Decoding Domesday

Decoding Domesday

By David Roffe

History Today (June 2007)

Introduction: The basics of Domesday Book have always appeared reassuringly clear. So, why should it need decoding? From the mid twelfth century the production of Domesday Book was seen as the aim of the survey or inquest commissioned by William the Conqueror (1066-1087) in his Christmas court at Gloucester in 1085. The work must have always impressed. It is not one book but two. Volume one, Great Domesday, is a large folio of almost 800 pages. In it, shire by shire and lord by lord, is contained an account of thirty of the thirty-three counties of late eleventh-century England. Volume two, Little Domesday, is smaller in format but, at nine hundred pages, is slightly longer. It contains a somewhat more detailed account of Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. Both volumes, now bound in five parts, are preserved in the National Archives at Kew as the oldest and most precious of the English public records.

Why William the Conqueror undertook such a monumental survey has always been debated. Richard fitzNigel, writing c.1179 believed Domesday Book was compiled ‘to bring the conquered people [of England] under the rule of written law’. Since then the survey has been variously understood. It has been perceived as a tax list, a tax return, a tax reassessment, a register of title, a blueprint for the new feudal society of Norman England, an affirmation of the Norman settlement, and much else. What has remained constant in all these varying views is the certainty that Domesday Book was an inventory of the realm of England in 1086.

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