Inventories mostly from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury drawn up before the end of December 1660, irrespective of their date of exhibition in court. A few of the inventories are accompanied by executors' or administrators' accounts. Many of the 16th century inventories are damaged and incomplete, and few survive between 1583 and 1640.
Inventories vary greatly in the amount of detail they furnish, but some inventory both all the pecuniary credits owed to the deceased, and also the contents of a deceased person's home room by room, listing and valuing all of his or her goods and chattels in detail. Equally inventories of tradesmen and women may inventory the deceased's stock in trade in detail, and thus provide invaluable evidence for various forms of social and economic history. Inventories of farmers may enumerate crops, livestock, and agricultural equipment.
The vast majority of the records derive either from the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC), or from the records of courts that exercised probate jurisdiction in lieu of the PCC (including the joint jurisdiction of the vice-regential court of Thomas Cromwell and the Commonwealth Court for Probate of Wills and Granting Administrations), and whose records came into the custody of the Prerogative Court as a result of deliberate policy. It is however possible that some of the documents derive from the records of episcopal, peculiar, or other inferior jurisdictions to that of the archbishop of Canterbury.
The earliest records in predate the emergence of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury as a separate body at the end of the fifteenth century. While some of these particular documents may derive from the records of inferior probate jurisdictions, it is likely that the majority of them are records of the exercise of the archbishop of Canterbury's prerogative to grant probate of wills and letters of administration, through some such means as a court of audience or perhaps through his Court of Arches.
At various times during the lifetime of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury attempts were made to consolidate the records of the Prerogative Court with records of earlier archiepiscopal exercises of probate jurisdiction. Simultaneously Lambeth Palace was used as a repository both for the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and for the records of other courts and administrative functions of the archbishop. Accordingly at some time between the emergence of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, and the transfer of these particular documents, to the Public Record Office from the Principal Probate Registry of the Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division of the High Court, whether by design or accident, they may have been placed or otherwise associated with the records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.
There were three courts which exercised probate jurisdiction in lieu of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ( Certain records of these three jurisdictions are to be found in PROB 2):
In 1522 Warham, as archbishop of Canterbury, was compelled to agree to an arrangement with Cardinal Wolsey, as papal legate, whereby the personal estates of persons having goods in more than one diocese or ecclesiastical peculiar were to be under the joint jurisdiction of the archbishop's prerogative and a court specially established by Wolsey in London. The arrangement ceased with the fall of Wolsey in 1529.
In 1535 all the ecclesiastical courts were inhibited by a royal visitation established to assert Henry VIII's supremacy. Thomas Cromwell was appointed vice-regential of the Church of England, and William Petre was authorised, as Cromwell's commissary, to prove wills, grant letters of administration, and hear testamentary causes where the estates were valued at more than £200. The vice-regential court ceased to act in May 1540.
During the Commonwealth period a separate Court of Probate was established to transact the business formerly transacted by the Prerogative Court of Canterbury and other ecclesiastical courts with probate jurisdiction. The extant records of the Court are in unbroken series with those of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. Some of the inventories in PROB 2 were compiled during the Commonwealth period, but were not exhibited until after the restoration of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury in 1660.
Very few inventories in this series survive from the period 1583 to 1640. Many of them were exhibited some time after compilation, and while in the case of the some of the Commonwealth inventories the delay may be attributable to juridical dislocations, in other case it may be that the inventories were exhibited in the course of litigation.