Domesday Book

Domesday Book
The National Archives, Kew, London
Domesday-book-1804x972.jpg
Domesday Book: an engraving published in 1900. Great Domesday (the larger volume) and Little Domesday (the smaller volume), in their 1869 bindings, lying on their older "Tudor" bindings.
Also known asThe Great Survey; Liber de Wintonia
Date1086
Place of originEngland
Language(s)Medieval Latin

Domesday Book (/ or US: /;[1][2] Latin: Liber de Wintonia "Book of Winchester") is a manuscript record of the "Great Survey" of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of King William the Conqueror. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states:[3]

Then, at the midwinter [1085], was the king in Gloucester with his council ... . After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out "How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire."

It was written in Medieval Latin, was highly abbreviated, and included some vernacular native terms without Latin equivalents.[4] The survey's main purpose was to determine what taxes had been owed during the reign of King Edward the Confessor, which allowed William to reassert the rights of the Crown and assess where power lay after a wholesale redistribution of land following the Norman conquest.

The assessors' reckoning of a man's holdings and their values, as recorded in Domesday Book, was dispositive and without appeal. The name "Domesday Book" (Middle English for "Doomsday Book") came into use in the 12th century.[5] As Richard FitzNeal wrote in the Dialogus de Scaccario (circa 1179):[6]

for as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to ... its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book "the Book of Judgement" ... because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable.

The manuscript is held at The National Archives at Kew, London. In 2011, the Open Domesday site made the manuscript available online.[7]

The book is an invaluable primary source for modern historians and historical economists. No survey approaching the scope and extent of Domesday Book was attempted again in Britain until the 1873 Return of Owners of Land (sometimes termed the "Modern Domesday")[8] which presented the first complete, post-Domesday picture of the distribution of landed property in the British Isles.[9]

Content and organisation

A page of Domesday Book for Warwickshire
Great Domesday in its "Tudor" binding: a wood-engraving of the 1860s

Domesday Book encompasses two independent works (in, originally, two physical volumes). These were "Little Domesday" (covering Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex), and "Great Domesday" (covering much of the remainder of England and parts of Wales‍—‌except for lands in the north which later became Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland, and the County Palatine of Durham). No surveys were made of the City of London, Winchester, or some other towns, probably due to their tax-exempt status. (Other areas of modern London were then in Middlesex, Kent, Essex, etc., and are included in Domesday Book.) Most of Cumberland and Westmorland are missing. County Durham is missing because the Bishop of Durham (William de St-Calais) had the exclusive right to tax it; in addition, parts of north-east England were covered by the 1183 Boldon Book, listing areas liable to tax by the Bishop of Durham. The omission of the other counties and towns is not fully explained, although in particular Cumberland and Westmorland had yet to be fully conquered[citation needed].

"Little Domesday" – so named because its format is physically smaller than its companion's – is the more detailed survey, down to numbers of livestock. It may have represented the first attempt, resulting in a decision to avoid such level of detail in "Great Domesday".[citation needed]

Both volumes are organised into a series of chapters (literally "headings", from Latin caput, "a head") listing the fees (knight's fees or fiefs, broadly identical to manors), held by a named tenant-in-chief of the king (who formed the highest stratum of Norman feudal society below the king), namely religious institutions, Bishops, Norman warrior magnates and a few Saxon thegns who had made peace with the Norman regime. Some of the largest such magnates held several hundred fees, in a few cases in more than one county. For example, the chapter of the Domesday Book Devonshire section concerning Baldwin the Sheriff lists 176 holdings held in-chief by him. Only a few of the holdings of the large magnates were held in demesne, most having been subinfeudated to knights, generally military followers of the tenant-in-chief (often his feudal tenants from Normandy) which latter thus became their overlord. The fees listed within the chapter concerning a particular tenant-in-chief were usually ordered, but not in a systematic or rigorous fashion, by the Hundred Court under the jurisdiction of which they were situated, not by geographic location. As a review of taxes owed, it was highly unpopular.[10]

HIC ANNOTANTUR TENENTES TERRAS IN DEVENESCIRE ("Here are noted (those) holding lands in Devonshire"). Detail from Domesday Book, list forming part of the first page of king's holdings. There are 53 entries, including the first entry for the king himself followed by the Devon Domesday Book tenants-in-chief. Each name has its own chapter to follow.

Each county's list opened with the king's demesne lands (which had possibly been the subject of separate inquiry). It should be borne in mind that under the feudal system the king was the only true "owner" of land in England, under his allodial title. He was thus the ultimate overlord and even the greatest magnate could do no more than "hold" land from him as a tenant (from the Latin verb tenere, "to hold") under one of the various contracts of feudal land tenure. Holdings of Bishops followed, then of the abbeys and religious houses, then of lay tenants-in-chief and lastly the king's serjeants (servientes), and Saxon thegns who had survived the Conquest, all in hierarchical order.

In some counties, one or more principal towns formed the subject of a separate section: in some the clamores (disputed titles to land) were also treated separately. This principle applies more especially to the larger volume: in the smaller one, the system is more confused, the execution less perfect.

Domesday names a total of 13,418 places.[11] 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.

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