Domesday Book Commissioned
Nineteen years to the day since his coronation William I ordered a survey of his (no longer very) new territories, enabling him to build a picture of his kingdom in comparison with that of Edward the Confessor.
It is useful to put this undertaking in context. The Normans who had fought for their Duke at Hastings had been involved in what is usually described as a land grab, with all the confusion that such a term suggests, confusion that some of their number used to avoid paying taxes. Although our usual view of the Norman hierarchy is pyramidal, it appears William was keen to identify and have those of military value who nominally owed allegiance to his senior nobles swear fealty to him – uneasy the head etc. In the same vein, William was spending Christmas in Gloucester (the decision to carry out the great survey possibly taken at St Peter’s Abbey there) it is suggested by some because of the threat of invasion by Canute IV of Denmark, grand-nephew of King Canute, though by December it was highly unlikely to happen for some months. In fact Canute was killed the following year in Odense, never able to fulfil his ambitions. Interestingly, the first national census in 1801 was spurred by the threat of another invasion, from France.
But of course the main reason for gathering information, and the nature of the information gathered, was financial, which in Norman times meant agricultural – though salt pans, fisheries and other such enterprises were also included. The Domesday Book has thus left us a magnificent (if incomplete, London, Bristol and certain other areas never covered) record of life in medieval England (and a bit of Wales).
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