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Domesday Book

The Domesday Book, or simply Domesday, was the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086, executed for William the Conqueror, that was like a census by the government today. He needed information about the country he had just conquered so he could administer it. One of the main purposes of the survey was to find out who owned what so they could be taxed on it, and the judgment of the assessors was final -- whatever the book said about who owned the property, or what it was worth, was the law, and there was no appeal from it. Hence the name "Domesday" (Middle English spelling of "Doomsday") since the 12th century, which emphasizes the definitiveness and authority of the book.

The 1985 Project

To mark the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book in 1985, a new multimedia edition of Domesday was compiled and published in 1986. This included all the information from the original survey plus modern spellings of the place names, maps, and many color photos.

It was produced in a partnership between Acorn, Ltd, Philips and the BBC. The BBC Domesday Project Community Disc or National Disc was published as two laser disc of the Philips? LaserVision-Read Only Memory (LV-ROM) format. Acorn launched a version of the BBC Microcomputer capable of reading the disc format.

In 2002, there were great fears that the disc would become unreadable as computers capable of reading the format had become rare (and drives capable of accessing the discs even rarer). However, the BBC later announced that the CAMiLEON project (a partnership between Leeds University and University of Michigan) had developed a system capable of accessing the discs using emulation techniques. (Unfortunately, this data is not yet publicly accessible due to copyright constraints.)

Interestingly, while there are difficulties accessing digital data from 1986, the original Domesday book, now over 900 years old, can still be consulted. This has renewed interest in ensuring long-term access to digital information.

EB 1911 encyclopedia text:

We learn from the English Chronicle that the scheme of this survey was discussed and determined in the Christmas assembly of 1085, and from the colophon of Domesday Book that the survey (descriptio) was completed in 1086. But Domesday Book (liber) although compiled from the returns of that survey, must be carefully distinguished from them; nor is it certain that it was compiled in the year in which the survey was made.

For the making of the survey 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 had then an administrative entity), and the return for each Hundred was sworn to by twelve local jurors, half of them English and half 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), and the second volume of Domesday Book, also all contain the full details which the original returns supplied.

The original manuscript of Domesday Book consists of two volumes, of which the second is devoted to the three eastern counties, while the first, which is of much larger size, comprises the rest of England except the most northerly counties. Of these the northwesterly portion, which had Carlisle for its head, was not conquered till some years after the survey was made; but the omission of Northumberland and Durham has not been satisfactorily explained. There are also no surveys of London, Winchester and some other towns.

For both volumes the contents of the returns were entirely rearranged and classified according to fiefs. Instead of appearing under the Hundreds and townships they now appeared 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 holding 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 (barones); 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 apart. But this description applies more specially to the larger and principal volume; in the smaller one the system is more confused, the execution less perfect.

The two volumes are distinguished even more sharply by the exclusion, in the larger one, of certain details, such as the enumeration of the live stock, which would have added greatly to its size. It has, indeed, been suggested that the eastern counties' volume represents a first attempt, and that it was found impossible, or at least inconvenient, to complete the work on the same scale.

For the object of the survey we have three sources of information:

  1. The passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which tells us why it was ordered,
  2. The list, of questions which the jurors were asked, as preserved in the Inquisitio Eliensis, and
  3. The contents of Domesday Book and the allied records mentioned above.

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 acertain and record the fiscal rights of the king. These were mainly

  1. The national land-tax (geldum), paid on a fixed assessment,
  2. Certain miscellaneous dues, and
  3. The proceeds of the crown lands.

After a great political convulsion such as the Norman conquest, and the wholesale confiscation of landed estates which followed it, it was 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 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 King Edward'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 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, saltpans (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.

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, 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.

Although unique in character and of priceless value to the student, Domesday will be found disappointing and largely unintelligible to any but the specialist. Even 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 between it and later records a gulf that is hard to bridge.

But 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.

To the topographer, as to the genealogist, its evidence is of primary importance; for it not only contains the earliest survey of a township or manor, but affords in the majority of cases the clue to its subsequent descent.

The rearrangement, on a feudal basis, of the original returns (as described above) 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 en~~ed 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 normally records only the Christian name of an under-tenant, it is vain to seek for the surnames of families claiming a Norman origin; but much has been and is still being done to identify the under-tenants, the great bulk of whom bear foreign names.

Domesday Book was originally preserved in the royal treasury at Winchester (the Norman kings' capital), whence it speaks of itself (in one later addition) as Liber de Winlonia. When the treasury was removed to Westminster (probably under Henry II) the book went with it. Here it remained until the days of Queen Victoria, being preserved from 1696 onwards in the Chapter House, and only removed in special circumstances, as when it was sent to Southampton for photozincographic reproduction.

It was eventually placed in the Public Record Office, London, where it can be seen in a glass case in the museum. In 1869 it received a modern binding. The ancient Domesday chest, in which it used to be kept, is also preserved in the building.

The printing of Domesday, in "record type," was begun by government in 1773, and the book was published, in two volumes in 1783; in 1811 a volume of indexes was added, and in 1816 a supplementary volume, separately indexed, containing

  1. The "Exon Domesday" (for the south-western counties),
  2. The Inquisitio Eliensis,
  3. The Liber Winton (surveys of Winchester early in the 12th century), and
  4. The Boldon Book- a survey of the bishopric of Durham a century later than Domesday.

Photographic facsimiles of Domesday Book, for each county separately, were published in 1861-1863, also by government.

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