The history of England: Domesday goes digital

Tomorrow, 920 years after it was compiled by an anonymous scribe, William the Conqueror's epic audit of life in medieval times will become available on the internet. Terry Kirby reports

Thursday 22 September 2011 07:27

He has become known as Scribe A and was, by the standards of the 11th century, an educated man who could read and write Latin. Deduced from his writings, Scribe A was English, but probably worked for the Bishop of Durham, one William of St Calais, a member of what was the French elite ruling England. He was almost certainly a monk or held some other religious office, but little else is known about Scribe A, such as his real name, title, or status.

Most modern historians believe that in the late summer of 1086, Scribe A sat down and wrote the bulk of what was then called the Book of Winchester, now known as the Domesday Book. And despite the lack of detail about the man himself, Scribe A, with the dedication to detail worthy of any contemporary civil servant or accountant, gave succeeding generations an astonishing window into life in early medieval England.

He tells us who owns what and who works for whom. He tells us the names of all the villages and manors, and how many freeman, cottagers, bishops, priests, churches, castles, vineyards and villeins are there and how much they are worth and what land they own or farm and what taxes and dues they pay. It is as if the records of the Inland Revenue and the Land Registry were rolled together with the latest census returns into a medieval "Who Owns What and Where".

Of course, Scribe A did not assemble all this information himself. He was the man at the end of an ambitious information-gathering process that achieved an astonishing result, ultimately set down on more than 800 parchment pages containing the names of 13,418 places.

And from tomorrow, all this information is going to be available online for the first time through the National Archive where the book is on display at its headquarters at Kew. In the same way that Victorian census records and other public registers have been made available online, the Domesday Book is expected to become a rich resource for those following the fashion of researching their family history. It will also be an important source for students and academics. People will be able to search by place name and, for a small fee, purchase a copy of the relevant page.

Until now, the only way to study the book was by purchasing facsimile versions, which cost £2,500 in the CD-Rom version alone. Access will be of particular interest among rural communities, says Dr Stephen Baxter, lecturer in medieval history at Kings College, London, and an expert on the book. "Between 80 and 90 per cent of all villages named in the book are still in existence." So, what is the Domesday Book and how did it become, in Dr Baxter's words, "one of the most remarkable and valuable documents to have survived the Middle Ages anywhere in the world?"

It began in 1085, when William the Conqueror, then in his 20th year as King William I of England, held his annual Curia Regis or King's Court at Gloucester and announced plans for a survey of all that was now in his dominion. According to the contemporary record, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: "The King sent his men all over England into every shire to ascertain how many hundreds of 'hides' of land there were in each shire and how much land and livestock the King himself owned in the country and what annual dues were lawfully his from each shire.

"He also had it recorded how much land his archbishops had and his diocesan bishops, his abbots and his earls, and what or how much each man who was a landholder here in England has in land or in livestock and how much money it was worth." The Chronicle notes that the survey was so thorough "not even one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig which escaped notice".

Although there is no official reason laid down for the survey, historians now believe its aims and intentions were clear. Dr Baxter says: "During the previous 20 years, there had been a complete transformation of the old English aristocracy. Apart from a handful of survivors, they had been replaced by 10,000 Frenchmen, of whom about 2,300 were the most important and who had acquired almost all the secular land. What the survey was trying to do was to set this down on paper, so the King and his noblemen knew what they owned and therefore what they owed to the King in taxes."

The collection of information was remarkably well organised. Early in 1086, in a process headed by the Bishop of Durham and others, England was divided up into different "circuits" into which officials, called commissioners, and their clerks, usually monks, were dispatched. At the larger towns they would then hold public "inquests" at shire courts, during which sheriffs and priests would present the information about the area. Villagers from each manor would act as the inquest jury to arbitrate in any dispute. There were considerable efforts to avoid favouritism and corruption: commissioners were chosen for areas they did not know and, in some cases, a second series of commissioners would follow the first, to check their work.

At the Ely inquest, a contemporary account describes the information sought. "What the manor was called, who held it at the time of King Edward; who now holds it, how many hides there are, how many teams in demesne [held by the lord] how many belonging to the tenants, how many villagers, cottagers, slaves; how many freemen, sokemen [tenants]. How much woodland, meadow, pasture, how many mills, fisheries; how much has been added to and taken away from the estate." And all of this in civil-service triplicate, as it was when King Edward was alive, when King William granted it, and as it is now.

As the information came in, Scribe A began to compile the book, eventually completing 413 sheets of parchment in more than a year. Each county area began with a list of landowners, from Royals down to vassals, followed by a list of what they owned. Details included local taxes and laws and the numbers of hides - units varying between 40 and 120 acres - each farmed.

But the Domesday Book is not one book. Scribe A completed what is known as Great Domesday. A second volume, known as Little Domesday, and written by seven scribes, records similar information for the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, in even greater detail over 475 pages, although it is much smaller in size than Great Domesday. The reason for the disparity is unknown; one theory is that Little Domesday was a first attempt, abandoned when it became unwieldy and the project taken over by the more organised Scribe A. An alternative theory is that Great Domesday came first and stopped in September 1087, when King William died in France.

Neither is it as comprehensive as the contemporary accounts make out and there are mistakes in geography and naming. Numbers of animals owned are included only in Little Domesday and the larger work omits the counties north of the Tees, then mostly under the control of the Scottish.

There are no references to London, the largest city, although there are frustratingly two blank pages in the section for Middlesex, or Winchester, then the capital, again for reasons unknown, but possibly because they were going to be added later or were too big to tackle in such a fashion.

Although originally called the Book of Winchester, by the time of Henry II, who moved it to the Chapter House in Westminster, it was universally referred to as the Domesday Book, based on the Middle English word for doom and a reference to its definitive nature in disputes over land.

But historians such as Dr Baxter can see a bigger social picture. "It is more than a fiscal document; it is an instrument of feudal control. It shows that, like many conquerors, William was obsessed with the legitimacy of what he was trying to do and wanted to create an impression of seamless consistency for history. For the noblemen, it gave them security of title to the property they had acquired from the Anglo-Saxons, on the basis that if was written, it was legitimate. It was about England being treated in a colonial manner."

10 Domesday destinations you can still see today

Wooten Wawen

The pre-Norman tower of the parish church in this Warwickshire village. The book says: "There are 23 villans with a priest and 22 bordars having 6 ploughs. There are 2 mills rendering 11s and 8 sticks of eels... It is worth £4."

Stow St Mary

Parts of this Lincolnshire church, funded by Earl Leofric of Mercia and one Lady Godiva, remain: "In Stow... Bishop Remigius [has] 1 plough there in demesne; and 20 villans and 3 sokemen having 3 ploughs. There is a church and a priest, and 3 forges."

Warwick Castle

Parts of the original pre-Norman earthworks stand in the grounds of the later medieval castle. The damage its construction caused is mentioned in the book: "In the Borough of Warwick... the Bishop of Worcester has 9 messuages... the Abbot of Coventry 36, and 4 [of these] are waste on account of the site of the castle."

Old Sarum

The scribes who wrote Exon Domesday, one of the sources used in the book, were based at Old Sarum, the original site of Salisbury (called Sarisburia in the book). Now a huge earthwork, it was once a Norman castle where barons gathered to swear allegiance to King William.


There are several references to town walls and houses being derelict - presumably because of the construction of the castle. "They are called wall-houses for this reason, because if there is need and the king commands it they will repair the wall."

St Michael's, Oxford

Also in Oxford, the pre-Norman tower of St Michael's church, considered one of the best in the country, is mentioned in the book.

Leeds Castle

In the 11th century, the climate was as warm as it currently is. The Book records a total of 45 vineyards, including the one at Leeds Castle in Kent, which has recently been revived.


Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester Cathedral, one of the few Englishmen who remained in office in 1086, exploited his position to get a beneficial account of his estates: "The Church of St Mary of Worcester has a hundred, called Oswaldslow in which belong 300 hides. From these the bishop of that church has, by an arrangement of ancient times, all render from jurisdiction and all customary dues there."

Chichester Market

The original market square buildings in Chichester, West Sussex, have long gone, but the twice-weekly market mentioned in the book still continues.

Bosham, West Sussex

The village church, also featured in the Bayeux Tapestry, is recorded as owning substantial land: "To this church belonged 112 hides..."

Compiled with the assistance of Dr Stephen Baxter of King's College, London

The Domesday Book is available online at from tomorrow

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