The Domesday Book was compiled by William I in 1086-7. Having defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror wanted to take stock of exactly who owned what in mediaeval England. So, he commissioned a comprehensive survey to know just what he had inherited.
After his conquest, William took 20% of the land for himself and created 1100 new tenants-in-chief, mainly aristocracy who had survived the battle. These landowners included 200 barons and 300 members of the church. They received acreage known as a ‘manor’ which was worked by peasants, tenant farmers and serfs. Many English lords had to buy back their land from William, while others lost everything.
After 20 years establishing control and quelling any uprisings, William commissioned this record of all England. As well as recording ownership which could be referred to in disputes, it also laid down the wealth of every landowner, perhaps with a view to levying a future land tax.
Imagine the practical difficulties of these commissioners, travelling across the largely uncharted counties and gathering the full details of estates and villages from resentful landowners. It was perhaps the most remarkable administrative accomplishment of the Middle Ages, and has enormous historic value even today.
The word ‘Doomsday’ refers to the end of time or the biblical Day of Judgement when man faces up to the record of his life and takes account. Just as with that final record, the Domesday findings were final and there was no appeal. In a similar way, the Domesday Book had similar accountability with questions answered at a sworn inquest. Facts were gathered from sheriffs, barons, subtenants and their representatives for each manorial area, known then as a ‘hundred’. They included the acreage, names of the landowners, number of tenants, workers, serfs, mills, fish ponds, heads of livestock and other assets. From this an annual income was estimated. Interestingly, castles were listed as a cost, not an asset – something that current owners of historic castles can attest to!
To ensure fairness, the inspectors were made up of Englishmen and Normans. Once the survey was completed, there was a second round of inspections to ensure accuracy and eliminate corruption. The facts were collected in Winchester and written up in the Royal Writing Office.
When completed, the Domesday Book included 13,000 villages and showed that 90% of the population was rural and 75% of workers were serfs (labourers who were paid but were not free to move to another manor). It listed 50 castles, all built by William. It also listed a possible army of 16,000 warriors, should war be declared.
The Domesday Book is not actually one book, but two weighty volumes. The original document is now preserved in the National Archives, London. It is the oldest national census in Europe and can be accessed online. For a bit of light reading…