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The Domesday Book

The Domesday Book is a great land survey which was compiled in 1086. It was commissioned by William the Conqueror to assess the extent of the land and resources being owned in England at the time – and therefore the extent of the taxes he could raise.


The information collected was recorded by hand in two huge books, in the space of around a year. William died before it was fully completed.

An observer of the survey wrote that "there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out". The grand and comprehensive scale on which the Domesday survey took place and the nature of the information collected led people to compare it to the Last Judgement, or 'Doomsday', described in the Bible, when the deeds of Christians, written in the Book of Life, were to be placed before God for judgement. The name was adopted in the late 12th Century.


The Domesday Book provides extensive records of landholders, their tenants, the amount of land they owned, how many people occupied the land (villagers, smallholders, free men, slaves, etc.), the amounts of woodland, meadows, animals, fish and ploughs on the land (if there were any) and other resources, any buildings present (churches, castles, mills, salthouses, etc.) The whole purpose of the survey was to discover the value of the land and its assets, before the Norman Conquest, after it, and at the time of Domesday. Some entries also chronicle disputes over who held land, and some mention customary dues that had to be paid to the King. Entries for major towns include records of traders and the number of houses. However, the Domesday Book does not provide an accurate indication of the population of England towards the end of the 11th century.

 

Royal commissioners were sent out around England to record the information from thousands of settlements. The country was split up into 7 regions, or 'circuits' of the country, with 3 or 4 commissioners being assigned to each. They carried with them a set of questions and put these to a jury of representatives - made up of barons and villagers from each county. They wrote down all of the information in Latin, as with the final Domesday document itself. Once they returned to London the information was combined with earlier records, from both before and after the Norman Conquest, and was then, circuit by circuit, entered into the final Domesday Book.

 

The information was collected in the first few months of 1086, and then this, together with existing information was amalgamated into two lengthy drafts, and then abbreviated into the Great Domesday. By the time of King William’s death in 1087, work had stopped. The Great Domesday Book was left incomplete, but the draft of the remaining unabbreviated work remains as the Little Domesday Book.


Incredibly the final version of the main Domesday Book, all 413 pages of it, was handwritten by one unnamed official scribe, and checked by one other. Despite the speed at which the Book was compiled the text was very carefully written in a short form of Latin.


The reason why the book was made was as follows. With the need to defend England from possible invasion threats from Scandinavia, and costly campaigns being fought in northern France, the vast army William amassed required substantial funding. The power to raise Danegeld - a uniform tax to pay for the defence of the country - had been inherited from the Anglo-Saxons, and William needed the Domesday Book as a thorough assessment of the potential amount of tax he could raise from his subjects and their assets. The survey also served as a gauge of the country's economic and social state in the aftermath of the Conquest and the unrest that followed it.


The main volume, Great Domesday, is written on sheep-skin parchment using only black and red ink. Red ink was used for the county titles a the top of each page, and for alterations and corrections.


There are 13,418 places listed in the Domesday Book. The Domesday survey covered all of England as it existed in 1086, which included a small part of what is now Wales, and some of Cumbria, but it excluded the present day Northumbria. However, some major towns (like Winchester and London) failed to make it into the book.


The survey was intended to be compiled into one complete volume, but the compilation was never fully completed, probably due to King William's death before the sole scribe could finish his work. However, the information collected from the whole survey was retained and still exists today in two volumes: 'Great Domesday' – containing most of the counties, abridged, and 'Little Domesday' - containing the 3 counties missing from Great Domesday, in their unabridged form.


There are 413 pages in Great Domesday, and 475 pages in Little Domesday. This shows how much detail was cut out to compile Great Domesday.

 

Amazingly almost all of the places mentioned in the Domesday Book can still be found on a modern day map of England (and Wales), though many of their names have been altered over time from their 11th century versions.

 

When William and his army invaded in 1066 they continued their conquest campaign towards western and northern England, leaving a good deal of destruction in their wake. The term 'waste' or 'wasted' appears many times in the Domesday Book, most often describing settlements the army had passed through and left their mark on. However the term was also sometimes used for manors simply not paying geld for some reason.

 

The Domesday Book provides an invaluable insight into the society and economy of 11th century Norman England. Historians can use it, amongst other things, to discover the wealth of England at the time, information about the feudal system which existed in society, the social hierarchy (from the King down to villagers and slaves), and information about the geography and demographic situation of the country. For local historians it can reveal the history of a local settlement and its population and surroundings, whilst for genealogists it provides a useful and fascinating resource for tracing family lines. Through the centuries the Domesday Book has also been used as evidence in disputes over ancient land and property rights, though the last case of this was in the 1960’s.


The original Domesday Book is too valuable and fragile to be exhibited in public. It is kept at the National Archives - formerly the Public Records Office - in Kew, London. A copy of the document has been made and this reproduction can be viewed at the National Archives.