The Domesday Book

History - Middle Ages




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The Domesday Book is one of the most renowned, respected and revered public records ever to have been published. It is also the oldest public record to have survived through the ages. Unlike the modern census records, the Domesday Book was designed not to count the numbers of the population; it was instead designed to record the ownership of land and resources (such as livestock).

The Domesday Book was incredibly informative for the time, but it has also provided a huge amount of insights into Britain in the Middle Ages for modern historians. The original Domesday Book, which is more than 900 years old, can still be seen today in The National Archives in Kew. Alternatively, history enthusiasts can also view pages from the Domesday Book online for free.

Domesday Book – Origins and Purpose

The Domesday Book was commissioned in December 1085 and a first draft, written in Latin, was delivered in August 1086. This absolutely epic undertaking was carried out at the request of King William I, otherwise known as William the Conqueror.

The main purpose of the Domesday Book was to create an accurate and irrefutable document that detailed the ownership of animals and land throughout the country. The Domesday Book portrays a fascinating account of the landholdings and resources of the people living in late 11th-century England. The Domesday Book was also a clear message that signalled the power and strength of the government and its commitment to the hunt for useable data.

The Domesday Book comes with a sad irony, in that William I died before the Domesday Book was fully completed. However, this did not prevent the scribes or the government from completing the task.

Numerical Facts and Figures

The Domesday Book was a staggering accomplishment given the era, and the scale of this information harvesting has not been seen again until the development of the population censuses, which were launched in the 19th century.

The facts and figures behind the records are astonishing.

  • The Domesday Book totals 913 pages, in which more than two million words are written in Latin.

  • A total of 13,418 settlements were reviewed and written about in the Domesday Book.

  • The first draft was delivered in less than 9 months after the book was first commissioned.

As you can imagine, the Domesday Book would have been a massive undertaking for the administrators. A huge amount of energy and resources would have gone into the information gathering and recording.

Reasons for the Production of the Domesday Book

Excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggest that King William I made the decision to commission the Domesday Book at the Christmas court in Gloucester.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that William’s men were sent:

all over England into every shire [to] find out how many hides there were in the shire, what land and cattle the king had himself in the shire, what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire.’

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the Church was also not to be exempt from the process. William also:

...had a record made of how much land his archbishops had, his bishops and his abbots and his earls...’

William I had one main goal in the collection (and most importantly the recording) of all this data and that was to find out:

...what or how much everyone who was in England had...’

What’s incredibly interesting is despite this clear goal and statement a number of cities were completely missed out altogether.

However, by knowing exactly who owned what in a large portion of Britain, William could create a powerful, irrefutable document that would tell him:

a) who owed him how much money based on the land and resources that they owned, and

b) what resources he could call upon should England every be under the threat of war or invasion.

Many historians suggest that it was the threat of war from Denmark and Norway that forced William to issue orders for such a monumental undertaking, although this may not have been the case. It may be that William wanted the Domesday Book to be created strictly for financial purposes. It may also have been a demonstration of his ability to organise and rule an entire country.

Most historians however believe that William needed a document to define how his land had been redistributed following his invasion two decades prior to the commissioning of the Domesday Book. Following his invasion, William had redistributed a lot of the land to individuals that had favoured or helped his campaigns. The Domesday Book survey would clarify and confirm the ownership of land and resources, and this information would be extremely beneficial for both financial and militant purposes.

Domesday Disappearances – The Lost Locations

As mentioned earlier, the Domesday Book was not, by any means, a complete survey of Britain. In fact, there were a number of key cities and towns that were not mentioned in the records. These include:

  • London

  • Winchester

  • Bristol

  • Tamworth

  • Northumberland

  • Westmorland

  • Cumberland

  • Durham

Much of the areas in the north-west England were not mentioned, and only segments of certain border areas along Wales were included in the survey.

It is believed that London and Winchester were not included because of their size. The complexity of trying to record the details of ownership within these cities was simply too much. Northumberland, Westmorland and Cumberland were not included because they had not been fully conquered at the time that the survey was conducted. County Durham was excluded because the Bishop of Durham, William de St-Calais, had the exclusive rights to the tax for this particular region.

The omission of other areas such as Tamworth and Bristol has never been fully explained or understood.

Smaller locations were also lost in the compilation of the Domesday Book. Rather than being mentioned as individual towns and hamlets they were often included as part of a larger estate.

In this sense, the Domesday Book was riddled with holes and discrepancies. However, again, it was by far the most detailed public record that had ever been created in Britain, and it is, to this day a useful and relevant historical document.

Great and Little Domesday – The Many Volumes of The Domesday Book

Many people assume that the Domesday Book was produced in one giant volume, but this is not the case. Originally, the Domesday Book was made up of two volumes, Great Domesday and Little Domesday.

The main volume, Great Domesday was produced by the hand of just one scribe. Occasionally amendments appear throughout the text in the hand of a second clerk.

Little Domesday was produced a little later on, and despite its name it’s actually a more comprehensive and detailed record when compared to Great Domesday. Little Domesday covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. It is believed that as many as seven clerks may have worked on the Little Domesday volume.

Both Great Domesday and Little Domesday books have errors, which historians have long since mulled over and debated.

There are other parts of the Domesday survey that are not held at the National Archives. These include:

  • The Exon Domesday (which covers Somerset, Cornwall and parts of Devon)

  • The Ely Inquest (which covers the Ely Abbey estates)

  • The Cambridgeshire Inquest (which covers parts of Cambridgeshire)

The current version that is on display at the National Archives in Kew now includes a total of five volumes. The book was rebound in 1984 to help ensure that the Domesday Book can be preserved for as long as possible.

The Domesday Book – How it Earned Such an Ominous Name

The Domesday Book certainly sends like an ominous title for an official survey and record; however, it wasn’t initially given that name by King William I or his team of scribes.

An observer wrote a line about the survey that has remained synonymous with the survey and the records. The observer is quoted to have said:

"...there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out".

As we know, the Domesday Book excluded a number of key cities and areas, so it can be safe to assume that this statement was a slight over exaggeration of the survey (although it does clearly convey the feelings the comprehensive survey generated from the local populous). This negative perspective of the survey may have contributed to the comparison between the book and the Bible.

People compared the Domesday Book to the Last Judgement, or 'Doomsday', described in the passages of the Bible. In this section of the Bible the deeds of Christian souls are said to be written in the Book of Life, and this book would then be used by The Almighty to judge each individual.

It was the incredible and comprehensive scale of the Domesday survey and the irreversible and irrefutable nature of the details and data that was collected and recorded, combined with the quote given above that led to the local citizens to attach the ominous and now permanent nickname to the survey and the book.

The Continuing Importance of the Domesday Book

It goes without saying that the Domesday Book provides modern historians with invaluable insights into the economical and sociological structure of the country at the time of William’s reign.

The Domesday Book has been used to discover the wealth hidden within England at the time, information about the feudal system, which is the social hierarchy from the top of the society (i.e. the king) down to bottom of the society, (i.e. the villagers and slaves).

The Domesday Book has also provided valuable information on both the geography and the demographics of Britain at the time. Local historians have been able to use the Domesday Book to reveal the history of local settlements, whilst for genealogists have been able to use the Domesday Book for tracing back the family tree for many individuals.

Of course, given the kind of data that was recorded and stored in the Domesday it has also been used in it’s fair share of disputes over both land and property rights. The last case of the Domesday Book been used in this way was more than 50 years ago in the 1960s.

The Domesday Book provides not just an insight in to what once was, but it has and can be used to glimpse into what would be later on into what was then the future. It has helped a huge number of people from all kinds of backgrounds to ascertain crucial information.

Put simply, the importance of the Domesday Book is difficult to overstate. Anyone who uses the Domesday Book simply can’t help but acknowledge and appreciate the scale, size and scope of the survey and the beauty of the text that was derived as a direct result of the survey.

There is no document in Europe that can compare to the complexity and the huge amount of territory that is covered by the Domesday Book volumes.

Issues with the Domesday Book Volumes

Of course, the Domesday Books are not without the flaws. The document may have been irrefutable at the time, but there is no human being alive that is completely infallible. Human error has plagued some of the pages of the Domesday Book. Confusion and corrections have led to incorrect data and records which have proved to be incredibly difficult to rectify.

As well as being riddled with genuine numerical mistakes, the Domesday Book is also full of obvious errors and issues. Suffice it to say that the honesty and integrity of the Domesday Book cannot and should not be fully believed. How accurate the Domesday Book was will be impossible to prove, however, it can and should be recognised that the Domesday Book was a huge undertaking, taken on by a very limited group of people that ultimately did the best they could with the resources, technology and personal that was available at the time.





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