The Domesday Book is the original record or summary of William I’s survey of England. The whole operation was known as “the description of England,” but the popular name Domesday – i.e., “doomsday,” when men face the record from which there is no appeal – was in general use by the mid 12th century.
Why was this survey considered the most remarkable administrative accomplishment of the Middle Ages? To find out read these interesting facts about the Domesday Book…
After the Norman invasion and conquest of England in 1066, the Domesday Book was commissioned in December 1085 by order of William the Conqueror.
William needed to raise taxes to pay for his army and so a survey was set in motion to assess the wealth and assets of his subjects throughout the land.
Thanks to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is known that the census was planned in 1085, and it was completed in 1086.
The Domesday Book recorded every piece of property and every particular concerning it.
The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” indignantly declared, “not a rood of land, not a peasant’s hut, not an ox, cow, pig, or even a hive of bees escaped.”
The counties of England as recorded in 1086 in the Domesday Book
First published in 1086, it contains records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees (the border with Scotland at the time).
The information in the survey was collected by Royal commissioners who were sent out around England. The country was split up into 7 regions, or “circuits”, with 3 or 4 commissioners being assigned to each.
One of the main aims of the investigation was to quantify the assets of each individual and the taxes on these assets imposed during the reign of Edward the Confessor (1002-1066).
The assessments made by the book’s compilers were considered part of the law and were therefore unquestionable.
Whatever was recorded in the Domesday Book was legally binding. There was no system of appeal.
Whilst the report showed the wealth of the country, it also showed the suffering it had passed through in the rebellions against William the Conqueror. Many towns had fallen into decay. Some were nearly depopulated.
In the reign of Edward the Confessor, the city of York had 1607 houses and at the date of the survey it had only 967, whilst Oxford, which had had 721 houses, had then only 243.
The census and assessment with the Domesday Book proved of the highest importance to William the Conqueror and his successors.
The people indeed said bitterly that the King kept the Doomsday, or Domesday book constantly by him, in order “that he might be able to see at any time of how much more wool the English flock would bear fleecing.”
The object of the Doomsday, however, was not to extort money but to present a full and exact report of the financial and military resources of the kingdom which might be directly available for revenue and defence.
Exert from the Doomsday Book for Barmy Moor
Around 1179, Richard Fitz Nigel defined the book with the term “Doomsday”, or “[book] of the Day of Judgment” because it appeared as a rigorous trial that no one could avoid.
The book is written in a mixture of Latin and vernacular, with the insertion of Anglo-Saxon terms that did not possess an equivalent in Latin. The text also involves frequent abbreviations.
The Domesday Book is superbly organised for easy reference and the business of government.
Its utility has guaranteed both its fame and its long life. Some 900 years after it was written, it has been cited as evidence in legal proceedings.
The Domesday Book is a primary source of enormous importance since it provides the readers with valuable information in regards to the political, economic, ecclesiastical, and social history of England.
The Domesday Book is actually composed of two independent works: the Little Domesday, describing Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, and the Great Domesday which covers the remaining part of England and part of Wales (except the northern that today correspond to Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, and the Palatine County of Durham).
No data was collected for the cities of London and Winchester – probably due to their size and complexity.
Despite its name, Little Domesday is more extensive and much more detailed than the Great Domesday.
While Great Domesday was most likely written by only one person on parchment, Little Domesday was compiled by at least six different people.
The data collected in both volumes were entirely reordered and classified by courts (manors), rather than geographically. Instead of being recorded on the basis of their location, the assets are listed under the names of the landowners (tenants) who held the fiefs.