Domesday Book

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At Christmas of 1085, King william i the con queror held "deep speech" with his great men at Gloucester "about this land and how it was peopled and with what sort of men," as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports. The results of this inquiry are the two great volumes preserved in the Public Record Office in London and known as the Domesday Book. The relationship between this inquiry and the finished product has been and still is controversial, but the outlines of the making of the Domesday Book are clear enough.

England was divided into circuits, except for the devastated north, and commissioners, many of them bishops and all of them trusted advisers of the king, were sent to conduct the inquiry. They were assigned to parts of the country where they did not themselves hold land. They probably sat in the county courts and received the reports of local juries, who would be mostly English, and probably also statements from the baronage, who would be mostly French. The information was then arranged county by county and barony by barony. A fair copy of these reports was sent to the treasury at Winchester where the information was further digested, and the Domesday Book as we have it was the result.

It is unlikely that this was quite finished when William died late in 1087. The existing volumes show signs of work under great pressure suddenly relaxed. In particular the second volume, the so-called Little Domesday, looks like the fair copy sent in from East Anglia that arrived late and was never incorporated into the main volume as were the rest of the counties.

There is no agreement about the purpose of this quite unprecedented act of government. It was a fantastic effort for an 11th-century government to undertake. It caused comment and great resentment at the time, but such was the power and prestige of William that it was done. Unfortunately, his untimely death meant that we cannot be sure that it was ever used for the purpose he had in mind. It was certainly an invaluable tool of reference to his immediate successors. They knew the approximate wealth of their greater subjects, and this knowledge must have been useful for assessing what we call death duties and estate duty (inheritance tax). Further, the book was so laid out that it was possible to see in which county each lord held estates. Since the county was the main unit of local government, the value of the information is obvious. Domesday Book might also be consulted in lawsuits about land titles. The older views, however, that it was really intended to be the basis of reassessment of the traditional tax, called the geld, which was too unpopular for the Conqueror's successor to attempt, still has something to be said for it. The Domesday Book contains also information about parish churches and the ecclesiastical economy in general that is useful for the church historian.

Bibliography: j. h. round, Feudal England (London 1895). f. w. maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond (Cambridge, Eng. 1897). r. w. finn, Domesday Inquest (London 1961). v. h. galbraith, The Making of Domesday Book (Oxford 1961). The Victoria County Histories contain abstracts of Domesday Book in translation; those for Norfolk and Wiltshire have esp. valuable introductions.

[e. john]

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Domesday Book was the result of the great survey commissioned by William the Conqueror at Gloucester at Christmas 1085. The main manuscript, so-called Great Domesday, written by a single scribe, contains the final version of the surveys of all English counties south of the rivers Ribble and Tees, with the exception of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. These three counties make up Little Domesday, a more detailed, unedited draft text which, for reasons which remain unknown, was not reduced to the final Great Domesday form. Domesday Book's name, given to it in the generations immediately after the survey, shows that it was a source of awe and wonder. During the Middle Ages it continued to be consulted on numerous legal and tenurial matters. It is a fundamental source for all types of historical enquiry and is of importance for geographers, lawyers, and linguists. It is primarily a record of landholders, both in 1086 and in the time of Edward the Confessor, and of the manors and other estates which they held. The detail given for each estate usually consists of geld assessment, numbers of peasantry, ploughs, ploughlands, and some categories of livestock, and estimated value in King Edward's day, in 1086, and sometimes at an intermediate point. Information is often (but not consistently) given about whether title to a particular manor was in dispute and about churches, mills, and woodland. Major towns were supposed to be entered at the start of each county survey, but some important ones, such as London and Winchester, were omitted. The survey's purpose and the method of its compilation are subjects of debate. The current emphasis is on a financial purpose, since it seems to be primarily concerned with resources and assessments. However, its value as a register of title must not be overlooked, even if the disputes which it records were often not resolved. It is clear from chronicle references that the preliminary results were brought to William, perhaps by 1 August 1086 in preparation for the famous Salisbury Oath, and certainly before he left for Normandy in the autumn. The production of the final Great Domesday text, however, took much longer and was probably not concluded until early 1088. Sets of commissioners toured the kingdom and heard evidence from juries representing shire and hundred courts. The kingdom was divided into circuits, of which there were probably seven. The basic order in which the material was to be set out was predetermined. The most complex modern discussions concern the methods by which this material was collected. While it is clear that some was in existence before the survey was made, the emphasis in recent discussion is on an intense editing process at local level, involving documents of various kinds and the participation of the local representatives. Computer-based studies of Domesday Book's contents are starting to yield impressive results on all kinds of subjects, but the complexities of its terminology and its statistics still baffle investigators.

David Richard Bates

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Domesday Book (dōōmz´dā), record of a general census of England made (1085–86) by order of William I (William the Conqueror). The survey ascertained the economic resources of most of the country for purposes of more accurate taxation. Royal agents took the evidence of local men in each hundred (county subdivision), the latter acting as inquest jurors. Descriptions of each piece of land, its present and former holders, the holding itself, and the population on it were among the facts recorded. For the thoroughness and speed with which it was taken, the Domesday survey as an administrative measure is unsurpassed in medieval history. Written from the data thus gathered, the Domesday Book is an invaluable historical source. It furnished the material for F. W. Maitland's masterly survey, Domesday Book and Beyond (1897), which deals with social and economic conditions in Anglo-Saxon and Conquest times. Many of the Domesday records have been printed by counties in the Victoria County Histories, and several portions have been independently published. The name domesday is a variant of doomsday, meaning day of judgment.

See V. H. Galbraith, The Making of Domesday Book (1961, repr. 1981); R. W. Finn, The Domesday Inquest and the Making of Domesday Book (1961) and Introduction to Domesday Book (1963); J. C. Holt, Domesday Studies (1987).

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An ancient record of land ownership in England.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror in the year 1085 and finished in 1086, the book is a superb example of thorough and speedy administration, unequaled by any other project undertaken during the Middle Ages. Minute and accurate surveys of all of England were done for the purpose of compiling information essential for levying taxes and enforcing the land tenure system.

The work was done by five justices in each county who took a census and listed all the feudal landowners, their personal property, and other information. The judges gathered their information by summoning each man and having him give testimony under oath. This is perhaps the earliest use of the inquest procedure in England, and it established the right of the king to require citizens to give information, a foundation of the jury trial.

Domesday was a Saxon word meaning Judgment Day, at the end of time when God will pronounce judgment against all of mankind. The name given to this record may have come from the popular opinion that the inquiry was as thorough as that promised for Judgment Day.

Two volumes of the Domesday Book are still in existence, and they continue to be valuable for historical information about social and economic conditions. They are kept in the Public Record Office in England.

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Domesday Book a comprehensive record of the extent, value, ownership, and liabilities of land in England, made in 1086 by order of William I. The name was apparently a popular one applied during the 12th century because the book was regarded as a final authority (with allusion to doomsday ‘the Day of Judgement’); it is sometimes referred to as Doomsday Book.

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Domesday Book (1085–86) Census of the English kingdom commissioned by William I (the Conqueror). Its purpose was to ascertain potential crown revenue. The most complete survey in medieval Europe, it is an important primary historical source. It lists property and resources manor by manor.