From at least the thirteenth century Archbishops of Canterbury had claimed some prerogative authority to grant probate and administrations where persons died with personalty or debts in more than one diocese. It is not, however, until the fifteenth century, during the archiepiscopate of John Morton (1486-1500), that there is a clear mention of a Prerogative Court with its own officers.
The Court, which from the sixteenth century sat mainly in Doctors' Commons, London, exercised jurisdiction where the deceased had bona notabilia, namely personal property, credit or debts, to the value of £5 or more, within the jurisdiction of more than one bishop within the southern province of the church (£10 in some dioceses by special composition). The Court's jurisdiction did not, however, extend to real estate. From the 1570s a similar court existed at York for the northern province. Where the personal estate was divided between the two provinces Canterbury dealt with the southern element; it also exercised jurisdiction where death occurred at sea or abroad.
Appeal from the Court lay to the Court of Arches and, before the Reformation, to Rome. After 1534 the papal role was replaced by delegates of the Crown in Chancery (25 Hen. VIII c19), later collectively known as the High Court of Delegates. This Court continued to function until 1832 when its powers were transferred to the King in Council and subsequently to a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
In 1653, during the Interregnum, the Prerogative Court of Canterbury (PCC) was replaced by a Court for Probate of Wills and Granting Administrations, whose jurisdiction covered the whole of England and Wales. With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, however, the PCC was reinstated, along with the lesser ecclesiastical courts.
Under the Court of Probate Act 1857 the PCC was abolished and a Court of Probate established as part of the state judicial system. Consequent upon this the Principal Probate Registry started functioning on 12 January 1858.