The Domesday Book

A Page of the Domesday Book
A Page of the Domesday Book. Wikimedia Commons


One of England's oldest surviving official documents, the Domesday Book is a record of land ownership, usage and value in England, traditionally believed to have been compiled in 1086 and commissioned by King William I, mainly for tax purposes. It is a major source of information on the state of England in the central middle ages, and still rewards close study.

Why was The Domesday Book made?:

We don't know for sure why William I commissioned the massive nationwide land survey which was recorded in the Domesday Book, but we believe the main goal was to assess the levels of tax and geld owed to him from England, which he had conquered in 1066.

(The Battle of Hastings 1066) Every entry in the Book records the financial value of the land and any dues owed to the crown. The information in the survey, which recorded who owned what land and who they had as tenants, also provided him with information on the wealth, power and feudal dues of his subjects; we believe the latter were sometimes renegotiated in light of the Domesday inquest. The Consequences of the Norman Conquest

The book was also to be a final assessment of land ownership which could not be challenged in court; consequently many arguments over ownership – many stemming from the transfer of land following the conquest of 1066 - were settled by the book, which would be referred to in court for centuries. There were a lot of land ownership issues, because many parcels of land were given by William to those who had helped him in the conquest. This wasn't simply handing out the spoils of victory: William had to govern a whole country he had just conquered, and needed allies working all over it to make sure the existing locals stayed in line.

In some regions, like the north, they didn't, but Norman and allied lords were soon taking on newly transferred land.

How was The Domesday Book made?:

At first William was gathering existing records dating back to before the conquest, asking tenants in chief to submit a list of men and manors under their control and having the sheriffs look into royal income in the shires, but during the Christmas of 1085 William I commissioned men to travel across the whole of England and record information about every settlement, from towns to hamlets, by meeting sworn representatives to which they asked the same questions about the land.

Everyone from barons to bishops to villagers were included. This occurred in early 1086.

We know that the commissioners divided England up between themselves into seven 'circuits', with 3 to 4 men each. The findings of the royal commissioners were to be final, and the detailed results, as found in the Little Domesday were to be distilled into one larger work. Traditionally, historians have said the ordering of the results and the creation of the main Domesday Book probably began in the middle of 1086. However, David Roffe argues that the books were actually compiled later, during 1089 – 90, and were only afterthoughts to the main inquest itself.

What Form Does It Take:

The Domesday Book was never actually finished and is actually two books: Greater Domesday, the main volume recording details about land in the majority of England, and Little Domesday, an earlier draft of the East Anglian circuit which includes highly detailed returns for Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Little Domesday reflects the massive level of information the nationwide inquiry produced, down to numbers of animals, while Greater Domesday reflects what the finished, and apparently highly summarised, compilation would have looked like.

In physical terms, the text is in Latin, using red ink for county headings and corrections and black ink for everything else, on sheep skin parchment. Greater Domesday is nearly 800 pages and Little Domesday is nearly 900; the work was recently rebound as a total of five volumes. We know that Greater Domesday was written by just one scribe, and checked by another, although we don’t know who they were.

What Information Does The Domesday Book Record?:

Although the Anglo-Saxon chronicle stated that "...there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor cow nor pig which was left out..." this isn’t strictly true, as there was no information on London, Winchester or several other major towns, nor was the 'inland' mentioned (see below). However, the majority of England at the time (parts of modern England were in Scotland, while parts of Wales were in England) is included - 13418 towns and villages over 40 counties – and that level of detail was kept by the commissioners, as evidenced by the Little Domesday.

The names and holdings of landholders and their tenants were recorded, as was the number of people on that land. The use was also listed – woodland, animals, meadows and even the presence of ploughs – as were buildings of note: churches, mills, castles, salt buildings etc. Some land was recorded as wasted, where it had been damaged in the struggle over England (particularly in the Harrying of the North), or where it didn't pay Danegeld. In addition, the values of the land and any dues owed to the king were listed. Three sets of information were recorded: the situation during Edward the Confessor's reign, when William conquered England in 1066 and in 1086. The Domesday Book has been used as a clue to how much damage William did in his crushing of northern English rebellion, and some interpretations make very grim reading indeed.

However, we now believe that the Book only lists the 'warland', land on which tax and services were due. Land on which nothing was owed was called 'inland' (both old English terms) and was excluded from the survey.

Why 'Domesday'?:

The Great Book of Winchester, as it was also called, was not known as the Domesday Book until the late twelfth century. The sheer scale of the project and the finality of the material contained within – once the commissioners had submitted their conclusions, there could be no argument – led people to compare it to the Last Judgement promised in the Bible, or the 'Doomsday', day of reckoning. The book was still being used in courts at this time to settle land disputes.

In his book on the period, H. C. Darby claimed "... probably the most remarkable statistical document in the history of Europe. The continent has no document to compare with this detailed description covering so great a stretch of territory." Darby, Domesday England, 1977 p. 12.