Domesday Book is Britain’s most famous public record. It is also an example of how the machinery of government could be used to collect and record information about people and property. For medieval monarchs it was an invaluable source of information, and it provided the basis upon which all subsequent landholding was calculated. Besides being used to assess tax on land, it showed William the Conqueror who his wealthiest subjects were and their obligations to the Crown. But it also served as a safeguard for landholders, since it provided them with a formal record of their estates and helped to define their status in relation to the Crown.
The Domesday Book consists of two volumes: Little Domesday, covering Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, which dates from 1086, and Great Domesday, dating from 1086 to 1090.
The Domesday Book, our earliest public record, is a unique survey of the value and ownership of lands and resources in late 11th century England. The record was compiled in 1086-7, a mere twenty years after the Norman Conquest, at the order of William the Conqueror. William commissioned the survey at Christmas 1085. Ironically it was the only census of England before 1801.
William produced the book because his power was being threatened from a number of quarters, such as the chronically rebellious North, Denmark, and Norway, during the last years of his reign. However, the book was more than just a fiscal record. It provided a detailed record of all lands held by the king and his tenants and of the resources that went with those lands. It recorded which manors rightfully belonged to which estates, and was also a feudal statement. It revealed the identities of the landholders, who held their lands directly from the Crown, and of their tenants and under tenants.
The inventory, written in Latin, contains a wealth of information that illuminates one of the most crucial times in history – the conquest and settlement of England by the Normans. The original book itself still survives, preserved for centuries at Winchester, the capital of the ancient Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, and is now held in London at the Public Records office.
The name “Domesday” refers to the book of the day of judgment and as such refers to the reverence the book has always held. But before the name Domesday, the book was called “the King’s book” and the “great book of Winchester”. The latter reference was coined because of the aforementioned location at Winchester.
The text consists of two volumes: “Great Domesday” which is now bound in two parts and the “Little Domesday” which is now bound in three parts. The Great Domesday describes thirty-one counties while the Little Domesday covers Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. The names refer only to the size of the volumes, not their importance. Ironically, the Little Domesday is of greater bulk than the Great Domesday because less abbreviations were used and it contains greater information for many of the entries.
Like censuses today, it was out of date before it was completed as estates changed hands during the survey, rents and of course, livestock which were dutifully listed in many places expectedly changed.
It is important to note that there are scattered references to first and last names that were obviously in use at that time throughout the reference. For example, names like Gilbert Tison, Ralph Paynel and Robert Malet were found in Yorkshire. Trade names like Walter the the deacon and Walter the crossbowman were still very much in use. Norman influence in names like William de EU and Roger de Lacy are very common.
Check out this book on the Domesday –
Intriguing story of the origins of Englands greatest historical record, as well as new insights into its contents. The complete Domesday book translated.