Domesday Survey Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Domesday survey provided detailed information about the resources of individual landholders in England for purposes of identification, settling disputed titles, and levying taxes while establishing feudal law and consolidating Norman rule.

Summary of Event

During the Christmas court at Gloucester in 1085, William the Conqueror William the Conqueror , faced with the threat of armies from Denmark, Norway, and Flanders, met with his advisers in what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (compiled c. 890 to c. 1150) called “a deep discussion” about the state of the country. The outcome of their deliberations was William’s decision to survey his kingdom in order to reveal the resources of the new feudal order he had established. At the same time, he probably announced an increase in the annual tax on land (Danegeld Danegeld ) to what was perceived by his subjects as an exorbitant level. Taxation;England [kw]Domesday Survey (1086) [kw]Domesday Survey (1086) Domesday survey England;1086: Domesday Survey[1690] Economics;1086: Domesday Survey[1690] Government and politics;1086: Domesday Survey[1690] Laws, acts, and legal history;1086: Domesday Survey[1690] Robert of Losinga William the Conqueror

To carry out the proposed survey, William and his advisers divided the kingdom into seven circuits, each consisting of between three and six counties. The first circuit, for example, included Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire may actually have been surveyed separately from their designated circuits. William appointed a team of commissioners, prelates, and barons, assisted by clerks and monks, to visit the circuits and record the responses to a series of questions about every manor and its wealth.

Robert of Losinga Robert of Losinga , bishop of Hereford, who was most likely present at the Gloucester Council, provides the earliest contemporary reference to this event. According to his account, William

made a survey of all England; of the land in each of the counties; of the possessions of each of the magnates, their lands, their habitations, their men, both slaves and freemen, living in huts or with their own houses and lands; of plows, horses, and other animals; of the services and payments due from each and every estate.

He also reports that the commissioners were to conduct a second survey in areas where they were not known to the inhabitants to verify the first and check for possible fraud. He corroborates that the survey coincided with a tax levy.

William the Conqueror promising to observe the laws of England. His Domesday survey helped settle title disputes caused by the Norman Conquest and identified the country’s resources.

(B. F. Waitt)

The commissioners began their task as early as January in some counties and probably finished it by August 1, 1086, when William held a court at Salisbury. He had summoned the substantial landowners there to swear oaths of loyalty and obedience shortly before he departed for Normandy. Afterward, he successfully taxed his vassals to support his military ventures and penalized those accused of wrongfully possessing their estates. He could only have accomplished these things if the survey was already complete.

Each commission relied on the existing court structure to assemble their evidence. The sheriff of each county was responsible for collecting information and summoning those holding manors to appear. The king’s tenants-in-chief were required to submit their responses in writing, and there is good evidence that the barons and ecclesiastical tenants cooperated. Royal scribes used shorthand to write down the testimony given them in French or English then prepared drafts for delivery to Winchester, site of the treasury and most likely the central gathering place for all reports. At Winchester, the survey was translated into Latin, edited—possibly by one scribe—into 888 richly detailed leaves, and listed by county with individual manors highlighted in red. The leaves were subsequently bound into two books: Little Domesday, encompassing Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk, and the larger Exchequer Domesday, covering the remainder of the kingdom. Both books, collectively summarized into the Domesday Book, were originally housed at Winchester in a large chest protected with lock and three keys. Later, they were moved to Westminster.

Although the survey is incomplete, omitting London, Winchester, and other places known to have existed in the eleventh century, it is still a magnificent testament to Norman administrative efficiency and a unique medieval document. While the Carolingian surveys of the late eighth century contain some parallels, none matches Domesday in breadth or thoroughness. It is quite literally a survey of the landed wealth of England. There is nothing comparable for the Middle Ages for any European country. It records the estates and manors before the start of the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings (1066) and twenty years later (1086). In many cases, it also reports the value of an estate when it was acquired by its Norman landlord. Thus, the survey was both a land register and rent book for the upper levels of society.

While its sole purpose was not the collection of the land tax or geld, the survey illustrates William’s obvious need to revise the tax lists in light of the altered pattern of ownership occasioned by the Norman Conquest and consequent settlement. For example, Domesday includes nearly two hundred landowners who possessed estates yielding one hundred pounds yearly. By 1086, this aggregate included only two Englishmen. Among the lesser magnates, that number was one in fourteen and a single bishopric remained in English hands. There was less transfer of properties further down the social scale; however, the settlement transformed landholdings throughout the country and many who owned lands in 1066 found themselves leasing them twenty years later. Because of the immediate military threat from abroad, William had to know what resources he could draw on to defend his territories. He also understood the advantages of settling disputed land claims held for peace and stability in England. The survey allowed William to accomplish both goals.

Significance

The immediate significance of the Domesday Book was as an administrative document used to arbitrate disputes between central and local government. It is a precise record of the location and value of lands and, as such, was an essential reference to sheriffs and other royal officials charged with settling tenure disputes for nearly two hundred years. During William’s reign, no estate, even those forfeit for rebellion, could be transferred without his approval. The value of the survey in this connection was that it permitted him to know readily which of his vassals was acquiring too many estates and thereby becoming too powerful. Within a century of its completion, its reputation was so profound that the survey had acquired the popular name “Domesday,” according to Richard Fitzneale, author of Dialogus de scaccario (c. 1179; The Ancient Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer, 1758). The reference was to the Day of Judgment, from which there was no appeal.

Although its principal purposes may have been feudal and fiscal, the Domesday Book’s enduring importance is found in the comprehensive portrait it provides of English rural life in the eleventh century. It records more than thirteen thousand place-names and permits a reasonably accurate population estimate for England of about two million in 1086. Of that total, there were more than one hundred thousand villeins, peasants tied to the land who owed labor service to the lord of the manor. They also held a share in the common field. This aggregate headed nearly one-third of the households in the country. The south and southwest contained nearly thirty thousand slaves, more than twice the number of free men. The details of mills, ponds, plows, and livestock are similarly full.

The Domesday survey gave William precise knowledge of his kingdom. It facilitated collection of the geld, helped settle title disputes caused by the Norman Conquest, and showed the general resources of England in a compact form useful to royal administrators at the time and ever since.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Darby, H. C. Domesday England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Summary volume to Domesday Geography, which was produced earlier in five volumes under Darby’s direction. Compares contemporary lists with the Domesday Book, illustrates the feudal purpose of the survey, and includes full statistics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, David C. William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1964. Standard biography of William. Examines William in Normandy but focuses on the Conquest and the establishment of Norman rule and influence in England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fleming, Robin. Domesday Book and the Law: Society and Legal Custom in Early Medieval England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Covers the transmission of legal information, the inquest and justice, and disputes. Includes the text of the “Exchequer Domesday Book” and “Little Domesday Book.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galbraith, V. H. The Making of Domesday Book. New York: Clarendon Press, 1961. Stresses that the purpose of the Domesday was feudal, not fiscal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, J. C., ed. Domesday Studies. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1987. Essays examine range of political, economic, administrative, and structural topics associated with the survey, the making of the Domesday Book, and the times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maitland, Frederic William. Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. First published in 1897, this work spurred the modern scholarly study of the Domesday. Concentrates on social structure, feudal tenure, and the hides, and emphasizes the survey’s fiscal purpose.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roffe, David. Domesday: The Inquest and the Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Discusses the book’s “mystique,” land rights, the Domesday inquest, disputes and dispute resolutions, the writing of the book, and more.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sawyer, Peter, ed. Domesday Book: A Reassessment. Baltimore: Edward Arnold, 1985. Collection of articles that illustrate the range of scholarship on the survey, the survey’s intent, the paleography of the manuscripts, and the problems executing the survey.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Anne, and G. H. Martin, eds. Domesday Book: A Complete Translation. New York: Penguin Books, 2002. A one-volume translation of the text, which amounts to more than fourteen hundred pages. Includes an index.

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