In Our Time: The Domesday Book

After a bit of a hiatus J and I once again listened to an In Our Time episode with our Sunday breakfast. As the programme itself is now on hiatus until late September we’re cherry-picking interesting looking recent(ish) episodes we haven’t listened to yet. Today we picked out the one on The Domesday Book from mid-April this year. The Domesday Book is a great survey of the land and land-holdings of England produced in 1086AD for William the Conqueror’s administration. The original manuscript still exists, and was still being referred to until relatively recently. The three experts on the programme were Stephen Baxter (Kings College London), Elisabeth van Houts (University of Cambridge) and David Bates (University of East Anglia).

They started, as always, by giving us some context for the subject at hand. In this case that meant a brief overview of the changes the Norman Conquest had made to the people of England. The Anglo-Saxon England of the 11th Century was one of the richest countries in Western Europe, which made it a tempting target for would-be rulers like the Danes and William the Conqueror. After William won at Hastings he used the rhetoric of legitimacy to establish his new regime, and to dispossess the Anglo-Saxon nobility of their lands. He declared himself to’ve been Edward the Confessor’s legitimate heir, so anyone who fought on the side of Harold was a traitor and thus their lands were forfeit. Although the aristocracy was almost completely replaced the underlying structure of the administration was not – the country was still organised into shires and hundreds within them. This was most efficient for William as it was already a working taxation system.

It’s not known why William decided to conduct this survey. Bates suggested (slightly tongue in cheek?) that one of the inspirations for it might be the biblical story of Augustus Caesar’s survey (which leads to Jesus being born in a stable). It probably served multiple purposes including valuation of everyone’s landholdings for taxation purposes, and for feudal purposes (how many men at arms each lord needed to provide and such like). It’s also important to remember that England was now part of an empire – William also ruled Normandy and had recently conquered Maine in modern day France. The focus of the empire was more on the French side of the channel – England’s role was provider of revenue and other resources. A comprehensive list of what there is to squeeze wealth out of would be useful in that context.

Once decided on it all happened very quickly – this is one of the impressive parts of it, that the 11th Century administration was capable of surveying the entire country and producing a (large) book with a summary of the data within seven months. The starting point for the data collection was the shire & hundred system. Possibly the major tenants (the lords etc) had provided overview details of their holdings as a basis for the detailed survey. The data was collected from each hundred via meetings with the villagers of the villages in the hundred. This was a multi-lingual event, the villagers would speak Anglo-Saxon, the higher levels of society & the clerks and data collectors probably were French speaking and this oral testimony would have then been written down in Latin.

After the data was all collected in documents for each shire or collection of shires this was then summarised into the final document (organised feudally by landholder rather than geographically as the original documents were). The Great Domesday Book contains the majority of the country, and was written by a single scribe. There is also the Little Domesday Book which was written by several scribes and covers Suffolk, Norfolk and (I think) Cambridgeshire – this isn’t duplicated in the other book, possibly because it was sufficiently well written and organised to make re-summarising unnecessary. Some large towns (like London and Winchester) are missing – there is space left for those as if the scribe expected to come back to it later. And also most of the north of the country is missing – North Yorkshire, County Durham, Northumberland and most of Cumberland. This is probably because they weren’t part of the shire & hundred system.

The information recorded in the Great Domesday Book does vary across the country, but generally always includes land ownership and value at three points in the present & recent past. Firstly, the state of affairs on the day of King Edward’s death (in January 1066) – which is intended as the last legitimate point of Anglo-Saxon rule. Secondly what happened to the land after the Conquest in late 1066. And finally who owns the land now, and what it’s worth. This gives a good sense to the historian of what happened in the country after the Norman Conquest. It was also very useful for settling disputes in later centuries about who controlled what land – a bit hard to claim “my ancestors always had” if clearly written down in 1086 was something else.

All three experts were keen to talk about how much more there is recorded in the Domesday Book than just the dry facts of land value and ownership. It’s a great source for the social history of the time, and for stories about individuals. Elisabeth van Hout talked about what we can glean from it about what happened to the women who were widowed in the Norman Conquest. You can see the patterns of marriages (mostly like forced) as a way of conveying land in their names to new Norman lords. At lower levels of society there’s at least one story where the land is in 1086 by a Breton soldier who has it by right of the woman he fell in love with (this is the only time the word “love” is used in the survey – I think she said it was in the Little Domesday Book).

There is also a lot of evidence about the effects of the imposition of the new Norman regime on the country. The Harrying of the North is the best known example of land being laid waste after the Conquest but there are also many other smaller scale examples. Baxter explained that laying waste to the land means the destruction of the property – burning buildings and land, killing livestock, taking away or destroying grain stores. This leaves the people who live off that land with no food, and no way to replace it. In towns this destruction of property was often partly intended to clear land for the new castles and cathedrals that William was building to assert his authority and control his new territory. The entries in the Domesday Book show the reduction caused to property value even a decade or two after the land in question was laid waste.

William the Conqueror probably never saw the completed work – he left England for his lands on the continent with a lot of money raised through taxing the English “as was his custom” (according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) in 1086 and never returned (he died in 1087). As I mentioned at the start the Domesday Book was used as a reference in land disputes for many centuries afterwards, even down to relatively modern times. And it was also used in the late Middle Ages by villagers who wanted to prove they had the privileges accorded to a royal manor in 1086. In several cases villagers would club together to buy an excerpt from the Domesday Book which they hoped would demonstrate their status – often they were wrong, but obviously would’ve had to pay anyway.

An interesting programme – I’ve always been a bit fascinated by the Domesday Book since we did a project on it at school in 1986 – it was a country wide thing, generating a new “Domesday Book” 900 years on from the original. I thought it was up online now, but I think that may’ve been transitory which is a shame (although I haven’t searched very hard so I may be wrong).