King tells the story of England's greatest medieval public record.
IN THE EARLY
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
duke of Normandy, was crowned king of England on Christmas
Day, 1066. He commissioned Domesday 19 years later.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Public Records Office in Kew, London is the home of
Great Domesday and Little Domesday.
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
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.
Book has been rebound at least five times. This picture
shows Great Domesday after its binding for its ninth
centenary in 1986.
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.
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.
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.
article originally appeared in our October/November