Ancestor Searching Newsletter, Volume 4, # 5

The Domesday Book was the first major census in the British Isles, and was more comprehensive than current census compilations, as properties such as farms, mills, bakeries and other industry were recorded which showed the wealth of the area as well as the population.

Also known as Domesday, or Book of Winchester, it was the record or survey of England completed in 1086, executed for William I of England. William needed information about the country he had just conquered so he could administer it. While spending Christmas of 1085 in Gloucester, William "had deep speech with his counsellors and sent men all over England to each shire ... to find out ... what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

One of the main purposes of the survey was to find out who owned what so they could be taxed on it, and the judgment of the assessors was final—whatever the book said about who owned the property, or what it was worth, was the law, and there was no appeal. It was written in Latin, although there were some vernacular words inserted for native terms with no previous Latin equivalent and the text was highly abbreviated.

The Domesday Book is really two independent works. One, known as Little Domesday, covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The other, Great Domesday, covers the rest of England, except for lands in the north that would later become Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and County Durham. There are also no surveys of London, Winchester and some other towns. The omission of these two major cities is probably due to their size and complexity. Most of Cumberland and Westmorland are missing because they were not conquered until some time after the survey, and County Durham is lacking as the Bishop of Durham (William de St-Calais) had the exclusive right to tax Durham while parts of the north east of England were covered by the 1183 Boldon Book which listed those areas liable to tax by the Bishop of Durham. The omission of the other counties has never been solved.

For both volumes, the contents of the returns were entirely rearranged and classified according to fiefs (estates held by feudal tenure from a lord), rather than geographically. Instead of appearing under the Hundreds and townships, holdings appear under the names of the landholders ('tenentes'), i.e. those who held the lands directly of the crown in fee.

In each county, the list opened with the holdings of the king himself (which had possibly formed the subject of separate inquiry); then came those of the churchmen and religious houses in order of status (for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury is always listed before other bishops); next were entered those of the lay tenants-in-chief again in approximate order of status (aristocrats); and then king's servants (servientes) and English thegns (lesser nobles) who retained land.

In some counties, one or more principal towns formed the subject of a separate section; in some the clamores (disputed titles to land) were similarly treated separately. This principle applies more specially to the larger volume than the smaller one.

Domesday names a total of 13,418 places. Apart from the wholly rural portions, which constitute its bulk, Domesday contains entries of interest concerning most of the towns, which were probably made because of their bearing on the fiscal rights of the crown. These include fragments of custumals (older customary agreements), records of the military service due, of markets, mints, etc. From the towns, from the counties as wholes, and from many of its ancient Lordships, the crown was entitled to archaic dues in kind, such as honey.

The information of most general interest found in the great record is that on political, personal, ecclesiastical and social history, which only occurs sporadically and, as it were, by accident.

From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is known that the planning for the survey was conducted in 1085, and from the publishing of the book it is known that the survey was completed in 1086. It is not known when exactly Domesday Book was compiled, but the entire work appears to have been copied out by one person on parchment (prepared sheepskin). Writing in 2000, David Roffe argued that the inquest (the survey) and the construction of the book were two distinct exercises; the latter being completed, if not started, by William II following his assumption of the English throne and quashing of the rebellion that followed and based on, though not consequent on, the findings of the inquest.

Each county was visited by a group of royal officers (legati), who held a public inquiry, probably in the great assembly known as the county court, which was attended by representatives of every township as well as of the local lords. The unit of inquiry was the Hundred (a subdivision of the county, which then was an administrative entity), and the return for each Hundred was sworn to by twelve local jurors, half of them English and half of them Normans.

What is believed to be a full transcript of these original returns is preserved for several of the Cambridgeshire Hundreds and has great illustrative importance. The Inquisitio Eliensis, the Exon Domesday (so called from the preservation of the volume at Exeter), which covers Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, and the second volume of Domesday Book, also all contain the full details supplied by the original returns.

Through comparison of what details are recorded in which counties, six "circuits" can be determined.

  1. Berkshire, Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, Sussex
  2. Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire (Exeter Domesday)
  3. Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Middlesex
  4. Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire
  5. Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire — the Marches
  6. Derbyshire, Huntingdonshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire

For the object of the survey, we have three sources of information:

  • The passage in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which tells us why it was ordered:
    "After this had the king a large meeting, and very deep consultation with his council, about this land; how it was occupied, and by what sort of men. Then sent he his men over all England into each shire; commissioning them to find out 'How many hundreds of hides were in the shire, what land the king himself had, and what stock upon the land; or, what dues he ought to have by the year from the shire.' Also he commissioned them to record in writing, 'How much land his archbishops had, and his diocesan bishops, and his abbots, and his earls;' and though I may be prolix and tedious, 'What, or how much, each man had, who was an occupier of land in England, either in land or in stock, and how much money it were worth.' So very narrowly, indeed, did he commission them to trace it out, that there was not one single hide, nor a yard of land, nay, moreover (it is shameful to tell, though he thought it no shame to do it), not even an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine was there left, that was not set down in his writ. And all the recorded particulars were afterwards brought to him."
  • The list of questions which the jurors were asked, as preserved in the Inquisitio Eliensis .
  • The contents of Domesday Book and the allied records mentioned above.

Although these can’t be reconciled in every detail, it is now generally recognized that the primary purpose of the survey was to ascertain and record the fiscal rights of the king. These were mainly;

  • The national land-tax (geldum), paid on a fixed assessment,
  • Certain miscellaneous dues, and
  • The proceeds of the crown lands.

The Domesday survey therefore recorded the names of the new holders of lands and the assessments on which their tax was to be paid. But it did more than this; by the king's instructions it endeavored to make a national valuation list, estimating the annual value of all the land in the country, (1) at the time of Edward the Confessor's death, (2) when the new owners received it, (3) at the time of the survey, and further, it calculated the potential value as well. It is evident that William desired to know the financial resources of his kingdom, and it is probable that he wished to compare them with the existing assessment, which was one of considerable antiquity, though there is evidence that it had been occasionally modified. The great bulk of Domesday Book is devoted to the somewhat general details of the assessment and valuation of rural estates, which were as yet the only important source of national wealth. After stating the assessment of the manor, the record sets forth the amount of arable land, and the number of plough teams (each reckoned at eight oxen) available for working it, with the additional number (if any) that might be employed; then the river-meadows, woodland, pasture, fisheries (i.e. weirs in the streams), water-mills, salt-pans (if by the sea) and other subsidiary sources of revenue; the peasants are enumerated in their several classes; and finally the annual value of the whole, past and present, is roughly estimated.

It is obvious that, both in its values and in its measurements, the survey's calculations are very crude.

As Domesday Book normally records only the Christian name of an under-tenant, it is not possible to search for the surnames of families claiming a Norman origin; but much has been done, and is still being done, to identify the under-tenants, the great bulk of whom bear foreign Christian names.

Domesday Book was originally preserved in the royal treasury at Winchester (the Norman kings' capital). It was originally referred to as the Book of Winchester, and refers to itself as such in a late edition. When the treasury moved to Westminster, probably under Henry II, the book went with it. In the Dialogus de scaccario it is spoken of as a record from the arbitration of which there was no appeal (from which its popular name of Domesday is said to be derived). In the Middle Ages its evidence was frequently referenced in the law-courts; and even now there are certain cases in which appeal is made to its testimony.

It remained in Westminster until the days of Queen Victoria, being preserved from 1696 onwards in the Chapter House, and only removed in special circumstances, such as when it was sent to Southampton for photozincographic reproduction. Domesday Book was eventually placed in the Public Record Office, London and can now be seen in a glass case in the museum at The National Archives, Kew, which is in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames in South West London. In 1869 it received a modern binding. Most recently, the two books were rebound for its ninth centenary in 1986, when Great Domesday was divided into two volumes and Little Domesday was divided into three volumes. The ancient Domesday chest, in which it used to be kept, is also preserved in the building at Kew.

The printing of Domesday, in "record type", was begun by the government in 1773, and the book was published, in two volumes, in 1783; in 1811 a volume of indexes was added, and in 1816 a supplementary volume, separately indexed, containing

  1. The Exon Domesday—for the south-western counties
  2. The Inquisitio Eliensis
  3. The Liber Winton—surveys of Winchester late in the 12th century.
  4. The Boldon Buke—a survey of the bishopric of Durham a century later than Domesday.

Photographic facsimiles of Domesday Book, for each county separately, were published in 1861-1863, also by the government. Today, Domesday Book is available in numerous editions, usually separated by county and available with other local history resources.

In 1986, the BBC released the BBC Domesday Project, the results of a project to create a survey to mark the 900th anniversary of the original Domesday Book. In August 2006 the contents of Domesday went on-line, with an English translation of the book's Latin. Visitors to the website will now be able to search a place name, see the index entry made for the manor, town, city or village and, for a fee, download the appropriate page.

To the topographer, as to the genealogist, its evidence is of primary importance, as it not only contains the earliest survey of each township or manor, but affords, in the majority of cases, a clue to its subsequent descent.

Genealogy Workshop

Fact: The name Domesday comes from the Old English word dom, meaning accounting or reckoning. Thus domesday, or dmsday, is literally a day of reckoning, meaning that a lord takes account of what is owed by his subjects.

Tip: British database site Familyrelatives.com added Britain’s Victorian “Doomsday Book” showing who owned land in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland more than 100 years ago. The Doomsday records are available only with a Familyrelatives.com subscription (about $50 a year); not as a pay-per-view option.

The book, published in 1873, includes landowner returns that provide the name and address of every owner, the amount of land held, and the yearly rental valuation of holdings that are larger than an acre.

More than 320,000 landowners owned an acre or more, representing 1 percent of the population of the United Kingdom at the time. Nearly 850,000 owned less than an acre. London was excluded from the returns.