What’s the background to the Domesday Book?

In 1085, William the Conqueror faced the greatest crisis of his life and reign. This, of course, came two decades after his famous invasion and conquest of 1066. For the next 20 years he and his Norman followers colonised England – but then, in the 1080s, William’s position as king began to look vulnerable. His eldest son, Robert, was in rebellion and courting allies in northern France for an attack on Normandy, and King Cnut of Denmark was preparing to invade England in alliance with the count of Flanders.


William’s response was characteristically vigorous. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he mobilised the largest “force of mounted men and infantry” ever seen in England, compelled his vassals “to provision the army each in proportion to his land,” and scorched the coastline to prevent his enemies from gaining a foothold − the kind of foothold that his own army had found in 1066. The atmosphere of England in 1085 must have resembled 1588 with the Armada on its way, or 1940 with Hitler’s forces poised for invasion.

Then, at Christmas, the king called 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”.

Faced with the prospect of political and military catastrophe, the Conqueror, one of the greatest military commanders of the 11th century, unleashed a bureaucratic fact-finding exercise. Why? How did he imagine that a book would help him resist a Viking invasion?

William the Conqueror
Faced with the prospect of political and military catastrophe, William the Conqueror unleashed a bureaucratic fact-finding exercise. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Why was Domesday Book made – and what was it used for?

The key to understanding why it was produced is establishing how it was made. The first step was to work out logistics. The kingdom was divided into seven ‘circuits’, most with five shires. Commissioners were appointed to conduct the survey in each circuit and, to ensure neutrality, they each served on circuits in which they did not themselves hold land. They were given terms of reference: a checklist of questions to answer for every parcel of property. Who held it in 1066? Who holds it now? How many people live there? How much livestock, woodland and meadow has it? What is its tax rating? How much money does it generate? Landholders and royal officials had a few weeks to gather the necessary information.

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Then came the main event: the Domesday inquest, conducted at extraordinary meetings of shire courts throughout the kingdom. These must have been exciting and dramatic occasions. Every landholder was called to give evidence before commissioners and panels of local jurors. This transformed the inquest into a political drama. It is known that some landholders even tried to pack Domesday juries with clients who could be relied on to support their verdicts, with varying degrees of success.

The Domesday inquest was conducted at extraordinary meetings of shire courts throughout the kingdom. These must have been exciting and dramatic occasions…

There must have been a moment of hushed excitement each time the crucial question was asked at the inquest: “Who holds the land now?” Thousands of verdicts were challenged, and not even the most powerful lords were immune. For example, Picot, the sheriff of Cambridgeshire, suffered a torrid time at the inquest. The monks of Ely later remembered him as “a hungry lion, a prowling wolf, a crafty fox, a filthy pig, a shameless dog,” and to judge from the number of challenges to his title registered in Domesday Book, they said as much at the inquest.

Once the inquest hearings were complete, the commissioners and their scribes wrote up the results. One of their returns survives in its original form, covering the south-western shires: Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset. Although called the ‘Exon Domesday’, it is now known to have been written at Old Sarum, a castle-and-cathedral complex near Salisbury. As we shall see, this was a crucial focal point for the whole survey.

A 19th-century depiction of scribes working on the Domesday Book
A 19th-century depiction of scribes working on the Domesday Book. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Finally, a single scribe was assigned the task of turning all seven circuit returns into a single document. This volume is now known as Great Domesday Book. The scribe probably began in late summer 1086 while results from the inquest were still coming in. Scholars estimate it would have taken at least a year to write. It is possible that news of William’s death, on 9 September 1087, brought the scribe’s work to an abrupt end. This would explain why he did not write up the return for the eastern circuit, which also survives in its original form and is known as Little Domesday Book. ‘Domesday Book’ is the collective term for these two volumes: the Great and Little Domesday Book.

Why is it called Domesday Book?

During the lifetimes of the Conqueror and his sons, royal officials employed politically correct language when describing Domesday Book. They called it a “descriptio (survey) of all England” (in 1086), a “volumen (volume) kept in the king’s Treasury in Winchester,” the “king’s book,” the “book of the Exchequer,” the “book of Winchester,” and so on.

But Richard fitzNigel, treasurer to Henry II, wrote in the late 1170s that it was popularly known by a very different name: “The natives [ie 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.”

The name Domesday Book is therefore a function of its awesome reputation among the English. It invokes the Day of Judgment described in the Book of Revelation.

What was the purpose of the survey?

This remains deeply controversial. Many historians have argued it was all about the land-tax, known as the geld. That is, of course, logical. William desperately needed cash to finance his wars. Tax records from William’s reign reveal that many landholders enjoyed tax breaks and loopholes, so there was a pressing need to make tax collection more efficient.

The survey’s terms of reference support this hypothesis. Commissioners were instructed to establish the geld liability of every parcel of land in England, and to collect further information that would enable them to establish that it could pay more. Every entry in Domesday Book supplies that information. A contemporary eyewitness account says that: “The land was vexed with much violence arising from the collection of royal taxes” during the process. Surely, therefore, Domesday Book was a tax book?

The purpose of the survey remains deeply controversial…

The problem is that its layout makes it a spectacularly unhelpful guide to the logistics of taxation. To collect the land-tax efficiently, royal officials needed information arranged in geographical order, hundred by hundred and village by village, so they would know exactly where to go and how much to collect. But Domesday’s main organising principle is personal, not geographical. Each shire begins with a numbered list, starting with the king and then listing the names of “tenants-in-chief” − lords who held land directly from the king. The holdings of the king and tenants-in-chief are then listed in the same order, under numbered headings, in the pages that follow. There are no totals and no indexes. Any tax official trying to use this information laid out this way would have quickly lost the will to live because, as historians are painfully aware, it can take days to calculate the tax liability of particular areas or landholders, even with the benefit of modern editions with indexes.

The structure of Domesday Book does, however, make it an extraordinarily effective instrument of political control. Its tables of contents and numbered headings imply that all land was held either directly by the king or from him by tenants-in-chief. It therefore enshrines a radically new political principle that lay at the heart of the Conqueror’s regime: that the king claimed to be the source of all tenure. It both asserts that principle and made it manageable. Armed with Domesday Book, King William could threaten to dispossess a recalcitrant baron in a matter of minutes. It is not hard to see how that would have brought comfort to a king who needed baronial loyalty more than ever.

This form of political control was also potentially very profitable, for the king could also use his position as the source of all tenure to generate new streams of income. For example, if a baron died, the king could demand the payment of a relief, a kind of death duty paid by an heir to enter into their inheritance; or he could auction off the right to marry the widows or heiresses of deceased barons, with their lands, to the highest bidder; or if a bishop or abbot died, they could choose to delay the appointment of their successors and rake in the profits of their estates during the resulting vacancy. These forms of income are known to historians as ‘feudal incidents’. Later texts demonstrate that William’s sons, kings William II and Henry I, generated enormous sums of money from them.

So was the Domesday survey and Domesday Book intended to improve yields from the land-tax, or from feudal incidents? There is a solution to this problem which embraces both possibilities. Here it is essential to register a distinction between the survey and Domesday Book itself. It is known that the survey did generate information set out in ways that were useful for the management of taxation.

For example, Exon Domesday is bound up with tax lists, which were updated in 1086, and other texts in the collection demonstrate that the Domesday survey for the south-western shires generated documents laid out in geographic order, one hundred at a time – the format most useful for collecting the land tax. The commissioners from other circuits are known to have done the same thing. The structure of Domesday Book, however, organised within each shire by tenants-in-chief, would have made the management of feudal incidents more efficient

So by extracting information in different formats at each stage of the process, the king could achieve several objectives: creating a more secure land-tax base, and a formidable instrument of political and financial control over his barons.

Why did the barons accede to it?

The Domesday survey was completed with astonishing speed – within six months of the Gloucester council. This could not have been achieved without the active co-operation of the nobility. So what was in it for them? Something that they had yearned for throughout the long period during which England had been colonised was security of title. The Domesday inquest created a great public stage on which to act out the ritual completion of the process of colonisation, and the records of the inquest constituted unassailable title to those loyal to the king.

In other words, the Domesday survey was a hard-nosed deal between the king and his barons. That deal was sealed at Old Sarum. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle King 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”. This extraordinary event was most likely the climax to the Domesday survey. Exon Domesday was written at Old Sarum, and it was almost certainly there that all the records of the survey were delivered to the king.

Those records strengthened William’s tax base and articulated the principle that he was the source of all tenure in England with astonishing precision. But they also constituted irrefutable evidence of the barons’ title to property. That was enough to persuade them to swear allegiance and pay homage to the king. They did so in return for the land that William had granted them – with those rights now enshrined in the greatest charter of confirmation ever made in the medieval world.

Why is Domesday Book so important?

It is the earliest English document preserved by the government that 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 11th-century England with greater precision than is possible for almost any other pre-modern polity. Given the extent to which our knowledge of our past depends upon it, few would deny it is the single most important document in England’s history.

Does Domesday Book help explain the causes of the Norman conquest?

It certainly proves that pre-Conquest England was rich and effectively administered. Two popular misconceptions are that England before the Norman conquest was in the ‘Dark Ages’ – in other words, backward – and that the Normans began the process of bringing it into the light. Forget those ideas. England’s economy was already not so much developing as highly developed. The population was large – there were at least two million people in Domesday England. In fact, it is likely that William the Conqueror ruled as many people as Henry VIII.

The landscape was intensively exploited. About 90 per cent of places on the modern map of England south of the Tees are recorded in Domesday Book. There was also heavy investment in agriculture. Watermills were the most economically important machines in 11th‑century Europe: Domesday records 6,000. It also records that 650,000 oxen ploughed England’s fields. That was enough to cultivate about 3.2 million hectares (eight million acres) of land. A survey in 1914 reveals the cultivated area in England was then about 3.4 million hectares (8.3 million acres). So there may have been almost as much land under plough by 1086 as at the start of the First World War.

William the Conqueror and his escorts on horseback
William the Conqueror and his escorts on horseback, from the Bayeux Tapestry.(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Domesday Book also proves England was tightly governed. The survey could not have been made without the machinery of government that the Anglo-Saxons bequeathed to the Normans. It confirms that England possessed a sophisticated system of coinage, an effective system of taxation, a hierarchy of public courts and a robust system of justice.

All of this enabled English kings to exploit their kingdom’s wealth efficiently. But that is precisely why Duke William risked everything to invade England in 1066. In other words, Domesday Book proves that Anglo-Saxon England was a victim of its own success.

What does Domesday Book reveal about the impact of the Normans in England?

It provides irrefutable testimony to the fact that the Normans exploited the windfall of 1066 by displacing the English elite and extorting the peasantry. The English nobility was virtually wiped out. Domesday’s tables of contents list about 500 tenants-in-chief in 1086. Just 13 of them were English. The kingdom was now dominated by a new class of super-rich Frenchmen gorging on their success.

Writing a generation or so after the Domesday survey, a monk named Orderic Vitalis, half-English and half-Norman by birth, offers a vivid description of Earl Hugh, one of William’s richest magnates. “He was more prodigal than generous; and went about surrounded by an army instead of a household. He kept no check on what he gave or received. His hunting was a daily devastation of his lands, for he thought more highly of followers and hunters than husbandmen or monks. A slave to gluttony, he staggered under a mountain of fat, scarcely able to move.”

The Domesday inquest compelled Hugh to produce a precise account of what he gave and received. It confirms that he was fabulously wealthy, with more than 300 estates scattered across 19 shires, generating an income of about £900 a year. That may not sound much, but in 1086 it amounted to more than one per cent of the nation’s wealth.

Anglo-Saxon farmers threshing corn.
Anglo-Saxon farmers threshing corn. (Image by Alamy)

Some English landholders continued to hold property in reduced circumstances as subtenants, but even they were in a small minority. Domesday records that about 8,000 subtenants held land from tenants-in-chief, but only about 10 per cent of them were English, and they held less than four per cent of the landed wealth of England between them. Most subtenants suffered loss of freedom and status. Consider Æthelric of Marsh Gibbon in Buckinghamshire: he held his land there freely in 1066, but in 1086 he told the Domesday commissioners he held it from a Norman lord “onerously and miserably”.

The Conquest also had a catastrophic impact on the English peasantry. The book proves that much of Yorkshire and the north-west Midlands had been laid waste in retribution for rebellions that took place early in William’s reign. It also demonstrates that there was a drastic fall in the number of free landholders across the country, a dramatic increase in the number of manors, and an equally dramatic increase in rent. The average rent-hike in Norfolk was 38 per cent.

Writing in the early 12th century, William of Malmesbury lamented that “England has become a dwelling-place of foreigners and a playground for lords of alien blood. No Englishman today is an earl, a bishop, or an abbot; new faces everywhere enjoy England’s riches and gnaw her vitals, nor is there any hope of ending this miserable state of affairs.” The Book offers less-eloquent but emphatic support for his melancholic testimony.

What else can the survey tell us?

Because Domesday Book has existed for more than 900 years and has been intensively studied for centuries, it might seem reasonable to assume that its potential for research has been exhausted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Exciting new resources are making it more accessible than ever, and have opened up the possibility of addressing new questions.

Take, for example, the structure of landed society before and after the conquest. No one yet knows how people held land in 1066 or 1086, nor how much wealth was distributed between them. This is mainly due to logistical difficulties – the sheer scale of Domesday Book, its layout, and the challenge of differentiating people with the same names has prevented scholars from working this out.

It might seem reasonable to assume that its potential for research has been exhausted. Nothing could be further from the truth

However, a team of researchers based at King’s College London and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge has published a database linked to mapping facilities as part of the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE), a searchable database of all of the people who made an impression on the historical record of that era. Researchers are now using this resource to address one of the great questions of English history: what was the impact of the Norman conquest on the structure of English landed society? PASE Domesday is also freely available online, so that anyone curious to know who held land in their village at the time of the conquest can find this information quickly – and generate maps of where these lords held land throughout the kingdom.

Meanwhile, another team of researchers based at King’s and Oxford worked on Exon Domesday, to make facsimile images, text and translation accessible online, and to explore what this crucial manuscript reveals about the Domesday survey and the Conqueror’s government in action. Domesday Book’s own day of judgment still lies in the future.

Stephen Baxter is Clarendon Associate Professor and Barron Fellow in medieval history at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford. He is the author of The Earls of Mercia: Lordship and Power in Late Anglo-Saxon England (OUP, 2007)


This article was first published in the August 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine