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Domesday Book

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Dr Stephen Baxter Dr Stephen Baxter | 10:26 UK time, Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Domesday BookDomesday Book is the product of an extraordinary survey of England commissioned by King William the Conqueror in 1085. It in fact comprises two volumes, now preserved at the National Archives: Little Domesday Book, which covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex; and Great Domesday Book, which covers the rest of England south of the River Tees.

The survey was launched in an atmosphere of crisis in 1085. A Viking army commanded by King Cnut of Denmark in alliance with the count of Flanders was preparing to invade England. William's response was characteristically vigorous. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he mobilized the largest 'force of mounted men and infantry' ever seen England. Then, at Christmas, he assembled his advisers to a council at Gloucester.

There, he "had deep thought and very deep discussion with his council about this country - how it was occupied or with what sort of people." He then "sent his men over all England into every shire" to conduct a survey: "so very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate but it seemed no shame to him to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards."

Dr Stephen Baxter looks at the Domesday BookThe survey took place during the first few months of 1086. It was supervised by seven groups of commissioners, who swept around the country gathering information at intensely dramatic meetings of shire courts. Every landholder in the kingdom was required to submit evidence on oath before panels of jurors representing every town, village and administrative unit in the kingdom, in response to the same questions: Who held the land in 1066? Who holds it now? How many people lived there? What are its assets? What is its tax liability? What is it worth?

Each group of commissioners recorded the information they collected into separate reports, which were delivered to William, probably at Old Sarum in Wiltshire − where one of them, a manuscript known as Exon Domesday, is known to have been written.  According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William travelled there on 1 August 1086, and "his councillors came to him, and all the people occupying land who were of any account over all England, no matter whose vassals they might be; and they all submitted to him and became his vassals, and swore oaths of allegiance to him." This astonishing event was almost certainly the climax to the Domesday survey.

In the months that followed, a single scribe distilled all the reports except Little Domesday Book into a single volume, now known as Great Domesday Book. During the lifetimes of William the Conqueror and his sons, royal officials described it using more politically correct language. They called it a "descriptio (survey) of all England", the "king's book", the "book of the Exchequer", and so on.

But writing in the late 1170s, Richard FitzNigel, then treasurer to King Henry II, explained that it was popularly known by a very different name: "The natives [i.e. Englishmen] call this book Domesdei that is, the day of judgment. This is a metaphor: for just as no judgment of that final severe and terrible trial can be evaded by any subterfuge, so when any controversy arises in the kingdom concerning the matters contained in the book, and recourse is made to the book, its word cannot be denied or set aside with impunity." Domesday Book's name is therefore a function of its awesome reputation among the English: it invokes the Day of Judgment described in the Book of Revelations.

A page of the Domesday BookNo contemporary text explains why Domesday Book was made, so its purpose remains controversial. Every entry contains information relating to taxation so it could be a tax book; but if so, it was poorly designed, for the layout of the text would have made it hard to use for fiscal purposes. The book does, however, enable readers to identify the lands held by King William and his barons very quickly and precisely; so it is more likely to have been intended as an instrument of political control. The barons were prepared to yield this instrument to the king since it gave them what they wanted most following the greatest tenurial revolution in England's history − greater security of title to their lands.

Domesday Book is the earliest English historical document preserved by the government which created it. That makes it England's earliest bureaucratic instrument. But its importance extends well beyond the origins of English red tape. Domesday Book is the most complete survey of a pre-industrial society anywhere in the world. It enables us to reconstruct the politics, government, society and economy of eleventh-century England with greater precision than is possible for any almost other pre-modern polity. Given the extent to which our knowledge of our past depends upon it, Domesday Book is certainly one of the one of the most important − and arguably the most important - English historical document.

Stephen Baxter is Reader in Medieval History at King's College London and presents Domesday on Tuesday 10 Aug at 20:00 on BBC Two



  • Comment number 1.

    Enjoyed your programme on Doomsday. There might well have been several reasons for commissioning Doomsday, and it had consequences which may not have been intended. However the reasons for dismissing taxation as a/the main reason owing to the way it is organised may not be valid. Last year I spent some time keying up details of the Apportionment records for our local Tithe Maps of 1841 (and got to know it well ) in order to create a database, similar to the one you describe for Doomsday. With this it is much easier to search, for instance all occurences of the same person, type of property etc. This is organised much like Doomsday, by owner, starting with the largest landowner in the parish, within this by farm, and then the lesser tennants - and not geographically. Unlike Doomsday there is an accompanying Map, but this was used to work out exactly how much tithe was due on each distinct plot of land, and not as the mechanism for collecting the tithe. We know for certain that this was commissioned in order to make it easier to collect the tithes at a time of great unrest in the country, focused in particular on taxes. Doomsday would have worked well as a tax document if one assumes that the king's officers did not have to visit every villein to collect the pig or sack of corn, but took the lump sum/items from the major landowner, who would have collected from his tennants, and so on.

  • Comment number 2.

    What Dr Baxter is saying, and as a historian who did their dissertation on Domesday Book and came to similar conclusions, is that the information to use Domesday Book as a tax book was collected but not used. The layout of the information contained in the final returns was carefully selected and all extraneous matter was removed. There is also a clue in the questions asked by the commissioners - the question regarding if any more can be extracted from each manor comes last, not first, so was not top of any agenda. Ancient texts are frequently misinterpretted and therefore used as a basis for something that was never intended by the original so because a more modern document is similar to Domesday Book has no bearing on the purpose of Domesday Book. Dr Baxer has proved that the information can be rearranged to provide a far more useful source for tax collection but it wasn't arranged thus which is key.

  • Comment number 3.

    I very much enjoyed Dr Baxter's programme, and especially his clear and engaging style of presentation. However, I have misgivings about his conclusion re the purpose of Domesday.
    I find it hard to accept that Domesday Book was other than a tax collection document. That it is not geographically arranged is perfectly logical. Why? At this time, surely the prime liability for paying tax would be on the landowners who held their land holdings from William - and he would want/need to know what his payback would be from each landowner, not each locality, which would be irrelevant in that context. At this date it is logical that an agent of the landowner on each of the latter's holdings would collect the taxes from the villeins, serfs, etc. (and probably add his cut, too!), after which he would arrange for the tax collected to be conveyed to the lord, who would then send the due amount to the Exchequer (after the lord took his cut). William's chief of the Exchequer would need to know what tax was due from each landowner, and have the supporting evidence , especially should he believe that William was being cheated. Domesday, arranged according to the names of those liable for taxation, provides exactly that. It would also give William an understanding of his income, in advance, surely as useful then as today.


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