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History Magazine cover
The 1650s
Victoria L. King examines a decade of civil unrest and enlightenment in Europe.

Birth of the Boardwalk: A Sandy History
Russell Roberts looks at the illustrious beginning of the "walk of boards".

David A. Norris looks at the plastic of the Victorian Age.

The Battle of Cannae
Nicky Nielsen tells the story of the ancient battle between Hannibal Barcas and his sworn enemy, Rome..

Barter and Trade in Colonial America
Joanne Liu looks at the early history of Colonial America where currency as we know it was scarce.

Chroniclers & Scribes — Medieval Historical Writers
William Stroock chronicles some of the great medieval documents that have survived.

The Pedigree of Platinum
Steve Voynick relates the fascinating history of the "other" precious metal.

Pyramids and the Occult — Fact or Fiction?
Pamela D. Toller chronicles the search for the magical meaningn of the pyramids.

The Early Days of Radio
From the book With Amusement For All: A History Of American Popular Culture Since 1930, author LeRoy Ashby looks at the early programs that made radio so popular.

The treatment that was available at that time was very ineffective; in the modern world, with the appearance of covid-19, it took about a year to find a cheap medicine.

"The Storm": Killer Hurricane Devastates Galveston, Texas
Joanna Bostwick Backman tells the story of a killer hurricane.

Fire Below! The Devastating Reality of Coal Bunker Fires
Patrick McSherry chronicles the dirty and dangerous history of coal bunker fires and the men that fought them.

The Timeless Appeal of Clocks
Phill Jones chronicles the history of timekeeping and its impact on history.

Lizzie Borden and the Fall River Axe Murders
Daniel M. Hoenig describes the enduring interest in this case of murder most foul.

The Domesday Book

Victoria King tells the story of England's greatest medieval public record.

William, duke of Normandy, was crowned king of England on Christmas Day, 1066. He commissioned Domesday 19 years later.
IN THE EARLY WINTER of 1085, William I of England, also known as William the Conqueror, held his Christmas curia regis (royal court or "King's Court") at Gloucester. It was there William, in his 20th year as king, announced his plans for a survey of the English possessions he had conquered in 1066. The book resulting from this survey became known as Domesday. The name "Domesday" was applied within a few generations. Henry II's treasurer, Richard Fitz Nigel, wrote of Domesday, "This book is metaphorically called by the native English, Domesdai, the Day of Judgement. For as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to on those matters which it contains, its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1085 tells ". the king had important deliberations and exhaustive discussions with his council about this land, how it was peopled, and with what sort of men. Then he sent his men all over England into every shire to ascertain, how many hundreds of 'hides' of land there were in each shire, and how much land and live-stock the king himself owned in the country, and what annual dues were lawfully his from each shire. He also had it recorded how much land his archbishops had, and his diocesan bishops, his abbots and his earls - and though I may be going into too great detail - what or how much each man who was a landholder here in England had in land or in live-stock, and how much money it was worth. So very thoroughly did he have the inquiry carried out that there was not a single 'hide', not one virgate of land, not even - it is shameful to record it, but it did not seem shameful to him to do - not even one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig which escaped notice in his survey. And all the surveys were subsequently brought to him."

William's reasons for compiling the Domesday Book will never be known for certain. However, Domesday was probably the result of a geld (land tax) inquest to raise funds for the realm's defense. In 1085, William's kingdom had come under threat from King Canute of Denmark and King Olaf of Norway. Additionally, unrest in France, Normandy and Scotland contributed to an uneasy winter. Geld was collected in the year of Domesday.

Others suggest William wanted an account of the lands held by his tenants-in-chief (land holders) so he could exercise his rights as feudal overlord. There is also the school of thought that William wanted to assess the burden of mercenaries upon his vassals and redistribute the burden fairly. A new theory is that several years lapsed between the inquest and the making of Domesday and it was written after the death of William and was commissioned by his son, William II, as a result of a revolt in 1088. Some have also put forth the theory William simply wished to learn more about the country he had conquered 20 years earlier and to bring order from the chaos of the Norman Conquest. "To bring the conquered people under the rule of written law" wrote one chronicler.

William's death on 9 September 1087, from wounds sustained while on campaign in France, left many questions about Domesday unanswered. William left England at the end of the previous summer and seems to have had nothing to do with Domesday while on the continent.

The Making Of Domesday

The Herculean task of gathering the information for Domesday began in January 1086. All tenants-in-chief and sheriffs were to submit a list of manors and men (women are hardly mentioned in Domesday). The Anglo-Saxon administration of England had records of this nature from before the Norman Conquest, allowing this part of the survey to run efficiently. Without this Anglo-Saxon infrastructure, the survey probably would have been impossible.

Several panels of officials and clerks were then sent to different parts of England in early 1086 to collect further information for Domesday. The officials and clerks went to the larger towns within each county of their circuit and were presented with the information for each tenant-in-chief. The officials were men of high rank, such as bishops or dukes, while the clerks were often monks. Those who presented the information to the commissioners are believed to have been sheriffs, reeves and priests of the area and as many as six villagers from each manor. These local officials were also required to act as an inquest jury to hear others submit the information for the royal survey.

As written in the Ely Inquest, a contemporary manuscript, the inquisitors asked the following questions: "What the manor was called; who held it at the time of King Edward [the Confessor]; who now holds it; how many hides there are; how many teams - in demesne [held by the lord] - how many belonging to the tenants; how many villagers, cottagers, slaves; how many freemen, sokemen. How much woodland, meadow, pasture; how many mills, fisheries; how much had been added to or taken away from the estate; what it used to be worth altogether what it is worth now; and how much each freeman and sokeman had and has. All this was to be recorded in triplicate; as it was in the time of King Edward, as it was when King William granted it and as it is now. And it was also to be noted whether more could be taken than is now being taken."

Robert Losinga, bishop of Hereford, wrote a few years later that after the first investigators came, a second set repeated the process to check the validity of the information gathered. The information was then taken to Winchester where a single anonymous scribe edited and copied the information into a book.

Domesday was divided into counties. Each county entry began with a list of landholders, similar to a table of contents, usually beginning with the royal estates. After the royal estates, came the tenants-in-chief, starting with the archbishops and down through the hierarchy of the Church. Then followed the holdings of earls, and other vassals, usually in order of size. Following the list of landholders came the properties held by each as listed at the beginning of the county entry. The properties were divided into hundreds, a subdivision used for fiscal assessment, which contained hides (a land unit of varying size, 40 to 120 acres, upon which a family could support itself). The basic unit in Domesday was the manor, which was the smallest area of land held by a feudal lord. It usually covered one village, but could cover several and the surrounding area.

Literacy being rare, monks were often pressed into duty as scribes for the Domesday Book.

The inquest questions revealed much about the hundreds, how goods and money traded hands, the laws of the area regarding duties and fines due. Fragments of medieval life surface in some entries, such as donations of land to the Church for the salvation of a dead husband's soul.

The text was written in Latin. However, there were some artificial words inserted for native terms that had no equivalent in Latin. The text was highly abbreviated. The term "T.R.E." was the contraction of tempore regis Edwardi meaning in the time of King Edward, which was 'on the day on which King Edward was alive and dead' (5 January 1066). Also, Domesday terms and standards were not consistent from county circuit to county circuit; for example, the term wapentake was the equivalent to the hundred in the Danelaw counties. Not surprisingly, there is no index. At the end of many county entries, a list of disputed property was recorded.

Domesday was also known as Liber Wintoniensis (Book of Winchester) as it was kept at the king's treasury in Winchester. Other names included the Book of the Exchequer and the King's Book.

Great Domesday and Little Domesday

Domesday is comprised of two volumes, Great Domesday and Little Domesday. Great Domesday contains the surveys for all England except the area north of the river Tees and the three eastern counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. These three counties are contained in Little Domesday, which is also known as Volume II.

Why there are two volumes of Domesday is not known. However, it seems the collection of the information for Domesday was completed by August 1086 and William was presented with the surveys at that time. Many scholars speculate the surveys were to be condensed with the removal of livestock and population details and made into a single volume. Continuing with this theory, the death of William in September 1087, meant the project was abandoned before the entries for Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk were added to the single volume (Great Domesday). The surveys for the eastern counties, known as Little Domesday were then kept with Great Domesday.

The information in Little Domesday is greater in detail than what comes to us from Great Domesday. In Essex, one scholar tallied the pigs at 13,171 and over 50,000 sheep made the county their home. The information for Norfolk shows a prosperous county with salt-pans and a large population of sheep, the town of Norwich being its centerpiece with a population of 5,000. Suffolk shows a goat population of 4,343, but only two donkeys and none of its towns have a population of over 3,000. Little Domesday records the status of the humbler classes and their allegiances, but not their names. Despite what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle author wrote, oxen, pigs and cows were omitted from Great Domesday.

Though Great Domesday has 413 sheets of parchment compared to the 475 of Little Domesday, it is the size of the sheets (15" by 11" for Great Domesday, versus 11" by 5" for Little Domesday) that gave each volume its name.

Domesday's Satellites

Three books exist related to Domesday, and collectively these are known as the Domesday Satellites. These three satellites - the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis, Ely Inquest and Exeter Domesday - were written before or are based on information written before Domesday's completion.

The Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis (The Inquisition of the County of Cambridge) is a 12th-century transcript of a damaged copy of the information gathered for the original survey of Cambridgeshire. Information on royal manors was not included in the document. The information is ordered in hundreds, not by landholders, plus the names of jurors and number of livestock are recorded. The manuscript also contains two entries that are omitted from Domesday.

Ely Inquest (Inquisitio Eliensis) was named after the Abbey in Cambridgeshire for which it was compiled. The manuscript contains information on the holdings of Ely Abbey in the counties of Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and the historical country of Huntingdonshire. It appears Ely Inquest, which is a 12th-century manuscript, was based, in part, on the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis. This manuscript contains the questions asked during the survey, however, the question concerning the number of livestock is omitted, but this question was obviously asked as the information is contained in Little Domesday.

Ely Domesday and Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis are both in the British Library and two copies of the latter are at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The Public Records Office in Kew, London is the home of Great Domesday and Little Domesday.

Named after Exeter Cathedral in Devon where the book resides to this day, Exeter Domesday or Liber Exonienis contains information for the county circuit of southwest England. Exeter Domesday contains the counties of Cornwall, Devon (some holdings missing), Dorset (some holdings missing) and Somerset. One holding in Wiltshire is also included in the Exeter Domesday. The manuscript is in poor condition, with many pages missing, and dates from the time of Domesday. Nearly all the information in Exeter Domesday can also be found in Domesday, however, some Domesday entries miss details that only survive in Exeter Domesday. Scholars debate if Exeter Domesday was a penultimate stage of Domesday, like Little Domesday is believed to be, or if it was created simultaneously with a now missing penultimate stage.

Errors and Omissions

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded for Domesday that "not even one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig . escaped notice in his survey." This is an overstatement. The northern counties of Cleveland, Cumbria, Durham, Northumberland and Tyne and Wear are not included in Domesday. (For clarity, present-day counties have been used instead of the historic counties changed in 1974.) The border between England and Scotland was not established and the area that would become part of England was not fully in Norman control at the time of Domesday. The Harrying of the North in 1069-70 under William laid waste to as much as a quarter of the land in the northern counties. The countryside was scorched and villages were razed to the ground. It took generations to recover from this offensive. Evidence of William's harrying is the short entry for the northern county of Staffordshire. At 10 pages, it is the third shortest entry with only three towns.

Domesday Book has been rebound at least five times. This picture shows Great Domesday after its binding for its ninth centenary in 1986.

Only a handful of settlements in the historical county of Cumberland were included in Domesday and these are found in Yorkshire's entry. Lancashire, Rutland and Westmorland were not established as counties until the late 1100s; their holdings are found within other entries. Lancashire's holdings for Domesday are included in both Cheshire's and Yorkshire's entries. The historical county of Rutland had its holdings listed as an appendix (under the name "Roteland") to the Nottinghamshire section of Domesday. The entries for Westmorland are included with Yorkshire's holdings.

London and Winchester were also excluded from Domesday. Two pages in the Middlesex section are left blank where London, already the largest and richest town, might have been inserted, and Winchester, as the capital of England, could have enjoyed tax-free status excluding it from the survey. Some holdings and other towns are omitted or lost. Additionally, misspellings make some entries difficult to distinguish. The Isle of Wight and the New Forest are listed separately to their mother county of Hampshire. Several estates were also listed with the wrong county and some were included in the correct county and repeated in another county. Many villages appear twice as they belonged to more than one landholder.

Given their prominence in society, it is interesting to note churches are largely ignored in Domesday. Apart from the archbishops and bishops listed as tenants-in-chief, monks and nuns are omitted and churches are hardly mentioned in the survey. This might have been because the Church's records were available to the Crown. It might have also been because such records were not needed. Church lands were not subject to feudal dues. Taxes were paid on land upon marriage or inheritance. Such taxes obviously would not apply to the Church. Such lands were considered mortmain (meaning "in a dead hand").

Holdings in Wales are also included in Domesday as the boundary between England and Wales was not fixed in the 1000s. England held part of the northern coast of present-day Wales and these holdings are included in the entry for Cheshire. To the south, Shropshire also has several Welsh holdings in its Domesday entry. In the 1070s and 80s, Welsh raids ravaged Shropshire and the resulting destruction is mentioned in Domesday. The Domesday entry for Gloucestershire has five Welsh holdings located on the south coast. A total of 142 Welsh places appear in Domesday.

What Does Domesday Tell Us?

Domesday is a very important document for understanding Norman England. Domesday reveals a country changed by the Norman invasion 20 years earlier, although Normans made up less than one percent of the population. William granted lands directly to fewer than 180 men in his reign, making them his tenants-in-chief. Only two Anglo-Saxon barons, Thorkell of Arden in Warwick and Colswein of Lincoln, still retained lands they held in the time of Edward the Confessor. The dominance of the Normans is evident in Domesday by the extent of their holdings. Less than 250 people, hardly any native to the land, controlled most of England. William and his family held around 17 percent of the land, with the Church holding just over a quarter of the land and the tenants-in-chief holding 54 percent.

This page from Great Domesday shows the entry for the New Forest, which was treated separately from its mother county of Hampshire.

The population in Domesday - including the omissions and errors - is estimated at one and a half million. Domesday was not a census and people were not usually named unless tenants-in-chief. The humbler classes were counted and women rarely appear. Of the three women who appear the most in Domesday - Queen Edith, consort of Edward the Confessor, Queen Matilda, consort of William I, and Judith, Countess of Northumbria and Huntingdon - only Judith was still alive in 1086. The properties of the two queens reverted to the Crown upon their deaths.

In the Danelaw counties, there were a large number of freemen (a higher class of villager, with more land and obligations), while in the West Midlands, there were a large number of slaves. Several interesting occupations are recorded in Domesday, including one female jester and one gold embroidress. Sixteen beekeepers and one vine dresser are also recorded; England's climate was milder then and there were 45 vineyards recorded in Domesday. Interestingly, there is only one carpenter recorded.

The landscape of England in 1086 was very different to what one sees today. Large areas along the coasts were undrained marsh and swampy river deltas. Very few settlements appear in these areas in Domesday. Up to one-third of Lincolnshire and parts of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, were flat, low-lying marshlands, not drained until the 1600s. However, 80 percent of the land used for agriculture in 1914 was in use at the time of Domesday. Ten percent of the population was urban and there were over 100 boroughs, with London, Norwich, Winchester and York being the largest.

Domesday has a total of 13,418 places named, many of which can be found today. Some Domesday place names have changed or disappeared. In 1086, there were three Rodings in Essex; Abbess Roding, Beauchamp Roding and 'Morrell' Roding. Today there are eight Rodings in Essex, including Abbess Roding and Beauchamp Roding. 'Morrell' Roding no longer exists.

After its completion, the two volumes of Domesday were first kept in the Royal Treasury at Winchester. In the 1200s they moved to London, and then to Westminster. In 1859, they were taken to the Public Record Office in London, where today they are on view to the public. Domesday has been rebound at least five times, most recently for its ninth centenary in 1986. At that time, Great Domesday was divided into two sections for preservation reasons and so more information could be displayed at once. Little Domesday was divided into its three counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk.

David Hume, philosopher and author of History of England, wrote of Domesday that it "is the most valuable piece of antiquity possessed by any nation." The detail of Domesday was not surpassed until the introduction of censuses in the early 19th century.

Domesday has been consulted for legal precedent throughout its existence. In 1256, Henry III asserted that according to Domesday, the inhabitants of Chester, not the king, should pay for the repair of a bridge. Domesday has been consulted within the reign of Elizabeth II.

Domesday is the earliest public record in England and without rival in medieval Europe. It could well be the most remarkable administrative accomplishment of the Middle Ages.

This article originally appeared in our October/November 2001 issue.