Domesday Book (pronounced “Doomsday”) is one of the most remarkable documents ever compiled. It is a detailed survey of a conquered land, namely
after the Norman Conquest
of 1066. No other country in the world, at this point in history or for centuries
afterwards, had been described as fully. Domesday Book therefore offers a
unique portrait of a medieval society and economy. England
The original document survives to this day, comprising 888 leaves of parchment that are held in the National Archives at Kew (London). They were all written by one man, a native Englishman who took a year to transcribe and organise all the notes that were produced by the King’s commissioners. He was assisted by a second scribe, who filled in some of the gaps and made corrections.
The job was done remarkably well, such that the entries are consistently presented and easy to read. Other versions and translations have been produced over the centuries, the original having been compiled in Latin, which was the “lingua franca” of the time.
There are in fact two Domesday Books, “Little Domesday” and “Great Domesday”. Little Domesday comprises a survey of the eastern counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, in much greater detail than is found in Great Domesday, which covers the rest of England. It was probably the case that more detailed records were made for the whole country and summarised in Great Domesday, but the work of incorporating the Little Domesday material was never done, hence it survives as a separate document.
The name “Domesday” was only given to the book in the 12th century, the intention being to indicate that its contents were just as certain and unanswerable as the Day of Judgment.
There was a threefold purpose behind the Domesday survey, which was only undertaken after William I had been in charge of
for twenty years. Indeed, William did not live to see its completion, and the
benefits of the survey were enjoyed by his sons, who succeeded him as William
II and Henry I. William I is justly termed “The Conqueror” because he had
little real interest in his new kingdom other than as a source of wealth; he
was still Duke of Normandy, and that was where his true interest lay. England
The first reason why William needed all this detail was that he wanted to levy taxes on the English and he could only do this effectively if he knew what the people owned and what a tax levy would furnish. Immediately after the Conquest, the
were able to make
use of the extremely efficient Anglo-Saxon system of land division into “hides”
(a unit of land that could, in theory, support a single family), “hundreds” (originally
100 hides) and shires, which were managed by a well-organised local civil
service. A tax demand could be sent to a shire and then divided between the
hundreds and hides based on local knowledge of what each would bear. Normans
William’s approach was somewhat different. Knowing how many hides there were, he could simply demand a certain amount per hide and expect a total sum to accrue. However, his demands caused considerable distress and even starvation in many areas, and refusal to pay led to strong-arm tactics, severe punishments and the laying waste of huge areas of land.
During the 20 years between the Conquest and the Domesday survey,
had been taken over by a coterie
of powerful Norman barons who owed loyalty to William but were also keen to
establish their own power bases and exploit their new possessions for personal
gain. They also had to defend their lands against constant uprisings from the
native English and, at times, from each other. There had been much devastation
caused by armies moving across the country, and also by crop failures and
plagues. The pattern of ownership and wealth-gathering had therefore changed
considerably, and William needed to know how things stood in terms of who owned
There is evidence that the Domesday survey was coupled with an immediate demand for taxes, which were extortionate in nature. The King’s officials were able to perform two jobs at once, namely to establish what the taxation base was and make use of that information there and then.
The second motivating factor for Domesday was William’s need to billet his army on his vassal lords, so he needed to know how many troops each could be expected to support, based on what their lands produced. Indeed, the immediate inspiration for the Domesday survey had been a crisis in 1085 when William had needed to billet a huge Norman army in
to counter a threat from .
Without knowing exactly how many men could be supported, and where, William was
open to being taken by surprise, and that was not something that he was willing
to tolerate. Denmark
The third factor was a legal one, namely a desire to establish if land was held lawfully or had been seized unjustly, which had indeed happened on a vast scale since the Conquest. Domesday therefore drew a line under who owned
riches. Once written in the Book, the legal status was established and any
later disputes referred back to the particular entry that concerned a hundred
or other land division. England
The Domesday survey was conducted at the level of the shire courts. The King’s commissioners would arrive at a shire court and local juries would testify as to who owned which hundreds and then give detailed information for each one. This included how many hides were under the plough, or were pastureland, woodland, etc, and how many animals were kept. The commissioners wanted to know how many people held and worked the land and their status, such as whether they were freemen or bonded in some way. Although they were only interested in knowing how many heads of household there were, these figures are useful for working out the total population of Norman England (about two million).
The juries were asked for three sets of facts and figures, namely as they were before the Conquest (i.e. January 1066), at the time that the present (usually
Norman) owner took over, and at the time of the survey.
This sometimes meant referring to older records but more often to reliance on
memory and estimation.
After the commissioners had left, a second group of officials would arrive to check that the information was correct, going into the villages to see if any frauds had been committed. The fact that this double-checking took place helps to ensure the accuracy of the picture that Domesday provides of England in 1086.
Domesday Book, despite its thoroughness, is not complete. For one thing, it does not cover the lawless lands north of the River Tees. It does not include
London or several other towns, such as . It is also known that many
villages known to have existed at the time are missing from the account. The
reasons for these omissions can only be guessed at; were some villages “hidden”
from the commissioners in the hope of escaping the King’s taxes? On the other
hand, Domesday records many villages that have since disappeared, for whatever
What has survived is a wonderful picture of medieval society, frozen at a date more than 900 years ago when:
“Modbert holds Eggbeer from
Leofgar held it in King Edward’s time. There is land there for 6 ploughs. On
the lord’s farm 2 ploughs; 2 slaves; 4 villeins and 4 bordars. 30 acres of
pasture; 6 acres of woodland. 3 cattle, 4 pigs, 36 sheep, 4 goats. Formerly
worth 15 shillings, now 20 shillings.”
When comparisons are made between communities, either close together or in different parts of the country, all sorts of information can be gleaned about how this society worked.
We can also get valuable information about such things as place names, because modern names can be compared with how they were written in Domesday Book and their origin then determined. For example, my own village of Barlestone in Leicestershire is recorded in Domesday as Berulvestone, meaning the “tun” or farmstead of Berwolf, who would have been of Danish extraction. This very fact shows how, at this meeting point of Danes and Anglo-Saxons in the
East Midlands, Danish-descended farmers
worked alongside Anglo-Saxons and possibly spoke their language, “tun” being an
There are also many personal interest stories hidden among the otherwise dusty lists of facts and figures. One example concerns a female landowner in
Yorkshire who “held her land separately and free from the
domination and control of her husband Beornwulf”, a situation that clearly
shocked the commissioners to the extent that it needed to be fully documented.
Domesday is therefore a portrait of a past world, but it also gives the reader a strange sense of continuity. The pattern of villages on the modern map, in many parts of
can be traced in the pages of Domesday Book. These villages were there 900
years ago, and some of them do not seem to have grown much in the meantime. We
can ask questions about how our predecessors lived on the very spots that we
now occupy, and find the answers in Domesday Book. It is indeed a very
remarkable record of immense value. England
© John Welford