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.
David Richard Bates
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.