The 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 I of England, or 'William the Conqueror'. The survey was similar to a census by a government of today. While spending 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" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).
One of the main purposes of the survey was to determine who held what, for the purpose of taxation (e.g. A peasant, being poor, would only be able to bear a small amount of tax relative to a wealthy person or lord, who, possessing significantly more property, would be taxed more) and the judgment of the assessors was final—whatever the book said about who held the material wealth, 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. The name Domesday comes from the Old English word dom (of which the Modern English doom is descended), meaning accounting or reckoning. Thus domesday, or doomsday, is literally a day of reckoning, meaning that a lord takes account of what is owed by his subjects. Christians believe that in the Last Judgment as recorded in Revelation, Christ would carry out a similar accounting of one's deeds—hence the term doomsday also referred to this eschatological event.
The 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 (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. Most of Cumberland and Westmorland are missing because they were 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. Parts of the North East of England were covered by the 1183 'Boldon Book', which listed those areas liable to tax by the Bishop of Durham.
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 Great Domesday.
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 holdings 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 so forth.
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.
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 supplied.
Through comparison of what details are recorded in which counties, six "circuits" can be determined.
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;
After a great political convulsion such as the Norman conquest, and the wholesale confiscation of landed estates which followed it, it was in 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 predecessors. The successful trial of Odo de Bayeux at Penenden Heath less than a decade after the conquest was one example of the growing discontent at the Norman land-grab that had occurred in the years following the invasion. The survey has since been viewed in the context that William required certainty and a definitive reference point as to property holdings across the nation so that it might be used as evidence in disputes and purported authority for crown ownership.
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 it is 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, salt-pans (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.
To a large extent, it comes down to the king's knowing where he should look when he needed to raise money. It therefore includes sources of income but not sinks of expenditure such as castles; unless their mention is needed to explain discrepancies between pre-and post-Conquest holdings. Typically, this happened in a town, where separately-recorded properties had been demolished to make way for a castle.
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 which is in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in South West London. 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 indices was added, and in 1816 a supplementary volume, separately indexed, containing:
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.
In 1986, the BBC released the BBC Domesday Project, the results of a project to create a survey to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book. In August 2006 the contents of Domesday went on-line, with an English translation of the book's Latin. Visitors to the website will now be able to search a place name, see the index entry made for the manor, town, city or village and, for a fee, download the appropriate page.
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 descent.