Domesday Book Overview

Domesday Book Definition

Definition of the Domesday Book in Medieval England Read more about the Domesday Book Definition >>


Introduction

The Domesday Book was written in 1086, compiled on the orders of the William the Conqueror. The book was meant to assess the wealth of England so that the Norman King William could levy taxes.

The book was compiled through a means of a detailed survey. So detailed was this survey that it was able to take into account virtually all the material wealth in different parts of England.

The book also recorded ownership of various parts of land so that it was regularly used to cite land rights. It remained highly relevant for many centuries and has even been used once or twice in the 20th century when claiming land rights.

Normans and Domesday Book

The Normans invaded England under the leadership of William The Conqueror in 1066. Before the Normans, Anglo-Saxons had been ruling England for many centuries.

Normans decisively defeated Anglo-Saxons and took over England. King William replaced Anglo-Saxon aristocracy with the Norman aristocracy.

He gave lands to Norman barons loyal to him so that land ownership was changed. William also needed money to pay for the expensive invasion he had carried out. So apart from recording new land ownership, the Domesday Book was also commissioned to allow him to levy taxes properly.

The Great Survey of England and Wales

The Domesday Book was written as a result of an unprecedented survey of England and Wales. In order to conduct the survey, England was divided into 7 regions. King William then sent 3 to 4 commissioners in each of these regions which were also known as circuits.

The task of the commissioners was to reach each shire, speak to local representatives, ask them specific questions and note the answers by also considering the material evidence.

In this way, the commissioners were able to gather details on who owned what parts of land, how many ox, cow or pigs existed in a region, what was the previous tax levied on a property, how many fish were caught in a river on a daily basis and so on.

Writing the Domesday Book

The information that was gathered in the Great Survey was then reviewed. Previous existing records of the Anglo-Saxon kings were considered and other records from contemporary times were also reviewed. The information from the Great Survey was then entered into the Domesday Book by merging with other existing records. The book was originally written in Latin.

Importance of Domesday Book

Soon after being written, Domesday Book came to be used extensively in the England law under the Normans. It was used to levy taxes on the people while also settling disputes of land ownership.

Over time, the book became the single most reliable source of reference. When a court of law referred to it, the contents of the book were considered indisputable. For this reason, it was also often referred to as ‘the Book of Judgment’.

The Domesday Book was also significant for the sheer scope of its contents. It came about as a result of a survey which has few parallels in contemporary history. Even in the history of England, a survey of such a scope was only attempted many centuries later in 1873.

Why is it called Domesday Book?

The Domesday Book is so named for a number of reasons. The book has a detailed account of virtually all property. In some cases, it even records the number of pigs in a forestland and the number of fishes a landowner catches in a specific part of a river.

The ownership of virtually all the land is accounted for in this book. For this reason, like the Last Judgment which is said to record all human deeds, the Domesday Book was named thus because it recorded all properties and ownership in England.

It was also called so because an appeal to the book was final – a decision based upon the contents of the book could not be reversed.

Where is Domesday Book Today?

The original Domesday Book, as compiled under William the Conqueror, remained with the Norman kings for many centuries. The actual book comprised of two books – a main, larger volume and smaller volume.

It was a part of the royal treasury from the 11th to 13th centuries. In the 13th century, the Treasury moved from Winchester to Westminster and the book went with it. For the nearly next six centuries, the book remained in Westminster. It was rebound and touched up new covers a number of times. Today, the Domesday Book is kept in the National Archives in Kew.

Great Domesday and Little Domesday

Although the Domesday Book is named like a singular, it comprises of two separate volumes. These are known as the Great Domesday and the Little Domesday. The Great Domesday covers the comprehensive records of all the counties of England with the exception of Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex.

A separate but smaller volume comprising the records of these three counties in contained in Little Domesday. The Great Domesday is highly abbreviated while the Little Domesday couldn’t be abbreviated for some reason. Throughout the history, the term ‘Domesday Book’ has been used to refer to both volumes together.

Summary

  • Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 on the orders of King William the Conqueror.
  • King William led the Norman invasion of England in 1066. He commissioned the books to know how much tax he can levy and who owned different parts of the land.
  • The book was written after a Great Survey of England and Wales. England was divided into seven regions for the purpose of the survey. Commissioners visited every county and shire to meet locals and note down details about land and material ownership.
  • Domesday Book itself comprises of two volumes known as the ‘Great Domesday’ and the ‘Little Domesday’.
  • The book was so named because it contained a record of virtually all land ownership, cattle, fish catch and other details.
  • It was also called ‘the Book of Judgment’ by some writers.
  • Domesday Book is today kept in the National Archives in Kew.
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