The Domesday Book

Doomsday book

Domesday – the Royal Commissioners are sent out

Shortly after Christmas 1085 ‘after very deep conversation with his Council’, a survey was commissioned by William I to record the resources and revenue of all his land in England, and details of the Lords holding from him.

It is believed that he did this because he was once again threatened with invasion and needed to know what his resources were. However, whatever the reason, Royal Commissioners were sent out into all (or almost all) parts of the land from January 1085 onwards, compiling information.

The inquest was begun and finished in 1086, an amazing achievement.  It must have been shattering for the people:

“there was no single hide” (states the Anglo Saxon Chronicle bitterly), “nor a yard of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate but it seemed no shame to him [William] to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record’

The Manor was the basic unit of the survey, although manors varied widely in size and importance.

Checking the evidence

After the information was collected, it had to be checked. Here how the National Archives describes the procedure:

The commissioners visited special sittings of the county courts to test the accuracy of the information provided. Jurors (half of them English, the other half French) were summoned from all the hundreds

The commissioners asked the jurors several questions. A copy of a draft survey (the Ely Inquest) survives for Cambridgeshire and appears to list the questions asked. Because these questions were very similar in each circuit this brought a certain amount of consistency to the recorded answers.

However, not all these questions have answers in every entry in Domesday, and the scribe who wrote down all the answers was not always consistent. Also, the way in which people were described in Domesday varied from one county to another. Terms such as villan are sometimes used to embrace a wide variety of people, and at other times used in a specific sense.

Here are the questions that were asked:

  1. What is the manor called?
  2. Who held it in the time of King Edward (in 1066)?
  3. Who holds it now (in 1086)?
  4. How many hides are there (what is its tax assessment)?
  5. How many plough(team)s* on the demesne (local lord’s own land) and among the men (rest of the village)?
  6. How many free men, sokemen, villans, cotta[ge]rs, slaves?
  7. How much woodland, meadow, pasture, mills, fisheries?
  8. How much has been added to or taken away from the manor?
  9. How much was the whole worth (1066) and how much now (1086)?
  10. How much had or has each freeman and each sokeman?
  11. And whether more can be had than is had (in other words, can the manor raise more tax revenue)?

Question 10 to be recorded three times: in the time of King Edward (1066), when William gave it (often 1066), and now (1086)

* When Domesday refers to number of ploughs it is referring to the taxable amount of land that can be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. Thus, land ‘for half a plough’ (or ‘for four oxen’) means half a plough land.

Domesday – the whole truth?

Now I have a suspicion that probably the peasants were able to conceal a certain amount from the commissioners, using that well known peasant cunning and deviousness. The Barons also were not adverse to a bit of deviousness as it is believed some of them exaggerated their holdings, seeing as this was to be a ‘once and for all’ record, in order to be able to claim title.

However deviousness notwithstanding, there is no doubt that it cast a mighty light on the resources of the Kingdom at that time and is a priceless heritage for our country. The National Archives describe it as Britain’s finest treasure.

Writing it up

Its not sure whether William intended the great survey to be written up. Unfortunately (for him) he died in 1087, from injuries caused by being impaled upon the pommel of his horse, according to legend, during the siege of Mantes in France.

It is believed that it may have been his son and successor, William Rufus, who ordered the survey to be transcribed.

The Domesday book is actually two books. Great Doomsday and Little Doomsday.  Great Domesday appears to have been largely written by the one scribe although some six scribes were used for Little Domesday.

Great Domesday:

This, as you would imagine covers the greater area of land. This is the final edited down version of the information compiled and covers most of the country apart from Winchester, London, Bristol and Tamworth (which were unaccountably left out of the survey) and East Anglia (which is the subject of Little Doomsday).

There is also limited coverage of parts of the North, and Durham and Northumberland are omitted entirely – due doubtless to the fact that the William had had problems enforcing his authority there. Indeed he had ravaged the land ferociously during the Harrying of the North – no doubt they had not forgotten.

Little Domesday:

For some reason the Domesday book was never finished, and Little Doomsday is the preliminary draft version for the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. It is therefore much more detailed, as the content had not yet been edited down into its final form.

If you are interested in the detail of how the books were made, the section on the Domesday Book in the National Archives is highly recommended.

Domesday down the ages

The Domesday book was an incredibly useful resource and for many years, centuries, it was the final word on the title to land. Indeed this is the reason for its name ‘Domesday book’.

“for as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to … its sentence cannot be put quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book ‘the Book of Judgement’ … because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable. (Richard FitzNigel, 1179)

Its original name was the Winchester Roll or King’s Roll, and sometimes as the Book of the Treasury.  But it was known as Domesday after about 1179-80.

Today the Domesday book is kept at the National Archives in Kew.

Doomesday chestDomesday was originally kept with the royal treasury at Winchester. But from the early 13th century, when it was not travelling around with the King, it was housed in Westminster at first in the palace and then in the abbey.

From about 1600 it was kept in a large iron-clad chest and reinforced with iron straps. The chest had three different locks, the keys to which were divided between three different officials, so that it could only be opened by consent of all three.

In 1859 Domesday was removed to the new Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London. In 1996 it was brought to The National Archives, Kew

Further information

If you want to do a bit of further study, there is quite a lot about the Domesday book online. As well as the National Archives (which I have used a lot for compiling this article) there is the Domesday Book online site, the Domesday Explorer  and the Domesday map – a brilliant site where you can put in your own postcode and find out what Domesday has to say about it.

Apparently over 90% of the towns and villages mentioned in Domesday are still around and lived in today.

So there is the story of Domesday. I have no doubt that I will be referring to it again as we progress through English legal history!

Photos copied from the National Archive site

Please feel free to add a comment. All comments are moderated but this is just to make sure no spam gets through. 2 Responses to The Domesday Book
  1. ObiterJNo Gravatar
    September 20, 2011 | 5:45 pm

    Good post – great links – many thanks.

  2. MarkNo Gravatar
    July 2, 2013 | 12:25 pm

    I agree, excellent introduction to Domesday, which was probably the start of the Anglo Saxon fatalism about death and taxes :-)

    I surmise that evasion of taxation was the reason for some Angles (from the, Baltic coast of Germany just south of Denmark) migrating across to Britain because our word for “writing” comes from a different Indo-European root from that of all the other European languages. (I wanted to put some examples here but the spell check won’t let me and I can’t turn it off :-( … Stupid tablet!

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