The Domesday Inheritance

Bishopsgate Institute, 3 February 2011


The first thing I hear in the morning when I switch on my computer is ‘ping’. If I’m lucky, there’s only one email, but every day there is at least one. Failing all else, there is always the Google Alert with the keyword ‘Domesday’. Day in day out for the last five years there have been at least a dozen or so new references to Domesday on the internet. Often the references are just nonsense. In early September 2010, for example, Domesday Book was used to buttress a rather poor story on ‘the most haunted house in England’. Wymering Manor in Portsmouth, it seems, was home to Edward the Confessor (I’m sure he had nicer places to live) and was built in the sixteenth century (shurely shome mishtake). The story is not even good enough to join my collection of Domesday Dotties.

            Others are more interesting, if only as a comment on our modern society. No story about the countryside is complete without mentioning that Little Twittering in the Marsh ‘appears in the Domesday Book’ (note the use of the definite article; all professionals omit it) and estate agents, it seems, would be unable to sell a single heritage executive home without a guarantee of inclusion in the great survey. Domesday Book somehow defines our culture, or at least, how we would like to view it. A couple of years ago it was declared a national treasure along with the pub, cricket, and the mini skirt. It was also nominated as one of fifty book that ’changed the world’, along with the Bible, the Koran and The Joys of Sex. More bizarrely, in recent months Domesday Book has been picked up by the BNP as a reference point for racial purity. Odd choice considering that it was compiled for a group of foreign invaders and describes a society which was already multi-racial before they came.

All this is peculiarly English. What is the more surprising is that Domesday Book should be so regularly cited elsewhere. In the last few years it has been held up in the Vietnam Daily News as a notable turning point in history; in an Iraqi insurgents’ website as evidence of the innate iniquity of the west; in America’s Playboy as a marker of masculinity. In the same period, it has been appropriated to a multitude of other causes and views. I think we can say with some confidence that Domesday Book is the most famous medieval document in the world.

Well, what is the all fuss about, then? The book itself is impressive enough. It comes in two volumes and is a summary account of a survey or inquest of the lands of the king and his barons in 1086. It covers all of England south of the Tees along with a little bit of eastern Wales – that part that had already been conquered by the Normans in 1086 - and is arranged by landholder county by county. Volume ii, Little Domesday Book (LDB) as it is known, consists of 900 or so single-column pages and contains a description of estates in  Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. Volume i, Great Domesday (GDB), weighs in at 760 double-column pages and contains an account of the rest of the country.  The whole work was rebound in five volumes in 1984 to facilitate consultation.

Individual entries are not always an exciting reading, but they do convey key facts about the estates in question. The account of Stepney is typical:

In 'Ossulstone' HUNDRED the Bishop of London holds STEPNEY [for] 32 hides. There is land for 25 ploughs. To the demesne belong 14 hides, and there are 3 ploughs; and 22 ploughs among the villans. There are 44 villans each on 1 virgate, and 7 villans each on half a hide, and 9 villans each on half a virgate, and 46 cottars on 1 hide; they pay 30s. a year. There are 4 mills rendering £4 16s. less 4d., meadow for 25 ploughs, pasture for the livestock of the vill and [rendering] 15s., [and] woodland for 500 pigs and [rendering] 40s. In all it is worth £48; and when received, the same; TRE £50. This manor belonged and belongs to the bishopric.

The first thing to point out is that, of course, the original is written in Latin and in  shorthand at that. The entry starts with the holder of the land in 1086, here the Bishop of London. Then is recorded the tax assessment of the estate in hides, the number of ploughs in demesne (that is in the lord’s hands), the number of men there and their ploughs, and then the value of the manor in 1066 and at the time of the inquest.

There over 30,000 entries of this type in GBD and LDB, referring to no less than 13,600 communities, give or take. Almost 90% of existing settlements appear there in one form or another. It is, in fact, rather difficult to live in a place in England south of the Tees that is not mentioned in ‘the Domesday Book’. The Phillimore edition of the text, the most freely available, gives you a good idea of the scope of the inquest. It is published in 39 volumes not including three volumes of indices. The paperback version takes up 39 inches on my bookshelves.

It was a truly phenomenal achievement and it’s perhaps not surprising that the production of the Book has been seen as the sole aim of the inquest of 1086. The ‘Making of Domesday Book’ is usually represented in something like the following way. It started with existing administrative documents and possibly a survey of the king’s lands. These records were then brought together in the open sessions of the Domesday inquest in regional centres where lords provided an account of their lands. Drafts, already in the form of Domesday Book, were then produced and returned to central government where Domesday Book was finally abbreviated from them.

This, of course, is a modern reconstruction of events. Earlier writers had no need to finesse it in this way. However, the notion that Domesday Book was the aim of the inquest is an old one. It first surfaces in an anonymous chronicle written at Worcester in about 1140. It was Richard fitzNigel writing slightly later, however, who gives it a political spin. In the Dialogue of the Exchequer of c.1179 he asserted that William the Conqueror ordered its production to bring the conquered people [of England] under the rule of written law. Domesday Book was the expression of the iron will of a powerful king.

That was an agenda – I use the word advisedly - that has run and run ever since. In the mid thirteenth century Matthew Paris opined that the production of Domesday Book was where ’the manifest oppression of the English began’. The ‘Norman yoke’ was born. It was a sentiment that was to inform radical political thought into the modern period; it was the common currency of the Levellers in the Civil War and it coloured the debate between Whigs and Tories in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is still current today. Reviewing the BSE inquiry report, Professor Hugh Pennington wrote in December 2000:

The [BSE] inquiry joins a long English tradition of detailed government-commissioned reports compiled with state-of-the-art technology. The Domesday Book was the first and BSE might be thought of as a tardy riposte to that Norman intrusion - the disease, after all, has crossed the Channel in the opposite direction.

Domesday Book as political control and propaganda remains a leitmotif of modern historical discourse. Indeed, it was the theme of Steve Baxter’s recent television programme.

            The corollary of all this is that Domesday Book has been seen as an exhaustive survey of late eleventh-century England. The notion seemingly has a good pedigree. Writing in 1086 or early 1087 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicler adopted the tone of an early Joe Grundy. He complained that ‘so narrowly did [King William] have [England] investigated that there was no single hide nor virgate 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.’ The same idea is reflected in the name ‘Domesday Book’ which was coined perhaps in the early twelfth century: like St Peter’s record, nothing was left out and nothing could be changed. Modern economic and social historians have, of course, been more circumspect. Domesday is no census. For a start almost half the population is missing – women get hardly a look in. It is now seem as primarily an account of the estates of the king and his barons. Nevertheless, it is assumed to be an exhaustive inventory survey of those lands. The economy of eleventh century England can be reconstructed from it.

All of this may appear to come from The University of the Bloody Obvious. Of course such a major source as Domesday Book must have been the product of concerted policy and, of course, it indicates strong decisive government. But, as you have no doubt already divined, I am going to take issue with the notion. It seems to me that it owes more to 1066 and All That - the world of strong and weak kings, good and bad things - than critical history.

We can start with the most important characteristic of Domesday Book: it was an abbreviation, it missed out a lot of the information that was collected. Most obviously, GDB omitted all mention of livestock, an item of major interest in the inquest. More importantly, both GDB and LDB fail to record the names of the jurors who provided the information, information we know from other sources was freely available to the Domesday scribes. If later practice from the early twelfth century onwards is any guide, the fact at once indicates that Domesday Book cannot originally have had any legal force.

Evidence to be admissible had to be vouchsafed by jurors. In later centuries they did so by appending their seals; what mark they use in the eleventh is unknown. The fact remains that their witness is conspicuous by its absence. Original returns were essential to all legal processes. Summaries of inquests were an entirely different beast with a different purpose. They were generally compiled after the surveys, sometimes as much as 20 years after the event, for purely administrative purposes.

Domesday Book displays all of these latter characteristics. Although many historians confidently assert that it was compiled in 1086/7, it is in fact undated. (The colophon at the end of LDB refers to the inquest not the book). The earliest unambiguous reference to ‘the king’s book’ comes in 1101 and internal evidence indicates that it must have been compiled after 1088. The decisive evidence is found in the account of Huntingdonshire, the fifth county to be entered in GDB, where William de Warenne is styled ‘earl’. He was so elevated by William Rufus, William the Conqueror’s son, some time between late 1087 and mid 1088.

Written for William the Conqueror it wasn’t. Neither was it a Magna Carta bruited throughout the realm. In the first fifty years of its existence, Domesday Book seems to have been largely unknown outside royal circles. It remains unmentioned in charters and, significantly, extracts do not appear in all the cartularies that were compiled before 1130, apart from a postscriptal addition of unknown date relating to the church of Wolverhampton in Heming’s Cartulary.

Domesday Book was also evidently not a public document. For myself, I have suggested that it was most likely compiled c.1090 by Rannulf Flambard after the revolt against Rufus in 1088 as an administrative aid. Royal estates had been widely plundered and the book was designed as a guide to royal rights for use in the Exchequer. Having said that, however, it is possible that the book was compiled at any time up to the early years of the reign of Henry I.

I would argue, then, that Domesday Book was not a grand political statement by William the Conqueror, but the jottings of a quill-pusher in the reign of one or other of the two sons who succeeded him. Its fame, or infamy depending on your taste, is a later twelfth-century phenomenon. It is not difficult to appreciate why. As we have seen, Richard fitzNeal asserts that Domesday Book brought the kingdom of England under the rule of written law. It is surely not coincidental that this was precisely the programme of Richard’s master Henry II. After the anarchy of Stephen’s reign Henry’s task was to reassert the authority of the crown and restore order. The means was the development of novel legal instruments which we now know collectively as the Common Law. Domesday Book was promoted as both a precedent and potent icon of the process. The centrality of Domesday Book is the product of late twelfth-century spin.

What, then, was the Domesday inquest about if not the production of Domesday Book? The answer to that question goes to the root of the Domesday inheritance. There are a lot of documents that survive from the process, but they have usually been interpreted as ‘satellites’, that is, they were stages in the production of the book. Once we dispose of that shibboleth, however, we can see them for what they are. They point to not one aim but several.

The starting point must be the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle account of the inquest. It states that there was first a survey of what can be broadly characterized as the income of the king:

The king had much thought and deep discussion with his council at Gloucester about England how it was occupied or with what sort of people. Then he sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, or what land and cattle the king himself had in the  country, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire.

The account of Worcester just about embodies in summary form the full range of the inquest at this stage. It breaks down as follows. We see read first of the profits of the City, or at least, that part that belonged to the king, and its total value. There then follows in order the value of the demesne manors in the countryside, the shire farm, royal pleas and the profits of hundreds, and finally a note on the renders due to the king in respect of military service.

Vestiges of the audit in these terms are found throughout the Domesday corpus. It is most apparent as a separate enterprise in the survey of the king’s demesne manors in the countryside. Throughout the Domesday corpus the account of the king’s land is noticeably different from the rest of the text. It includes all sorts of renders in kind and the profits from courts, divers customs, and the like not found elsewhere. Less obviously, there was  also a survey of royal churches. It is not evidenced in the Worcester entry, but I’ll take the account of Cholsey church in Berkshire to illustrate the point. It is entered in a separate sub-entry from the rest of the manor and details are given of priests and the like, a sure indication of a discrete source. Royal churches are consistently entered in much the same way throughout Domesday Book.

The reference to hundreds in the account of Worcester is the closest that we get there to what was probably the main business of the inquest at this stage, that is a tax audit. Juries of shires, hundred, and village delivered verdicts on geld liability – an assessment in hides or carucates to all the dues owed by free men - and arrears of Danegeld were collected. There are summary records of this inquisitio geldi in a source called the Exon Domesday which is in Exeter Cathedral Library. Accounts are also embedded in Domesday Book, as, for example, in the description of Lincoln:

Those written below have not paid the king's geld as they ought:

The land of ST MARY on which Theodbert dwells in the high street has not paid geld, nor has the bishop's land situated at St Laurence's paid geld in respect of 1 house.

The Abbot of Peterborough has not paid geld in respect of 1 house and of 3 tofts.

Earl Hugh has not paid geld in respect of any of his land, nor [has] Turold of 'Greetwell', nor Losuard, nor Ketilbert.

Hugh fitzBaldric has not paid geld in respect of 2 tofts, nor Geoffrey Alselin likewise in respect of 2 tofts. Nor has Gilbert paid geld in respect of 3 houses, nor Peter de Valognes in respect of his house, nor Countess Judith in respect of her house, nor Ralph Paynel in respect of 1 house, nor Ralph de Bapaume in respect of his house, nor Ertald in respect of his house.

This house, in respect of which the Abbot of Peterborough has not, as has been said, paid geld on a regular basis, Norman Crassus claims as of the king's fief, for

Guthrothr his predecessor had this in pledge for 3 ½ marks of silver.

However, the most extensive records of the process were probably something like the Yorkshire Summary, a list of holdings, their assessments, and the lords who held them, which is entered at the end of GDB.

We know from a contemporary letter written by Robert, bishop of Hereford, that all this took place in the shire court. The second stage was a survey of the lands of the barons. Again, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is our basic source. It goes on:

Also he had a record made of how much land his archbishops had, and his bishops and his abbots and his earls - and though I relate it at too greater a length - what or how much everyone had who was occupying land in England, in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth.

Notice how this annal carefully distinguishes the process from what went before with that initial ‘also’. This stage of the inquest, as is again clear from Robert of Hereford’s letter,  took place is regional assemblies over which commissioners presided. There were seven groups in all and they were sent to areas in which they held no land themselves to ensure the accuracy of the survey.

Something of the terms of reference perhaps survives in the Inquisitio Eliensis and the procedure can be reconstructed from the forms of the GDB and LDB texts. Lists of holdings were drawn up from the records of the geld inquest and each lord was required to furnish an account of the resources of all those he held. A day and place was appointed for his ‘inbreviation’, the official writing down of the details of his estates. Exon contains many of the inbreviations of the south-west counties. In most areas the results were then drawn up by village and sworn by hundred juries. A document know as the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis is the best surviving witness of this stage of the process, but geographically arranged sources of a similar kind are embedded in the Rutland, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire folios of GDB.

Finally, in some areas, there was a third stage in which disputes were determined. We have the results in the GDB accounts of Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire.

Records of all of these activities appear to have been returned to central government. 

That, in outline, is what happened in 1086. Can we explain what it was all about? It is the events of 1085 that put it all into context. It was a time of crisis; invasion was in the air. King Cnut of Denmark had made an alliance with Robert, count of Flanders and had threatened to invade England. William, in Normandy at the time, recruited mercenaries and (in the words of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle):

went to England with a larger force of mounted men and infantry from France and Brittany than had ever come to this country, so that people wondered how this country could maintain all that army. And the king had all the army dispersed all over the country among his vassals, and they provisioned the army each in proportion to his land. And people had much oppression that year, and the king had the land near the sea laid waste, so that if his enemies landed, they should have nothing to seize on so quickly. But when the king found out for a fact that his enemies had been hindered and could not carry out their expedition - then he let some of the army go to their own country, and some he kept in this country over winter.

This begins to make sense. William’s most pressing need in 1085 must have been cash. Within that context the first stage of the Domesday inquest makes immediate sense: the audit of the issues of the royal estates and the geld was designed to raise money to pay the wages of his mercenaries.

An aim of the second stage, the survey of the lands of the tenants-in-chief, seems to have been to raise more. Much of the income of the geld was enjoyed by the barons in 1085. Their own demesnes were exempt and they pocketed the surplus that was generated by their estates. Returns show that both sources of income were targeted by the king. Statistical summaries of the holdings of each baron, preserved in several inquest records, focus on the number of ploughlands in each fee and the increase in value since the land was granted by William. Both statistics were of immediate use. The increase in value was a straightforward measure of cash in hand; the ploughlands an index of tax capacity: juxtaposed with assessment to the geld the ploughland contrasted how much land was there with how much actually paid the geld.

Taxation was clearly a major concern, but it was not the only matter at issue. The lord’s demesne was exempt because he owed personal services to the king: where his men paid tax, he fought. Such service was also part of the equation. The summaries again supply the crucial information. In addition to ploughland and value, they carefully record the number of manors held by each baron, both in demesne and by his men. This is telling. Throughout the Domesday texts the manor is a leitmotif. Estates are constantly said to be held ‘for a manor’ or sometimes two or more; land that was added or taken away was consistently noted; the extent of fees was measured in the numbers of manors. Size mattered; so did number. The manor was evidently a measure of service. The servitium debitum, the number of knights that each baron owed him, was evidently at issue.   

What happened next? In the 1066 and All That school of history William the Conqueror clicked his fingers, tax was increased to full capacity, knight service was doubled, and everyone went home grumbling what a bastard King William was. Life is not like that now and it was not then. Politics has always been the art of the possible. What in fact William did was to convene a conference at Salisbury in early August 1086. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s record is laconic; it states that the king called together ‘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 to him, that they would be loyal to him against all other men’.

There is no more. However, we can reconstruct what happened from later events. A hard bargain was struck: William did not demand that tax was raised to its full capacity but the barons agreed to pay the geld due from their demesnes. In addition, as Orderic Vitalis pointed out in the early twelfth century, knight service was re-negotiated. In return the barons, and apparently their tenants and more substantial free men, were confirmed in their lands.

We can see at last that the Domesday inquest was not a matter of William throwing his weight about. It was a communal matter. The system of taxation and service had proved unequal to the demands made upon it for the defence of the realm in 1085. William had had to hire mercenaries; there was evidently much discontent among those who had to pay and billet them. Something had to be done. The inquest was the means. It recorded the obligations of each free man and the resources that underpinned them and, on the basis of the data collected, more adequate arrangements were then agreed. Far from indicating a strong king imposing his will, the Domesday inquest attests a king consulting his subjects in the face of a threat to the commonweal. It was all about collecting information to inform subsequent negotiation.

I should add here that this perspective shines a very different light on the contents of Domesday Book. An inventory survey of estates it was not. It has long been known that many resources are not noticed. In Kent, for example, there were no less than 159 churches, and presumably the settlements that went with them, that were in existence in 1086 but are not mentioned. This has mystified, but we should not find it surprising in a survey was about tax and service. The fact was that not all land was subject to such imposts and were therefore ignored as irrelevant to the negotiations. In Nottinghamshire we have evidence that less than half of the available land was described simply because it was not assessed to the geld. Tax allowances were as real in the eleventh century as now. So, Domesday gives us an account of taxable income only. Would we get a good impression of the wealth of bankers today if tried to reconstruct it from the tax they paid?  

:           In introducing the idea of negotiation into royal government I have been criticized for my ‘socialist’ sensibilities. Nowadays that is as much a hanging offence in academia as it is in public life. But I am not going to shy away from the concept. The upshot of the meeting at Salisbury was what was in effect a new social contract. It was in its way every bit as momentous as, say Magna Carta. The reform in taxation ensured that the geld continued to be a valuable source of income for the crown. It was to survive for another 80 years or so, although with diminishing returns after the reign of Henry I.

Far more important was the reform in service. Billeting of mercenaries thereafter was never an issue. It is not specified in relations between king and baron in later centuries. Moreover, it is explicitly prohibited in charters of liberties granted to towns by successive  kings. In other words, billeting of mercenaries was abolished. Henceforward, barons were expected to bring their quota of knights to defend the realm. The numbers agreed in 1086 dictated military service for the following century or so. From the late twelfth century, the king preferred to take a monetary payment, that is scutage, in lieu, but the figures continued to inform its collection as well as the other feudal dues of wardship, marriage, relief, and the like, well into the fifteenth century.

The agreement, however, was not just between king and barons. Remember that all those who held freely also swore allegiance to the king. The tenants of the barons were also involved and here profound changes in society ensured. Up to 1086, the ordinary knight had no security of tenure: at best he held his land only for his life – he did not have the right to pass it on to his heirs.  For the first time the oath created a direct relationship with the king, and, under the English law in which these matters were framed, that conferred hereditablity. By the early twelfth century the barons’ tenants had established their families and put down firm roots in the countryside. A new squirarchy was born and a social order came into existence that was to dominate local society almost into the modern day.

Now of course not all of this happened over night. Rights to land had to be challenged before the full effects of the oath of fealty could be seen to have force. Even more so, hereditability could be tested only on the death of the Domesday tenant. Nevertheless, the meeting at Salisbury was henceforward a decisive point of reference. The society that Domesday Book describes was still essentially Old English. I do not have the time to go into the complexities of pre-Conquest tenure and you would probably not thank me for doing so. It was, however, still basically a tributary society. Its mainspring was dues of one kind and another rather than land; lordship was personal rather than territorial. After the Domesday inquest, we get no further mention of its terms of reference, soke, commendation, and the like. Henceforward, land became central; lordship became territorialized.

If Norman society of the twelfth century is characterized by its feudal structure (again, I use the term advisedly), then it was the Domesday inquest that created it. Negotiation was at the core of the process and it was a mechanism of government that has informed our polity ever since. The Oath of Salisbury reinforced the crown’s right to the primary allegiance of its subjects and the fact enabled successive kings to use the instrument of the inquest to consult in times of crisis and uncertainty. There were major regional and national surveys in the early twelfth century, 1166, 1170, 1212, 1242/3, 1255, 1258, 1274/5, 1279/80, and 1286 which, in their own terms, produced records every bit as detailed and extensive as Domesday. The series only ceases when the instrument of the inquest was superseded by parliaments as the main means of consultation from the late thirteenth century onwards. Far from being the start of the manifest oppression of the English, the Domesday inquest lies at the very root of our democratic society. Therein lies the real  Domesday inheritance.



©David Roffe 2011