Inquests in Medieval England

National Museum of Japanese History, Chiba, Japan, 17 November 2006


Domesday Book makes its appearance in modern English publications almost on a daily basis. No story about the countryside is complete without mentioning that Little Twittering in the Marsh ‘appears in the Domesday Book’ and estate agents, it seems, would be unable to sell a single heritage executive home without a guarantee of inclusion in the great survey. Earlier this year Domesday Book 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. All peculiarly English. What is the more surprising is that Domesday Book should be so regularly cited elsewhere. In the last couple of 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.

It might, then, come as some surprise to those who recognize the brand that it was not the only survey, or inquisitio, ‘inquest’ as it was known, to survive from medieval England. Nor, for that matter, was it the largest and most comprehensive. The Domesday inquest, from which the book was culled, was primarily concerned with the lands and services of the king’s barons in the late eleventh century. Its scope was wide but not exhaustive. The great Hundred Rolls survey of 1279-80, by contrast, describes in minute detail every landholding from the those of the king to the poorest peasant. Had it survived in its entirety, it would have provided a complete customary of England, a combination of telephone directory, tax return, and register, many times bigger and much more authoritative than Domesday Book.

In the event, the Hundred Roll inquest was to prove almost the last of a great series of regional and national surveys. In the early twelfth century there were tax inquests in the East Midlands and in 1198 a reassessment in terms of ploughs throughout the kingdom. 1166 and 1212 saw surveys of knight service, and 1242-3 scutage, that is money paid instead of it. There were general reviews of royal rights and privileges in 1212, 1255, 1274, and 1284 and specific dues like the guardianship of widows in 1185 and sergeancies in the 1240s and 1250s. Finally, there were inquiries into the deeds and misdeeds of bailiffs, both royal and private, in 1170, 1258, and 1274-5.

 The records that survive from these processes are basic sources for the history of England in the period. Sometimes the detail is truly breath-taking. Domesday Book is unique in laying bare the social and economic underpinning of the lordship of a whole kingdom at such an early date. Here is a sample entry, taken from the Surrey folios:

Geoffrey himself holds Wanborough. It is not [part] of Esger's land. Swein and Leofwine, brothers, held it of King Edward. It was then assessed at 7 hides; now at 3 hides. There is land for 7 ploughs. There were 2 manors; now there is 1. In demesne is 1 plough; and 12 villans and 17 bordars with 8 ploughs. There is a church, and 8 slaves, and 6 acres of meadow, [and] woodland for 30 pigs. The whole TRE was worth 7; afterwards 100s; now 7.

There are over 29,000 entries of this kind. Its arid statistics pale, however, compared with the detail in the later sources. To take a passage at random. In the Ragman Roll for Stamford, drawn up in 1275 and probably referring to a date in the late 1260s, the following account appears:

They say that, although the bailiffs of Stamford have no right to distrain the burgesses of the town within their own homes unless they are levying debts owed to the king, the under-bailiffs of [the town]… enter the houses of the aforesaid burgesses and distrain them in the same for amercements and other diverse faults. They take brass pots standing on the fire, throwing out the vegetables and meat, and carry off the pots with them. Where they find no pots, they take cups of mazer standing on the tables of the burgesses and carry them off. They make distresses in this way in the houses of the said burgesses as often as they may each year. They do this by abusing their authority, to the loss of the town of 40s.

And you thought takeaways were a modern invention! It is difficult to resist the allure of such passages, especially when the principal offender in this case was a certain Walter Dragun! It is not surprising, then, that historians have tended to invest them with particular authority. They see them as the product of some peculiar legal process, no less than tried and tested truth.

            This tendency is most apparent in Domesday studies. Until recently it has been held as axiomatic that Domesday Book had always been intended as a comprehensive survey of title and land. William the Conqueror demanded information about his new realm and through sheer force of will brought it about. Reading many accounts it is almost as if he clicked his fingers to activate the well-oiled machine of English local government, and, within the constraints of the system, it smoothly produced the goods in extra-quick time to his command. To a greater or lesser degree all the surveys of the Middle Ages have been viewed in this way. They are seen as a product of strong kingship which brooked no opposition and got what it wanted.

            This view is fostered by the undoubted extensive use of inquest records in routine administration throughout the period. Much of the business of the Domesday inquest survives only in the abstract that was Domesday Book. Throughout the medieval period and beyond it was a basic source of reference in the Exchequer. So it was with most of the other inquests. The early twelfth-century surveys were transmitted through private archives, but the Carte Baronum were abstracted in the Red Book of the Exchequer and the inquests from 1195 to 1255 in the Testa de Neville, another book of reference in the Exchequer. The verdicts of 1274-5 and 1279-80 alone survive in large numbers and even there much is extant only in extract rolls. To all appearances the records were produced for the exclusive use of royal government.

And so the abstracts were. In all cases, however, (I would include Domesday Book here) these abbreviations were bureaucratic afterthoughts, sometimes as much as a hundred years after the event, which sucked the life out of the original inquest records. Where the originals survive we glimpse a very different process. First of all, the inquest was no automaton. Its procedure, the way in which it was conducted, reveals the active involvement of the community at every level. In essence it remained remarkably consistent throughout the period. A series of questions, the capitula, were first drawn up and commissioners were appointed to put them to representatives of the local communities. It was the men of the hundred, a group on average of twenty villages or so, that answered them. It might appear from many of the rolls that are validated with their seals that the answers, the veredicta or 'verdicts', were passive responses to the articles of inquiry. They typically rehearse the capitula and then curtly record the reply of the jurors.

'They say that they know nothing' is perhaps the commonest answer. But laconic statements of this kind conceal a more complex and active process. The sessions before the commissioners were largely formal occasions that came after a long process of data collection and that was predominantly communal and even personal. We draw on Domesday evidence here, Roger of Hoveden’s account of the carucage of 1198, rolls from 1274-5, and a number of reference in between. Initial inquiries were conducted locally by what came to be called inquisitores milites, enquiring knights – they were probably called thegns of the shire in 1086 - and representatives of the vill as well as individuals were invited to voice their concerns. Querele or individual complaints were a constant throughout the period. A composite verdict was then drawn up and it was this that was endorsed by the jurors of the hundred. Almost all are well-drafted fair copies. The hundred, then, functioned as the mouthpiece of the community at large, marshalling its concerns, formulating them, and then presenting them to the commissioners.

Something very like this procedure, it is true, was used in routine legal processes from the twelfth century onwards (the evidence is wanting for the earlier period). Hundreds and vills gave evidence in the sheriff’s tourn, the periodic review of policing, and subsequently in the general eyre, the visitation of royal justices, in reply to a set of questions. Here, however, the capitula were standard, often formulaic, and the answers the vill and hundred gave were checked against existing documents. At all levels of administration detailed records were routinely kept. The sheriff and justices were asking questions to which they already knew the answers. One gets the impression that the idea was to catch the jurors out and fine them!

The inquests, by contrast, were genuine inquiries. They were commissioned because there were no answers: either records were wanting or the local royal administration could not be trusted to supply them. The local community was a perfect foil to vested interest, bureaucratic blindness, and good old plain ignorance. Nevertheless, its participation can rarely have been entirely disinterested or, indeed, uninterested. All the surveys under consideration were concerned with the king’s income, and many were exclusively so. It is difficult to see what the hundred got out of the survey of capital fees in 1212. (It was, of course, a different matter for the knights of the shire, but there again we have only summaries of the returns). In 1255, however, the recitation of royal prerogative served to confirm communal rights by the mere fact of defining its limits. Know thy enemy and thereby tie him down. In the later Middle Ages the device became a potent means of establishing individual rights against the crown.

Other surveys, though, more directly recognized the voice of the community. The hundred’s verdicts became the touchstone of further action. Domesday is a prime example, making better sense as communal business than exclusively royal. In 1085 William the Conqueror was in a fix. Invasion from Denmark was threatened and the king was forced to hire an unprecedented number of mercenaries to defend his kingdom. He undoubtedly needed to maximize his income to pay for them, but there were also wider issues. What ought the barons to contribute to the defence of the realm? What the free communities of the shire? The Domesday inquest collected data on estates, the taxes and services due from them, and the information was used in a review of social obligations. The burden of taxation was more evenly distributed and knight service was redefined. An oath sworn by ‘all those who hold land in England’ at Salisbury in August 1086 constituted a new social contract to which all levels of free society were party.

            Or so I read the evidence. Communal business is more explicit in the Inquest of Sheriffs of 1170. Here the process began with a purge of local officials and the arrest of over two thirds of the sheriffs in the country. Local communities, who had suffered most at their hands, were then invited to detail their crimes, that is, dish the dirt. They were effectively used as a check on the workings of local government and seigneurial administration. So it was again in 1258. Local officials, both royal and baronial, had been running roughshod over the sensibilities of local communities at a time when Henry III was attempting to rule without the counsel of his barons. A reform programme, the Provisions of Oxford, was drawn up and the inquest was commissioned to identify abuses. The returns were used to help redefine relations between the king and his subjects as embodied in the Provisions of Westminster of 1259. In 1274-5 the target was additionally bailiffs of all kinds who had taken advantage of the chaos of the civil war in the decade before to oppress opponents. Again, the returns were used in the drafting of the Statute of Westminster I which attempted to remedy the abuses by introducing structural reforms in local administration.

            In all these cases the inquests were fact-collecting exercises which were precursors to further action, be it social, legal, or legislative. They were no simple stock-taking by a powerful centralized bureaucracy. Their force came from the fact that they were a powerful alliance between the crown and community against particular interests. For the king they provided an audit of regalia and a check on his ministers. For the communities of his realm they offered a definition of rights and the hope of a redress of grievances.

The meeting of government and the governed, then, was at the heart of the inquest and therein lay its power and raison d’être. Far from being the expression of strong government, the inquest often signals a king in difficulties. Kirkby’s Quest of 1284 was to be the last of the great general inquests, but of course it was not to be the last of the crises. The hundred was to continue to be consulted on various matters well into the fifteenth century, but its role became increasingly formal. From the late thirteenth century it was superseded by Parliaments which became the main and then only forum in which the king met and consulted his subjects. The inquest belongs properly to the pre-history of Parliament: it was a potent means of consultation in a world in which power still resided in the localities. 

How, then, to read the surveys? Where inquests are seen as executive processes, then the data are transparent. Domesday becomes a series of simple estate surveys, the Ragman Rolls a simple record of wrongs, and so on. But as collections of data for subsequent negotiation, they become more subtle and indeed interesting. Clearly they were ‘true’ in the sense that every attempt was made to ensure that the information was accurate, but none of the facts were tried and tested. One man’s truth was another man’s livelihood.

Some matters did eventually reach court and determinations were made. By necessity, however, the task of assessment largely falls upon us as historians. Often the process is next to impossible since the context is lost. The purpose of inquiries is not always obvious from the content. It is only the chance survival of the so-called summaries, statistical digests of the lands of certain tenants-in-chief, in other sources that hint that service and geld were central to the negotiations conducted in Salisbury in 1086 after the Domesday inquest. And yet knight service is noticeable by its all-but-complete absence from Domesday Book. For the survey of 1279 there is no such clue: contemporary chronicles are largely silent on the initiative and the commissions entered on the Patent Roll for the year are solely concerned with procedure. Its purpose is therefore lost. Subsequent legislation on mortmain (alienation of land to religious houses which were exempt from secular service) might suggest a consequence, but we can never say for certain.

But given context, then interpretation can begin. The prominence of claims in Domesday Book has suggested to many that the Domesday inquest must have been about title to land. What is now clear is that none of the claims represent judgements (although, of course, they might be the precursors to routine legal action). Very few are formally recognized in the texts. They are merely the presentments that were put forward by the representatives of the shire and there is therefore no necessity to see them as anything more than the querele that all inquests generated. They are the background noise, if you like, of the inquest process. Rather I have recently argued that the Domesday inquest was not about land or, strictly speaking, lordship at all per se. Its concerns were confined to land that was assessed to the geld and service. This might appear a trifling matter until it is realized that both lords and free men held land that was assessed to neither. Such unassessed lands are largely absent from the text. The accounts of estates, then, represent the community’s perception of what rightfully owed geld and service and what did not.

Communal perception is central to all inquest records and sometimes it led to contradictions. The hundred tried to present a united front, but sometimes it found it impossible to do so. Difference in opinion is most apparent in the Ragman Rolls. The passage already quoted from one of the Stamford rolls is a case in point. Stamford was a divided town. Most belonged to the earl of Warenne, a staunch supporter of the royal cause in the civil war. However, the ward to the south of the River Welland was held by the abbot of Peterborough who was of the Barons’ party. Many of the complaints made by the burgesses of the town reflect this political rivalry. Most of the illegal distraints were made in the abbot’s fee. In these terms the Ragman Rolls become less an oblique commentary on the structure of local government – their usual role in historical discourse – than a vivid account of party politics.

When interpreted thus the inquest can provide a rich insight into the workings of English medieval society. Consultation was as real then as it is today. And, yes, the voice of the people was as often ignored  In 1086 the verdict of Robert of Hereford was that ‘the land was vexed by much violence arising from the collection of the king’s taxes’, while in 1275 the Dunstable chronicler opined of the Ragman inquest that ‘nothing came of it’.ectations were often disappointed. But the mechanism was no less important for that. Kings might try to rule without consent and they might be successful for a while. Ultimately, however, they had to consult if only to check the administrative monsters they had themselves created. The inquest was the means that English kings used when power still rested in the hundred. With a shift of that power and the wealth that went with it to the shire and towns, the inquest was superseded by Parliaments.


©David Roffe 2006