Saturday 19 September 2020

Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

It seems to be fairly uncontentious that there was a Domesday Inquest, and, of course, we have the Domesday Book (or books, for there are two, one, the Great Domesday Book and the other, the Little Domesday Book; the latter covers East Anglia). It is also fairly clear that the Domesday Inquest or inquiry was carried out in 1085 – 6 by order of the King (William the Whatever) as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The results, it is said, were taken to the King

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is fairly clear. At mid-winter 1085 Bill was in Gloucester with his council and had ‘great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land’ (ASC (E) 1085, p 216 in my translation Swanton, M., ed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (London: Phoenix, 2000)). ‘And all the records were brought to him afterwards.’ So William sent out a whole load of officials to see what was there and got the records back, which somehow became our Domesday Books.

It is often (perhaps usually) thought that Domesday Book was the aim of the whole undertaking. After all, if today someone were to do something similar, the records may well be published in a book, at least as a digest of all the interesting and useful stuff. It is known that the Books landed up in the King’s treasury in Winchester and, over the course of a century of so acquired the name by which we know it so well.

But what was this process and how (or why) did to book itself come into being? While the scope of the survey might have been larger than previous efforts in England, the use of inquest was a well-established method of finding out the truth. For the moment, dismiss from your thoughts ideas of coroners and trial by juries. Juries were there, usually of eight men from the hundred and some from each vill. A vill, incidentally, is sort of a village but not necessarily – the dwellings could be much more scattered; it all depended on the sort of agriculture undertaken in the area.

The inquiry was related to land and tax returns and all the sorts of things a medieval government would be interested in. Who owned what and how much was it worth in tax (geld)? There have been extensive efforts to reconstruct English society in 1086 from the Domesday Book, but it has to be recognised that the Book is selective – only tenants in chief and their tenants, people who had land directly from the King (it will be remembered, of course, that William claimed to own the whole lot) were recorded.

Once this was done, William called ‘everyone’ (everyone who mattered, anyway) to Salisbury and received their oath that they would be loyal to him, and then he bimbled off to Normandy where he died. This Salisbury other seems to have been a deal between the King and his tenants in chief that they would pay him more taxes and he would give them (or confirm them in) certain rights. Exactly what these were is hard to say.

The rest of the process and production of the books are controversial. Whether the big landowners ‘cooked the books’ to enhance their landholding and prestige is an open question (probably not). Whether the jurors were forced to testify; whether the testifying was terrifying or affirmed that a geld payer was a free man or not. Historians have argued (and still do, I presume) over these issues for ages.

I have recently finished

Roffe, D., Domesday: The Inquest and the Book (Oxford: OUP, 2000).

This is something of a companion piece to Decoding Domesday, which was written apparently at about the same time but published separately. I wrote about it not too long ago. Anyway, Roffe is in the ‘revisionist’ camp here, in that he thinks that the survey was a reaction to the crisis of 1085 (I think most would agree on that) but that it was a negotiated activity in which the barons and communities of the shires aimed at a common end, that is trying to find the resources for paying for a large army of mercenaries that William had brought over from Normandy to oppose a projected Danish invasion. The process aimed at establishing ‘a body of established fact on which an agreed course of action could be decided’ (p. x).

Roffe also argues that the construction of a book was not the aim of the inquest. The book he thinks, came a bit later, probably in the reign of William II (‘Rufus’) and, Roffe suggests, it was done under the supervision of Rannulf Flambard just after the revolts against Bill II in 1088. Apparently, there was some tenurial chaos then; I imagine that there was a fair bit of dispossession of lands from the revolting barons.

This reveals one of the problems with dipping into a ‘new’ area of history. I have no idea what happened in 1088. My books stop with the death of BtB in 1087. What happened next is a mystery to me, except that BII was mysteriously shot by an arrow while hunting in the Savernake Forest, which happens to be the most interesting thing that happened, historically, near the town where I was brought up and was, therefore, the subject of a history lesson in school. The next most interesting thing was the reading of the riot act in 1910 (I think). I dare say, when I look into it, that Bill II probably did not die in the way I have just described, because history, at least where I grew up, was never that interesting.

Anyway, it is an interesting book. I may have slightly shot my project on Domesday Book in the foot, however, by reading the revisionists first. Now I have to work out what the historiography they are reacting against was about. And, of course, I have to find out what really happened in 1088, and beyond. One bit of history leads to another.


  1. I’ve often wondered how the Normans went about gathering all the information, or was it done by Saxons

    1. A bit of both - it was a known A-S procedure appropriated by Bill at al for their own purposes.