"One of the main purposes of the
survey was to find out who owned what so they could be taxed on it, and
the judgment of the assessors was final -- whatever the book said about
who owned the property, or what it was worth, was the law, and there was
Domesday Book (also known as Domesday, or
Book of Winchester), was the record of the great survey of England
completed in 1086, executed for William the Conqueror. The survey was similar to
a census by a government of today. William needed information about the country
he had just conquered so he could administer it. Whilst spending the Christmas
of 1085 in Gloucester, William "had deep speech with his counsellors and sent
men all over England to each shire ... to find out ... what or how much each
landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth." One of the main
purposes of the survey was to find out who owned what so they could be taxed on
it, and the judgment of the assessors was final -- whatever the book said about
who owned the property, or what it was worth, was the law, and there was no
appeal. It was written in Latin, although there were some vernacular words
inserted for native terms with no previous Latin equivalent and the text was
highly abbreviated. When the book took the name "Domesday" (Middle
English spelling of Doomsday) in the 12th century, it was to emphasize
its definitiveness and authority (the analogy refers to the Christian notion of
a Last Judgment).
Domesday Book is really two independent works. One, known as
Little Domesday covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The other,
Great Domesday covers the rest of England, except for lands in the north
that would later become Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and County
Durham (partly because some of these lands were under Scottish control at the
time). There are also no surveys of London, Winchester and some other towns. The
omission of these two major cities is probably due to their size and complexity,
Cumberland is missing because it was not conquered until some time after the
survey and the Prince-Bishop William of St. Carilef had the exclusive right to
tax Durham; the omission of the other counties has not been fully explained.
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Despite its name, Little Domesday is actually larger - as it is far
more detailed, down to numbers of livestock. It has been suggested that
Little Domesday represents a first attempt, and that it was found
impossible, or at least inconvenient, to complete the work on the same scale for
For both volumes, the contents of the returns were entirely rearranged and
classified according to fiefs, rather than geographically. Instead of appearing
under the Hundreds and townships, holdings appear under the names of the local
barons, i.e. those who held the lands directly of the crown in fee.
In each county, the list opened with the holding of the king himself (which
had possibly formed the subject of separate inquiry); then came those of the
churchmen and religious houses; next were entered those of the lay
tenants-in-chief (barons); and last of all those of women, of the king's
serjeants (servientes), of the few English thegns who retained land, and
In some counties, one or more principal towns formed the subject of a
separate section; in some the clamores (disputed titles to land) were similarly
treated separately. This principle applies more specially to the larger volume;
in the smaller one the system is more confused, the execution less perfect.
Apart from the wholly rural portions, which constitute its bulk, Domesday
contains entries of interest concerning most of the towns, which were probably
made because of their bearing on the fiscal rights of the crown therein. These
include fragments of custumals (older customary agreements), records of the
military service due, of markets, mints, and so forth. From the towns, from the
counties as wholes, and from many of its ancient lordships, the crown was
entitled to archaic dues in kind, such as honey.
The information of most general interest found in the great record is that on
political, personal, ecclesiastical and social history, which only occurs
sporadically and, as it were, by accident. Much of this was used by E. A.
Freeman for his work on the Norman Conquest.
From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is known that the planning for the survey
was conducted in 1085, and from the colophon of the book it is known that the
survey was completed in 1086. It is not known when exactly Domesday Book
was compiled, but the entire work appears to have been copied out by one person.
Each county was visited by a group of royal officers (legati), who
held a public inquiry, probably in the great assembly known as the county court,
which was attended by representatives of every township as well as of the local
lords. The unit of inquiry was the Hundred (a subdivision of the county, which
then was an administrative entity), and the return for each Hundred was sworn to
by twelve local jurors, half of them English and half of them Normans.
What is believed to be a full transcript of these original returns is
preserved for several of the Cambridgeshire Hundreds, and is of great
illustrative importance. The Inquisitio Eliensis, the Exon Domesday
(so called from the preservation of the volume at Exeter), which covers
Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, and the second volume of
Domesday Book, also all contain the full details which the original returns
Through comparison of what details are recorded in which counties, six
"circuits" can be determined.
- Berkshire, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, Sussex
- Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire (Exeter Domesday)
- Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Middlesex
- Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire
- Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire - the
- Derbyshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire
For the object of the survey, we have three sources of information:
- The passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which tells us why it was ordered:
- "After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with
his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then
sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out
"How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had,
and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from
the shire." Also he commissioned them to record in writing, "How much land his
archbishops had, and his diocesan bishops, and his abbots, and his earls;" and
though I may be prolix and tedious, "What, or how much, each man had, who was an
occupier of land in England, either in land or in stock, and how much money it
were worth." So very narrowly, indeed, did he commission them to trace it out,
that there was not one single hide, nor a yard of land, nay, moreover (it is
shameful to tell, though he thought it no shame to do it), not even an ox, nor a
cow, nor a swine was there left, that was not set down in his writ. And all the
recorded particulars were afterwards brought to him."
- The list, of questions which the jurors were asked, as preserved in the
- The contents of Domesday Book and the allied records mentioned above.
Although these can by no means be reconciled in every detail, it is now
generally recognized that the primary object of the survey was to ascertain and
record the fiscal rights of the king. These were mainly
- The national land-tax (geldum), paid on a fixed assessment,
- Certain miscellaneous dues, and
- The proceeds of the crown lands.
After a great political convulsion such as the Norman conquest, and the
wholesale confiscation of landed estates which followed it, it was William's
interest to make sure that the rights of the crown, which he claimed to have
inherited, had not suffered in the process. More especially was this the case as
his Norman followers were disposed to evade the liabilities of their English
The Domesday survey therefore recorded the names of the new holders of lands
and the assessments on which their tax was to be paid. But it did more than
this; by the king's instructions it endeavoured to make a national valuation
list, estimating the annual value of all the land in the country, (1) at the
time of Edward the Confessor's death, (2) when the new owners received it, (3)
at the time of the survey, and further, it reckoned, by command, the potential
value as well. It is evident that William desired to know the financial
resources of his kingdom, and probable that he wished to compare them with the
existing assessment, which was one of considerable antiquity, though there are
traces that it had been occasionally modified. The great bulk of Domesday
Book is devoted to the somewhat arid details of the assessment and valuation
of rural estates, which were as yet the only important source of national
wealth. After stating the assessment of the manor, the record sets forth the
amount of arable land, and the number of plough teams (each reckoned at eight
oxen) available for working it, with the additional number (if any) that might
be employed; then the river-meadows, woodland, pasture, fisheries (i.e. weirs in
the streams), water-mills, saltpans (if by the sea) and other subsidiary sources
of revenue; the peasants are enumerated in their several classes; and finally
the annual value of the whole, past and present, is roughly estimated.
It is obvious that, both in its values and in its measurements, the survey's
reckoning is very crude.
The rearrangement, on a feudal basis, of the original returns enabled the
Conqueror and his officers to see with ease the extent of a baron's possessions;
but it also had the effect of showing how far he had engaged under-tenants, and
who those under-tenants were. This was of great importance to William, not only
for military reasons, but also because of his firm resolve to make the
under-tenants (though the "men" of their lords) swear allegiance directly to
himself. As Domesday Book normally records only the Christian name of an
under-tenant, it is not possible to search for the surnames of families claiming
a Norman origin; but much has been done, and is still being done, to identify
the under-tenants, the great bulk of whom bear foreign Christian names.
Domesday Book was originally preserved in the royal treasury at
Winchester (the Norman kings' capital). It was originally referred to as the
Book of Winchester, and refers to itself as such in a late edition. When the
treasury moved to Westminster, probably under Henry II, the book went with it.
In the Dialogus de scaccario (temp. Hen. II.) it is spoken of as a record
from the arbitrament of which there was no appeal (from which its popular name
of Domesday is said to be derived). In the middle ages its evidence was
frequently invoked in the law-courts; and even now there are certain cases in
which appeal is made to its testimony.
It remained in Westminster until the days of Queen Victoria, being preserved
from 1696 onwards in the Chapter House, and only removed in special
circumstances, such as when it was sent to Southampton for photozincographic
reproduction. Domesday Book was eventually placed in the Public Record
Office, London; it can be now seen in a glass case in the museum at The National
Archives, Kew. In 1869 it received a modern binding. Most recently, the two
books were rebound for its ninth centenary in 1986, when Great Domesday
was divided into two volumes and Little Domesday was divided into three
volumes. The ancient Domesday chest, in which it used to be kept, is also
preserved in the building at Kew.
The printing of Domesday, in "record type", was begun by the
government in 1773, and the book was published, in two volumes, in 1783; in 1811
a volume of indexes was added, and in 1816 a supplementary volume, separately
- The Exon Domesday - for the south-western counties
- The Inquisitio Eliensis
- The Liber Winton - surveys of Winchester early in the 12th century
- The Boldon Buke - a survey of the bishopric of Durham a century later
Photographic facsimiles of Domesday Book, for each county separately,
were published in 1861-1863, also by the government. Today, Domesday Book
is available in numerous editions, usually based per county and available with
other local history resources.
Although unique in character and invaluable to the student, scholars are
unable to explain portions of its language and of its system. This is partly due
to its very early date, which has placed a gulf between Domesday Book and
later records which is difficult to bridge.
To the topographer, as to the genealogist, its evidence is of primary
importance, as it not only contains the earliest survey of each township or
manor, but affords, in the majority of cases, the clue to its subsequent
- Domesday Book: A Complete Transliteration. London: Penguin, 2003.
- Hallam, Elizabeth M. Domesday Book through Nine Centuries. New York:
Thames & Hudson, 1986.
- Keats-Rohan, Katherine S. B. Domesday People: A Prosopography of Persons
Occurring in English Documents, 1066–1166. 2v. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell
- Maitland, F. W. Domesday Book and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1988. ISBN 0521349184
- Wood, Michael. The Domesday Quest: In Search of the Roots of England.
London: BBC Books, 2005. ISBN 0563522747
it was very good
This is a lot of information. I'm doing a report on the
Domesday Book, and your site helped a lot. thanks