Domesday: the Inquest and the Book in Perspective

L'École des hautes études en sciences socials, Paris, 17 October 2013


David Roffe


In 1941 5000 women were interviewed by British government officials to determine how  many bras and corsets they owned. The subsequent report showed that each woman had, on average, 1.2 items of underwear of this kind. So much for the headline figure: there were also important variations to note. The rate of corset ownership was more or less even across social class and occupation, but not so brassieres. Housewives, it seemed, owned 0.8 but agricultural workers, the so-called land girls, 1.9. I'm sorry to lower the tone of this august gathering, but I think that there is an important point for us here today. The official explanation for this gross intrusion into the privacy of English womanhood was at best gnomic:

Only with this information can the greatest efficiency in planning be secured. It was therefore felt that detailed information should be secured on a subject which is of interest to most women - foundation garments.

This statement invites all sorts of speculation. Was there’re a problem in production? Was underwear to be rationed? Was a tax to be imposed on it? I could go on. What was the government up to? Well, it was not concerned about underwear in itself: the focus was on under-wiring and stays, that is the metal that was needed to manufacture the items. Yes, it was all about the supply of steel for the war effort.

            We as historians are used to the idea that documents say what they mean and mean what they say. They are after all, our stock in trade, our bread and butter. It comes, then, as something of a shock to realize that survey records do not always speak of the concerns that bring them into being. Without context, we would continue to wonder why government ministers were obsessed with underwear in 1941. This is a salutary lesson when we come to interpret the records of medieval surveys. We have lots of records, but more rarely the reason why they were produced in the first place. This is no more so than with the Domesday inquest, the first of a long line of post-Conquest inquiries.

            The origins of the Domesday inquest are well known. The 'E' version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 1085 William, king of England and duke of Normandy, 'had much thought and deep speech with his counsellors about how England was occupied and with what sort of people.' He then sent out his men into every shire over all of England to find out. The mechanics of the inquiry are well understood. The first stage was probably a survey of the king's estates and his income from taxation and the like. It was, it seems, conducted by the sheriff within the shire court. Thereafter commissioners were sent out to groups of shires in which they were unknown to check the data already collected and oversee the survey of the estates of the churchmen and tenants-in-chief. They came armed with a checklist of questions, the capitula, something very like the following:

What it the manor called? Who held it in the time of King Edward? Who now holds it? How many hides? How many ploughs on the demesne? How many men? How many villagers? How many cottars? How many slaves? How many free men? How many sokemen? How much wood? How much meadow? How much pasture? How many mills? How many fish ponds? How much has been added or taken away? How much, taken together, it was worth and how much now? How much each free man or sokeman had or has. All this at three dates, to wit in the time of King Edward and when King William gave it and as it is now. And if it is possible for more to be had than is had.

The commissioners put these questions not only to the holder of each estate but also to the men of the shire and hundred, and the priest and representatives of each village, both French and English. It has been estimated that at least 60,000 people gave evidence in 1086.

            The process produced a mass of different types of documentation – simple lists, partial surveys, tax records, and the like survive in relative profusion. In what form these data were initially assembled, however, remains a matter of debate. For some scholars the immediate aim of the inquest was the compilation of accounts arranged by lordship, what have been termed circuit returns after the shires that were assigned to each group of commissioners. The Liber Exoniensis, Exon to its friends, is a possible example. Others, and I include myself in that group, would argue that the commissioners aimed rather at the production of accounts arranged by village, hundred, and shire. The Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis (ICC), an account of much of Cambridgeshire, is the type document here, although it survives only in the late twelfth-century copy. Both Exon and ICC are more or less full records of the proceedings in the areas that they cover. However, they remain the only witnesses to the earliest stages of organization of the data. The main source for the inquest is Domesday Book. It is now bound into five parts, but originally, it consisted of two volumes. Volume II, Little Domesday, contains an account of the three shires of eastern England, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Esssex. Volume I. Great Domesday, embraces the rest of the kingdom south of the River Tees, along with small parts of Wales. In contrast with both Exon and ICC, both volumes are arranged by lordship within shires.

The procedure of the Domesday enterprise and the main sources that came out of it are thus clear. Unfortunately, this wealth of evidence is not matched by any contemporary statement of the reason for the inquest. We are well-informed about the when, the where, the how, and the what of the survey, but in the dark as to the why. In consequence, historically attention has focused on Domesday Book itself as the most impressive and comprehensive product of the process. The Book captured the imagination from early on. Round about 1110 or so its production was seen in at least one quarter as the aim of the Domesday inquest and later in the century this perception was given a high political spin. Writing in the Dialogue of the Exchequer, Richard fitzNigel asserted in c.1179 that it was designed to bring England under the rule of written law. Domesday Book was seen as 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 into 'mad-cow disease', 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.

            Traditionally, then, we have been presented with a very mechanical understanding of the Domesday inquiry and, indeed, of the inquest as an instrument of government in general. The focus on Domesday Book has fostered the notion that the inquest was designed to determine right and embody it in a definitive register. It's almost as if King William 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, with everyone saying what a bastard the king was as they went home. It is a picture that is the more plausible because we all know that William was a powerful and much feared king. And yet it sits ill with what we know of the major surveys and their records in the later Middle Ages.

            GDB is not a complete record of the inquest. It is an abstract which follows a decided programme. The scribe who wrote it most obviously omits the names of jurors and the details of livestock, but he did more than merely abbreviate. His sources were various and he saw his task as producing an economical and uniform account of each estate with an emphasis on ease of reference. Thus, rubrication draws the eye to names and entries and various devices are used to highlight the status of land and so on. LDB is usually considered to be a circuit return, but it too, I would argue, is clearly an abbreviation. Unlike Exon, it is a source compiled to a neat programme. It too systematically omits the names of jurors and certain types of data, notably ploughland figures, that had been industriously recorded in the inquest. Again, carefully laid out and rubricated at crucial points, it was evidently compiled for reference.

            Records of this type are well-attested in the later middle ages. Alongside Domesday Book in the Exchequer there were various other books that preserved inquest records from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. All of them are post hoc abbreviations, compiled sometimes as much as hundred years after the inquests in question. A note on the flysheet of one of them, the Testa de Neville, apparently written when the work was compiled from a series of thirteenth century inquest records in 1302, warns the reader:

Remember that this book was composed and compiled from several official inquests…and therefore the contents of this book are to be used for evidence here in the Exchequer and not for the record.

From the thirteenth century abbreviations, very like monastic cartularies, had no legal standing and were intended simply for reference.

            All of this contrasts with the inquest records themselves. Many were discarded once abstracts were drawn up, but where they do survive, they can be seen to be a part of a dialectic of investigation, negotiation, and action. The first thing to notice is that the names of the jurors are carefully recorded, as one would expect, and their seals appended. More than, this, though, they are carefully annotated. In the 1275 Ragman rolls, for example, it is noted where jurors had died. Their continued presence was important. Their answers to the capitula indicate why. The jurors not only give evidence on the matters demanded of them. They also incorporate the querelae, complaints, of individuals and the community These querelae were obviously not recognitions, they were merely a statement of fact that someone had a grievance. In 1170 it was the misdeeds of sheriffs, in 1258 and 1274/5 of royal and seigneurial officials in general. So was the rest of the data the jurors presented merely untested evidence. The verdicts provided information where records were wanting or local officials could not be trusted to provide it. The jurors, then, were an integral part of the process of inquiry and as such their verdicts informed further negotiation and action. Most immediately, measures might be taken against royal officials, an aid might be determined, or, in the later thirteenth century, legislation might follow. The complaints of the community more usually brought up the rear and were relegated to routine legal processes in the local courts. Nevertheless, it was a reciprocal process which served both the crown and local communities. The inquest was a channel of communication between the king and his subject to the end of resolving mutual concerns.

            Later medieval practice, then, is clear. The business of the inquest is a separate enterprise from the abbreviation and preservation of the records that came out of them. How does the Domesday process chime with this model? From internal evidence Domesday Book has been re-dated to the reign of William Rufus or the early years of Henry I. If this remains controversial, then there is no doubt that it was compiled as a register of the king's dues in the shire. The scribes of both volumes carefully re-arranged the data, where possible, to facilitate reference. It is the shire that becomes the basic unit of organization, and land holdings within it, for the first time in the Domesday corpus. Boroughs, as special royal estates from which the sheriff administered the shire, are enrolled as a whole and, in GDB, brought to the front of each shire, and the dues of the king from his regalia are appended to each. The account of Worcester is a good illustration. Domesday Book was extensively used for reference in the Exchequer throughout much of the Middle Ages.

            But what of the inquest records themselves? There is evidence that some were kept in the Exchequer for a while, but were subsequently lost or destroyed. Apart from those incorporated into Domesday Book itself, the few that now survive are found in private archives. What is clear, regardless of later perceptions, is that the jurors' presentments were not recognitions either. Judgements there are in the corpus, notably in Lincolnshire, but these are ostensibly later than the body of the text and, moreover, incomplete. The invasiones and terrae occupatae sections of LDB and Exon, both concerned with disputed lands, superficially look like determinations, but in reality are merely preparations for legal action: pledges re made, land is taken into the king's hands and so on, but there are no pleadings or judgements. Where evidence survives, legal proceedings post-dated the Domesday inquest and were conducted in the hundred court in the normal way. Despite querelae relating to right, the Domesday corpus records less title than tenure. It was who was actually holding the land in 1086 and paid the tax on it that engaged the commissioners. The determination of title was not a central concern.          

Domesday Book, with its own administrative programme, is unlikely to tell us what was. A series of summary documents that came out of the inquest are more revealing. In these sum totals are recorded for the salient details of the estates of each lord county by county. That relating to Ely Abbey’s lands in Essex is typical:

The same abbot [of Ely] has in demesne in Essex 5 manors [assessed] at 49½ hides. There are 14 ploughs in demesne, and 102 villeins, 45 bordars, 44 slaves who have 39 ploughs. The whole is worth £64 10s.

His knights have 2 manors in the same county [assessed] at 5 hides. There are 3 ploughs in demesne, and 6 villeins, 7 bordars, and 7 slaves who have 6 ploughs. It is worth £8. This land suffices for 61 ploughs. It has increased in  value by £9 in the hands of Abbot Symeon.

Two items are of especial interest, the number of ploughlands and the number of manors. The nature of the ploughland data, like much else in Domesday studies, has been the subject of ongoing academic debate. Now is not the time to rehearse the arguments of whether they represent a new tax assessment or merely a measure of arable. What is more or less agreed is that, since the figures are linked to tax assessment, ploughlands are in some way a measure of tax capacity. Can the king get more? Again, the nature of the manor is much disputed. But, whatever it was, we know that in the inquest the commissioners were concerned about how many there were and what had been added or taken away from each. Fees, it seems, had initially been measured in terms of manors and it was important to determine how many were still held in 1086. It seems to me that here we have a proxy for service. Tax capacity and knight service, I would suggest, are the primary concerns of the Domesday inquest.

            This reconstruction of the business in 1085 accords well with the immediate context of the Domesday survey. The contemporary sources show it was a time of crisis. England was threatened with invasion by a formidable alliance of King Cnut of Denmark and Robert, count of Flanders, at a time when William's regime was arguably weaker than it had been at any time since 1066. Characteristically, William acted with decision. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the news of the invasion reached him in Normandy and he immediately went back 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.' The answer was soon forthcoming. A meeting was held in September 1085 and it was decided to billet the mercenaries on the king's vassals, 'each in proportion to his lands'.

            In the event Cnut was unable to launch the invasion armada before the onset of winter and by the end of the year William stood down some of the mercenaries, while maintaining a more limited garrison over the winter into the following year. The Domesday inquest was launched at a time when cash was clearly at a premium. In this context a review of the royal demesne and the capacity of the taxation system becomes immediately comprehensible. And equally so was a re-assessment of service. The nature of the servitia debita – the number of knights owed by the king's men in return for their lands – before 1086 is not known, but, whatever form it took, it appears to have proved inadequate in the face of the invasion. Mercenaries had had to be hired at great expense to all and not a little inconvenience for those you had to billet them. Something had to be done. A conference was held in early August 1086 in Salisbury where the records of the inquest were brought to William. We have no record of the discussion that took place there. But negotiations there certainly were. I have suggested from snippets of later evidence that the exemption of baronial demesne was lifted and new knight quotas were agreed. This last was indeed the understanding of Orderic Vitalis writing in the early twelfth century in what is the earliest perception of the purpose of the Domesday inquest. In return all those who held land in England swore fealty to King William and were confirmed in their lands.

:           The upshot of the meeting at Salisbury, I suspect, was what was in effect a new social contract. The reform in taxation ensured that the system based on land 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. I would also suggest that the bare bones of the relations between the king and his barons of the twelfth century, along with the servitia debita, was also worked out at this time. More than this, the oath of Salisbury recognized the rear vassals for the first time and effectively created hereditary tenure. It therefore laid the ground for the emergence of a county squirearchy in the following century.  The oath of Salisbury was in its way every bit as momentous as, say Magna Carta or the provisions of Oxford of 1258.

            But all that is another story. The point I want to make here is that the Domesday inquest, in common with all the later national inquests, was communal business of the highest order. In it we see a king, in the face of a common problem, working with his subjects rather than in spite of them. King William may very well have brought to England very different ideas of government. But he came to a realm in which local communities were an integral part of the fabric of royal administration. From the reign of Alfred in the late ninth century, successive kings of Wessex and then England had extended the king's peace over the network of hundreds and then shires in the localities. The process is normally hitched to a narrative of royal power. But it was no simple matter of force majeure. The king's peace was realized in communal courts. Therein the king's representative might preside, but it was freemen who were the suitors, judges, and compurgators. The relationship was truly reciprocal. Through payment of the geld the freeman became law-worthy and thereby had title to his land, while the king received his taxes and military support. This was a dynamic that underpinned the conquest of Mercia and the Danelaw by Wessex and kept at bay over-mighty lords and marauding Danes alike. Willy nilly, it also underpinned Norman England.

            In that great classic of English history, 1066 and All That, there are only two types of king, the strong and the weak, and two types of subject, the oppressed and the rebellious. The reality is, of course, more complex. In introducing the idea of consultation and 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. I do not repent. The Domesday inquest fits in to a long tradition of cooperation which is embodied in the shire. The sworn verdict and the inquest was its motor. Yes, from time to time, the instrument  became bureaucratic and even oppressive, but in times of emergency and uncertainty it reverted to type. It was a vital channel of communication between king and subject. As such, the Domesday inquest, and those great surveys that followed it, should rightly be seen as the prehistory of Parliament rather than an instrument of autocratic government that preceded it.

            The moral of this tale is that we should take care not to be dazzled by the bras and the corsets, as it were, in our records. Inquests are a major source for the history of England. Domesday Book provides the very foundation of our national story. The various inquiries, scutages, aids, and the like of the later middle ages provide its framework They are undoubtedly important and it is difficult not to be seduced by wealth of detail. But we must be aware of the alchemy of quill-pushers in the Exchequer or wherever. In choosing data for permanent use in administration, they simultaneously sucked the life out of their sources. Where only digests survive, it may be difficult to put the life back into them. But that is our job as historians.

©David Roffe 2013