock and farming gear, debts and money-lending, books, clothing and the emergence of consumerism. This course uses examples from across the British Isles, and from the medieval period to 1800 to illuminate the lives and personalities of our forebears.

Programme details

Session 1

The probate system in the British Isles before 1858: how it operated, and differences between countries

Session 2

The different types of documents produced by the probate system

Session 3

Analysing the structure and contents of a will: the technical and legal aspects

Session 4

Pre-Reformation wills and their special importance to historians

Session 5

Wills and social history: families, kinship networks and matters of inheritance

Session 6

Wills and wider issues: religious beliefs and attitudes; evidence for literacy and education

Session 7

Wills and the community: charity, moneylending and debt

Session 8

Wills and property: landownership, tenancies and provision for future generations

Session 9

Probate inventories: how they were created and their formal structure

Session 10

Probate inventories: analysing their meaning and content (part 1)

Session 11

Probate inventories: analysing their meaning and content (part 2)

Session 12

Summing up: themes and approaches to using probate records


Description Costs
Programme Fee (No Accommodation - inc. Tuition, Lunch & Dinner) £850.00
Programme Fee (Standard Single Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1485.00
Programme Fee (Standard Twin Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1245.00
Programme Fee (Superior Single Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1600.00
Programme Fee (Superior Twin Room - inc. Tuition and Meals) £1345.00


Dr Alan Crosby


Alan Crosby is one of Britain’s leading local and family historians and is editor of The Local Historian. He has taught many OUSSA courses over the last 20 years.

Course aims

This course aims to give an in-depth introduction to probate records from the late 15th to the late 18th centuries; to show how they provide evidence for social, economic and cultural history; and to emphasise their significance as some of the most important personal documents available to historians during that period.

Teaching methods

All summer school courses are taught through group seminars and individual tutorials. Students also conduct private study when not in class and there is a well stocked library at OUDCE to support individual research needs.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to have gained and/or developed the following skills:

•          A clear understanding of how probate worked and what bureaucratic procedures and documentation were involved

•          Enhanced knowledge of the structures and relationships within and between families and communities in the past

•          A deeper appreciation of the personal dimension to major historical themes such as religious belief and its diversity

•          A greater sense of the meaning and implications of documents potentially encountered in private research on family and community history

Assessment methods

Students are assessed during the summer school by either a 1500 word written assignment or a presentation supported by individual documentation. To successfully gain credit (10 CATS points) students should attend all classes and complete the on-course assignment. There is also a pre-course assignment of 1000 words set. Although this does not count towards credit, it is seen as an important way of developing a student's ideas and therefore its completion is mandatory.