Domesday Book

In the Public Records Office in Chancery Lane London, today, you can see the most important historical document that this country possesses.

It consist of 888 leaves crammed with facts of eleventh century England. It has been called ‘The Great Survey’, ‘The Book of Winchester’, and many other names. But the one name that everybody’s heard of is the ‘Domesday Book’ ‘The Day of Judgement’. The Book was written in Latin, although it is said that it was transcribed and written up by one man, and that he was probably a native Englishman, or someone who had lived in England long enough to be familiar with the English place names.

The book was held in the King’s treasury in Winchester at first, but then later on it was moved to Westminster where it was kept under lock and three keys in a great old chest, which still survives. No other country in the world today possesses such a detailed single record from so far back in time.

Domesday Book was written in 1086, twenty years after the defeat of King Harold and his army at Battle, near Hastings. A set of Commissioners were sent out by William the Conqueror to all the Shires in England to survey virtually everything, William was thorough. One of his Counsellors reports that he also sent a second set of Commissioners ‘to shires they did not know, where they were themselves unknown, to check their predecessors’ survey, and report culprits to the King.

The whole undertaking was completed at speed, less than twelve months it is said, although the copying of the main volume must have taken a little longer. There were two volumes produced, the main one ‘Great Domesday’ mentioned above, and Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex were copied by several writers, into a second volume, which is known as the ‘Little Domseday’ which covers East Anglia.

Some versions of regional returns also survive. One of them, from Ely Abbey, copies out the Commissioners brief. They were to ask.

  • The name of the place; Who held it , before 1066, and now? How many hides
  • How many ploughs, both in lordship and the men’s
  • How many villagers, cottagers and slaves, how many free men and Freemen
  • How much woodland, meadow and pasture? How many mills and fishponds?
  • How much has been added or taken away? What the total value was and is?
  • How much each free man or Freeman had or has? All threefold before 1066,when King William gave it, and now; and if more can be had than at present?

The Ely volume also describes the procedure.

The Commissioners took evidence on oath ‘from the Sheriff; from all the Barons and their Frenchmen; and from the whole Hundred, the priests, the reeves and six villagers from each village’

Basically King William wanted to know what he had, and who held it! throughout the land. Scholars now think that the making of Domesday had three separate aims;

  • One was to provide the King with an exact record of local contributions to the King’s geld( The Anglo-Saxon land tax used for Military purposes)
  • Two was to reveal the resources held by his vassals, and how much revenue they had
  • Three was for legal purposes,William was keen to legalise the great changes that had taken place since the Conquest, especially where land ownership was concerned (Ref2)