Domesday: the Inquest and the Book
IMC, Leeds, July 2000

I was a reluctant heretic. I fought against it for many months. But finally, I could not deny it. I owned up to my wife, and she still loves me. And now I want to tell the world: I am not a Galbraithian!

Well, with that out, I feel a little better. Let me explain. It has been known from the year dot, at least the 1140s, that Domesday Book was the work of King William the Conqueror. What he was actually up to has always been a matter of debate. Views have largely depended upon political sympathies. For Richard fitzNigel writing c.1179, Domesday Book introduced the rule of written law into England, while in the next century Matthew Paris was of the opinion that 'here started the oppression of England'. Through numerous varieties of Royalists and Levellers, Tories and Whigs, these are views that have come down almost to the present day. Domesday Book has been used almost from the beginning as a stick to beat opponents.

However, all who have wielded it have agreed on one thing: Domesday Book was the aim of the Domesday inquest. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle memorably records, in 1085 King William 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….into every shire’ to inquire into the land of England. Domesday Book records what was found. There is further documentation from the process, but the work is our main source. It is, then, not unreasonable to assume that its production was the purpose of the whole enterprise.

This is precisely what Professor V. H. Galbraith argued in a seminal paper in 1942 and more expansively in 1961 in his book The Making of Domesday Book. Galbraith reacted against the then current orthodoxy in his analysis of the inquest procedure, but overall he formulated a construct that epitomized 900 years of Domesday use and study. Domesday Book was commissioned by King William: it embodies his will; it expresses his intentions. The implications are plain. Documents say what they mean and mean what they say. We know that the Domesday Book cannot have been about the geld, nor can it have been about knight service. Organized by county and fief, ownership and title were its concerns. The Conquest had seen the all-but-complete dispossession of the Anglo-Saxon ruling class. With its record of pre-Conquest lordship, Domesday Book documented the Norman regime that replaced it and provided a tool for the future administration of William's new realm.

This is a perception of the Domesday process that has moulded every aspect of Domesday research since. No scholar worth his or her salt has agreed with everything that Galbraith has said, but his analysis has set the terms of the debate in the last fifty years. Domesday studies have been increasingly about satellites and returns, articles and recensions, to the point where Domesday studies have become like an abstruse branch of nuclear physics. The search for the Higgs boson (King William’s signature?) has gone on, but the Big Bang and the unified field theory have remained. No one has doubted that Domesday Book should be dated to 1086, or 1087 at the latest, and that its production was the aim of the Domesday inquest.

That is until now. In Domesday: the Inquest and the Book I have argued that the Domesday inquest and the writing of Domesday Book were two different and distinct activities. The one, the inquest commissioned by William the Conqueror, was a response to the threat of invasion from Denmark in 1085 and tackled the shortcomings in taxation and defence that the crisis had brought to light. In short, it saw the extension of the geld to formerly exempt demesne and a renegotiation of knight service. The compilation of Domesday Book, by contrast, both volume one and volume two, was undertaken some four or five years later in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1088 against William Rufus. It followed widespread tenurial chaos throughout the country and, as a record of the status quo ante, it was conceived of as an administrative aid that informed the settlement.

I cannot say that I thought any of this when I set out to write the book in 1996. After twenty years of Domesday study, I had merely intended to summarize the considerable volume of research in the field since the publication of Galbraith's book. Very soon, however, I began to feel uneasy. I knew from my studies of thirteenth-century inquest records, which survive in large numbers, that the jury's verdict did not settle matters so much as set them in motion. Inquests were investigations, and their findings informed but did not determine future actions. Why should Domesday be any different? Despite its language, Domesday Book signally failed to resolve disputes in 1086, and it soon became apparent to me that the concept of a single integrated process is built on little more than faith.

So began a radical reappraisal of the Domesday corpus. Cast adrift without a keel, certainties rapidly dissolved. When the so-called articles of the inquest recorded in the Inquisitio Eliensis crumbled before my gaze, I began to think that the problem was insoluble. Then it slowly began to dawn on me that all the contradictory evidence could be resolved if the Domesday inquest was divorced from the production of Domesday Book itself. As the penny dropped it immediately became clear to me that this was the understanding of Orderic Vitalis who, writing in the early twelfth century produced the first extant account of the purpose of both the inquest and the book. My own analysis of the writing of Domesday Book provided firm dating evidence. For the first time I could show that a Huntingdonshire passage that could not be any earlier than late 1087 to mid 1088 was written at the beginning of the Domesday scribe's work.

Does this make any real difference? A friend (a theologian) read the book and opined that it was all very interesting, but what's three or four years? Not a lot in the dating of a medieval document, it is true. But, yes, it does matter. Domesday Book was compiled by an administrator for administrative purposes. By divorcing it from the events of 1085 and 1086, we can clearly see for the first time the inquest for what it was. It was no less than a means of consultation. William was in a fix in 1085. To meet the threat of invasion he needed the consent and support of his subjects. The inquest was the only means available. In it we see a Norman king ruling with his people, not in spite of them. We are forced to see the Domesday inquest as part of the pre-history of Parliament.

So that is how I became a heretic. I no longer believe in Domesday satellites, or indeed Domesday returns (a late twelfth-century concept if ever there was one). After twenty years of writing 'Domesday Book commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086' , I have had to get use to 'Domesday Book commissioned by William's son Rufus between 1088 and 1090'. But for the pain, I feel that I have a greater understanding of the workings of kingship in the eleventh century and beyond. I have convinced myself. I now hope that I can convince others.

© David Roffe, July, 2000.