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."
The 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.
No 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
- You can can find out who owned your town or village in 1066, or create maps of Anglo-Saxon estates throughout England, with the PASE Domesday project.
- The Domesday Book is on A History of the World courtesy of The National Archives and Exeter Cathedral Library have put the Exon Domesday on the website too. For more on the Normans and Norman objects see our Normans page.