How to look for records of... Landholders and heirs in inquisitions post mortem 1236-c1640

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1. Introduction

An inquisition post mortem is not the same as a coroner’s inquest, or the medical post mortem carried out after a suspicious death. Instead, it is a local enquiry into the lands held by people of some status, in order to discover whatever income and rights were due to the crown. Such inquisitions were only held when people were thought or known to have held lands of the crown. All have been indexed, and many are published in English, in brief (see below).

2. What information do they contain?

They give details of what lands were held (a separate one was held for each county involved), and by what tenure, and from whom, as well as the date of death, and the name and age of the heir. They are in Latin, in a standard layout.

3. How do I understand the document?

Each inquisition starts with the county, the name of the escheator (the official holding the inquest), and a list of the jurors. The name of the deceased and the date of their death comes next. Then follows a brief description of each landholding, its value (often underestimated) and the tenure by which it is held. This section may include extracts (in English) from a will or an enfeoffment to use (putting the lands into the hands of trustees, in order to avoid the king’s claims to livery and wardship, etc, and also to allow lands to be left to people other than the heir at law).

At the end, the next heir is identified, and an age given. If the heir was of age (over 21, or over 14 for an heiress), the actual age given may be an estimate. The next heir is usually one male, or one female, or a number of females: lands were split between daughters (who were treated as having an equal claim if there was no male heir), but not between sons. Sometimes a proof of age was recorded in a separate type of inquisition (de aetate probanda). Widows also had rights of dower in the lands, which continued long after the deaths of their husbands, and there are inquisitions (de assignatione dotis) into this as well. These inquisitions are included with the inquisitions post mortem.

4. Why were they held?

In feudal theory all land belonged to the king and was therefore either held by him, i.e. royal demesne, or of him, whether directly or indirectly. Those who held land directly from the king were known as tenants in chief. When a tenant in chief died, his lands escheated to (fell into the hands of) his lord, the king. If there was no heir, the lands went back to the king’s demesne. If there was an heir, the king kept the lands until the heir took possession (livery of seisin) of the lands on payment of a sum of money known as a relief. When the heir was under age, however, the king kept possession until the heir came of age, and received the rights of wardship and marriage (i.e. he collected the revenues of the estate, and could dispose of the heir in marriage). The king was able to sell these rights to third parties, who were only sometimes the next of kin. These feudal tenures and rights were abolished in the Interregnum, and again by Charles II.

5. What happened to the inquisitions?

The escheators usually returned the inquisitions into the Chancery, which had ordered them in the first place (C 132-142). However, if one had been held under the escheator’s own authority, it was returned only into the Exchequer (E 149-150). The Exchequer also received duplicates (less the jury lists) of the ones ordered by Chancery. This was done to support the escheator’s accounts (in E 136) of his administration of land falling into the king’s hands (for however brief a period). After 1540, another copy was sent into the Court of Wards and Liveries (WARD 7). Quite often the Exchequer and Wards inquisitions are easier to read, because they have been less used.

6. What happened next?

Land was delivered to the heir, after a period of wardship if needed. Records of the livery of lands, sale of wardship, etc, will be found in the Patent Rolls (C 66). From c 1540 onwards, it may be worth looking in the records of the Court of Wards. (See Land inheritance in the Court of Wards and Liveries 1540-1645). The introductory notes to all these series, filed in the standard series lists, give more information.

7. 1236-1447: published in English

The Chancery series for Henry III-Henry VI are now searchable on Discovery, our catalogue, by county, name and peerage title.

There are detailed summaries of the contents of each inquisition in the Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem, covering 1236 to 1447, available in the reading rooms at The National Archives. Each is indexed: if you then want to look at the original document, note the file reference printed after each entry – for example, E.Inq.P.M. File 49 (15), or C. Edw. III 40 (2). These need to be converted to a modern ordering format. The ones starting E are Exchequer inquisitions, and convert thus: E 149/49. The references starting C are Chancery inquisitions, and differ for each reign. The example given converts from C. Edw. III 40 (2) to C 135/40. Only the first two numbers (C 135/40, E 149/49) are required to order the document, but you need to note of the last number to find that item in a file full of inquisitions. You may also see the entry E. Enrolments &c. of Inq.: these are estreats, or extracts of Chancery inquisitions sent to the Exchequer for information and enrolled there, in E 152. They can supply information for damaged or missing inquisitions.

Date range Monarch Catalogue reference
1236-1272 Henry III C 132, E 149
1272-1307 Edward I C 133, E 149
1307-1327 Edward II C 134, E 149
1327-1377 Edward III C 135, E 149
1377-1399 Richard II C 136, E 149
1399-1413 Henry IV C 137, E 149
1413-1422 Henry V C 138, E 149
1422-1461 Henry VI C 139, E 149

8. 1447-1485: original documents only

These are searchable on our catalogue, by name, title, and county. There is also a paper list for 1413-1485 covering series C 138-141 in the standard series lists of the Chancery inquisitions under C 138. These give name, relationship, county, and type of inquisition (for example, post mortem, dower, proof of age), as well as the item number to be looked for in the file, once ordered, and the regnal year. Note that they do not give any details of land.

For lists of the lands mentioned in an inquisition, look at the Calendarium inquisitionum post mortem sive escaetarum, IV (1828) (shelved with the calendars), which is arranged by regnal year and item number. This does not include any of the many documents found and added to the series after 1828. Not all went to the Chancery, so if you also want to check the Exchequer inquisitions, in E 149, try the four manuscript volumes, arranged by the names of the person being investigated. These volumes also contain the details of series E 152 and E 153.

Date range Monarch Catalogue reference
1422-1461 Henry VI C 139, E 149
1461-1483 Edward IV C 140, E 149
1483-1485 Richard III C 141, E 149

9. 1485-1509: published in English

These series are searchable by name and by the county where the inquisition took place using our catalogue. Restrict the search to the record series C 142 and E 150.

Alternatively, these are calendared in detail in the Calendar of inquisitions post mortem for the reign of Henry VII, which is available in the reading rooms at The National Archives. The calendar refers to C 142 as C. Series II and E 150  as E. Series II.

10. 1509-c1640: original documents only

From 1540 duplicates of inquisitions were also sent to the Court of Wards and Liveries. These can be searched by name and by the county where the inquisition took place using the our catalogue. Restrict the search to the record series C 142, E 150 and WARD 7 (for 1540-c1640 only). There is also a series of composite indexes to these record series available in the reading rooms at The National Archives, which give the name, date and county, with references to the three possible copies of the inquisition. These indexes were published as the Index of inquisitions post mortem, and are available in the reading rooms at The National Archives; check the front of each volume for the format needed to the original documents.

11. Cheshire, Durham and Lancashire, and the Duchy of Lancaster

The palatine counties of Cheshire, Durham and Lancashire and the Duchy of Lancaster also had inquisitions post mortem. For Henry VIII-Charles I, they have been included as appendices in the Index of inquisitions post mortem, Charles I and later. The relevant series are CHES 3, DURH 3, PL 4 and DL 7. Because the finding aids are complicated for the earlier period, it is best to read the introductory notes to each of these series, filed in the standard list set.

12. Published inquisitions post mortem

Many local record societies have published translations of inquisitions post mortem for their counties. Ask in The National Archives’ Library for help in identifying what is available, using Texts and calendars.

Guide reference: Legal Records Information 10