The Domesday Book
Though it has left us an invaluable source of information for historians, geographers and linguists, the Domesday Book for all its detail leaves many mysteries about itself.
We know that William the Conqueror , over the Christmas of 1085 that he and his court spent at Gloucester , decided to have a great survey of his English holdings carried out. But exactly why he did so is not clear. Was it to prepare for the defence of England against the resurgent Vikings ? Was it to enable William to maximise his revenues in the future? Was he tired of disputes between Norman Lords playing interminable land-grab games? Did it mark an attempt to bypass his tenants-in-chief and obtain sworn allegiance from their sub-tenants, thus reducing the potential for a coup by one or more of the wealthiest barons in the land? We may never know.
It is not even sure if the compilation of the 1086 survey was carried out in the reign of William or his son, the famously grasping William Rufus . What does seem to be sure is that one hand wrote out the vast work, using many abbreviations to curtail the task.
William sent royal officers to each county except Durham (where the Prince Bishop was overlord), and those territories in the North as yet not under Norman sway – Cumberland, Northumberland , and Westmorland. Strangely, the two greatest cities of the day, London and Winchester , were not included, perhaps fathoming the intricacies of dues and duties there beyond the Norman administration. For each Hundred (a division of the county) a jury of six Saxon and six Norman representatives presented evidence about the holdings there, and swore on oath to its accuracy.
There are in fact two Domesday Books, Little Domesday which covers Essex , Norfolk and Suffolk , and Great Domesday, the rest of the lands surveyed. Perversely Little Domesday is the longer and more detailed; perhaps an early rendering of information that showed it was impractical for the rest of the thing to use such detail.
Latin is the main language, with some Anglo-Saxon where necessary. In all some 13, 418 places are named and detailed: manors, arable land, salt-pans, fishing ponds and weirs, anything which might produce income, including the peasants on the land and the livestock it supported. In addition any customary dues were cited – for example if the king traditionally received goods from a place on an annual basis. Church lands were covered too, and most importantly title to lands.
It is probably from the resolution of title questions that the name Domesday, or Doomsday, Book derives. Just as there was to be no appeal come Doomsday, the day of judgement, so was there to be no appeal about what was written in the Domesday Book.
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