The Domesday Book
Why it was compiled
During the last years of his reign, King William (the Conqueror) had his power threatened from a number of quarters. The greatest threats came from King Canute of Denmark and King Olaf of Norway. In the Eleventh Century, part of the taxes raised went into a fund called the Danegeld, which was kept to buy off marauding Danish armies.
One of the most likely reasons for the record to be commissioned, was for William to see how much tax he was getting from the country and therefore how much Danegeld was available.
The Domesday survey is far more than just a physical record though. It is a detailed statement of lands held by the king and by his tenants and of the resources that went with those lands. It records which manors rightfully belonged to which estates, thus ending years of confusion resulting from the gradual and sometimes violent dispossession of the Anglo-Saxons by their Norman conquerors. It was moreover a ‘feudal’ statement, giving the identities of the tenants-in-chief (landholders) who held their lands directly from the Crown, and of their tenants and under tenants.
The fact that the scheme was executed and brought to complete fruition in two years is a tribute of the political power and formidable will of William the Conqueror.
Why it was compiled
One of the most important near-contemporary accounts of the making of the Domesday survey is that of the Anglo-Saxon chronicler. He tells us that William:
“…had much though and very deep discussion about this country – how it was occupied or with what sorts of people. Then he sent his men all over England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were, or what land and cattle the king himself had, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months.
Also he had a record made of how much land his Archbishops had, and his Bishops and his Abbots and his Earls, and … what or how much everybody had who was occupying land in England, in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth.
…there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out: and all these records were brought to him afterwards.”
An important first-hand account of the survey was written by Robert, Bishop of Hereford, one of the ecclesiastics who William had brought to England. The king’s men, he wrote,
“…made a survey of all England; of the lands in each of the counties; of the possessions of each of the magnates, their lands, their habitations, their men, both bond and free, living in huts or with their own houses or land; of ploughs, horses and other animals; of the services and payments due from each and every estate.
After these investigators came others who were sent to unfamiliar counties to check the first description and to denounce and wrong-doers to the king. And the land was troubled with many calamities arising from the gathering of the royal taxes.”
In addition to the information gathered by William’s commissioners, documents dating from the Anglo-Saxon period which listed lands and taxes in existence and which were held both in the principal royal city of Winchester and in the shires, were drawn upon. Also, each tenant-in-chief, whether bishop, abbot or baron, and each sheriff and other local official, was required to send in a list of manors and men.
In every town, village and hamlet, the commissioners asked the same questions to everyone with interest in land from the barons to the villagers. As written in The Ely Inquest, a contemporary publication at the time,
“…They inquired what the manor was called; who held it at the time of King Edward; who holds it now; how many hides there are; how many ploughs in demesne (held by the lord) and how many belonging to the men; how many villagers; how many cottagers; how many slaves; how many freemen; how many sokemen; how much woodland; how much meadow; how much pasture; how many mills; how many 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 thrice, namely as it was in the time of King Edward, as it was when King William gave it and as it is now. And it was also to be noted whether more could be taken than is now being taken.”
The mass of evidence produced was written down in Latin – as was the survey as a whole – and this was then sorted several times until it could be put into counties, landholders, hundreds or wapentakes, and manors.
Little and Great Domesday
Little Domesday – Records for Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk which were the final locations for the commisioners’ work. They were probably not included in the main collection because King William died before all the records had been given to the principal scribe.
Great Domesday – A shire summary making up the main content of the Domesday volumes gathered from past records and new information gathered by the Commissioners.
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