The Domesday Book was a survey designed to record everything that people owned in England. It was ordered by William the Conqueror (the winner of the recent Battle of Hastings) so that William could determine how much money in taxes he could raise and to give William a better sense of the territory he had just conquered.
What did it record?
The Domesday Book recorded who owned the land (the landowners) as well as the size of the land that they owned. In addition, it looked at how the land was used. It recorded how much of the land was used for farming, how much was woodlands and even recorded whether there were fish ponds on the land. The survey also looked at the number of workers on the land as well as the number of animals. The survey also counted the number of buildings on the land and what they were being used for.
The Domesday Book did not survey all of England. Some important places were left out. Northumberland, Durham, and Cumbria were left out as was most of north-west England which was not completely under Norman control.
Information on some major cities, such as London and Winchester, has not been found but this may be because it was lost and not that the survey wasn’t completed in these cities.
Why was it done?
The exact reasons for the survey being done may never be known, but most scholars believe it was done in order to figure out how much tax the government could get from the populace. At the time the survey took place (1085–1086), England was under pressure from King Olaf of Norway and King Canute of Denmark. In addition, there were also threats from France, Normandy, and Scotland. William needed money to put toward defending the country.
Another reason for the survey may have been so that William could enforce his rights as a feudal overlord. As the feudal overlord, William could call on his vassals for military support and also had the right to take over an estate where there were no heirs.
Another reason may have been that William wanted to disperse the burden of paying for the mercenaries William employed in the war more evenly. Another possible reason is simply that William wanted to learn about the country he had just conquered.
How was it done?
The survey was initially conducted through lists. All landowners had to submit information regarding their holdings. The only thing that really made the whole survey possible was the excellent administration that had been set up by the Anglo-Saxons. William kept this administration in place when he conquered the country and used it for his survey.
Once the lists were received, the information was compiled into one book. Then groups of officials would travel to different parts of England to gather even more information if necessary. These groups were made up bishops, dukes and other high-ranking officials.
What was asked?
A list of questions that were used for the survey in the territory of Cambridgeshire (called the Ely Inquest since it was found in the Ely Cathedral) still survives. These same questions were probably asked throughout England.
The questions found in the Ely Inquest are as follows:
- What is the manor called?
- Who held it in the time of King Edward (in 1066)?
- Who holds it now (in 1086)?
- How many hides are there (what is its tax assessment)?
- How many plough (team)s on the demesne (local lord’s own land) and among the men (rest of the village)?
- How many free men, sokemen (freemen who had to attend their lord’s court), villans (an unfree peasant who farmed land for himself and his lord), cottars or cottagers (unfree peasants who owned less land that villans), slaves?
- How much woodland, meadow, pasture, mills, fisheries?
- How much has been added to or taken away from the manor?
- How much was the whole worth (1066) and how much now (1086)?
- How much had or has each freeman and each sokeman?
- And whether more can be had than is had (in other words, can the manor raise more tax revenue)?
The answers to these questions were given for three different times. Answers were required for the time during Edward the Confessor’s reign, when William gave the land to the landowner, and what it is worth now (1086).
Why is it called the Domesday Book?
When it was first commissioned, the survey was not called the Domesday Book. It became known as Domesday because of a play on words relating it to doomsday, the day of final judgement in the Christian religion. The information that the survey collected was so complete that it was compared to the information and judgement made on doomsday.
Why is it important?
The Domesday Book gives a lot of information about Norman England. It shows how the country changed twenty years after the Norman Invasion. The Domesday Book shows how Normans came to dominate the country and how less than 250 Normans controlled the whole country. William granted most of the land to Normans and only two Anglo-Saxons who had land during the time of Edward the Confessor were able to keep their land.
The number of people recorded in the book adds up to approximately one and a half million people. The book doesn’t give a lot of names and only three women are mentioned: Queen Matilda, William’s wife; Queen Edith, Edward the Confessor’s wife; and Judith, Countess of Northumbria and Huntingdon.
The book also mentions a number of towns (13,418) and some of these towns are still exist today. The book also describes how society was organized in different areas of England. For example, in the Danelaw counties (the area where the law of the Danes was observed), there were a lot of freemen while in the West Midlands, there were a lot of slaves. The book also mentions various occupations such as beekeepers, a vine dresser (someone who grows vines), and a female jester.
How many books were there?
There are actually two books: the Great Domesday Book and the Little Domesday Book. The Great Domesday book is the biggest and covers the most territory. The Little Domesday Book covers the territory of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. The information from the Little Domesday Book may not have been included in the main book because William died before it could be done.
The Little Domesday Book’s entries actually contain more information than the entries in the Great Domesday Book which highlights the amount of information that had to be cut out in order to complete the book..