Domesday Book is the record of the great survey of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086, executed for William I of England, or William the Conqueror. "While spending the 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 determine who held what and what taxes had been liable under Edward the Confessor; the judgment of the Domesday assessors was final—whatever the book said about who held the material wealth 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. Richard FitzNigel, writing c. 1179, stated that the book was known by the English as 'Domesday', that is the Day of Judgement "for as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to ... its sentence cannot be put quashed or set aside with impunity. That is why we have called the book 'the Book of Judgement' ... because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, are unalterable."
Domesday Book is really two independent works. One, known as Little Domesday, covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The other, Great Domesday, covers much of the remainder of England and parts of Wales, 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; 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 not been fully explained.
Despite its name, Little Domesday was actually larger as it is far more detailed, down to numbers of livestock. It has been suggested that Little Domesday represents a first attempt, and that it was found impossible, or at least inconvenient, to complete the work on the same scale for Great Domesday.
For both volumes, the contents of the returns were entirely rearranged and classified according to fiefs, 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 serjeants (servientes) and English thegns 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; in the smaller one the system is more confused, the execution less perfect.
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 therein. These include fragments of custumals (older customary agreements), records of the military service due, of markets, mints, and so forth. 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. Much of this was used by E. A. Freeman for his work on the Norman Conquest.
From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle it is known that the planning for the survey was conducted in 1085, and from the colophon 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 copy of Great Domesday appears to have been copied out by one person on parchment (prepared sheepskin), although six scribes seem to have been used for Little Domesday. 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.
Most shires were visited by a group of royal officers (legati), who held a public inquiry, probably in the great assembly known as the shire 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 is of great illustrative importance. The Inquisitio Eliensis is a record of the lands of Ely Abbey; and the Exon Domesday (so called from the preservation of the volume at Exeter), which covers Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire (however only one manor of Wiltshire is included and parts of Devon, Dorset and Somerset are also wanting) 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 (plus a seventh circuit for the Little Domesday shires).
For the object of the survey, there are three sources of information:
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.
Although these can by no means be reconciled in every detail, it is now generally recognised that the primary object of the survey was to ascertain and record the fiscal rights of the king. These were mainly:
After a great political convulsion such as the Norman conquest, and the wholesale confiscation of landed estates which followed it, it was in William's interest to make sure that the rights of the crown, which he claimed to have inherited, had not suffered in the process. More especially was this the case as his Norman followers were disposed to evade the liabilities of their English predecessors. The successful trial of Odo de Bayeux at Penenden Heath less than a decade after the conquest was one example of the growing discontent at the Norman land-grab that had occurred in the years following the invasion. The survey has since been viewed in the context that William required certainty and a definitive reference point as to property holdings across the nation so that it might be used as evidence in disputes and purported authority for crown ownership.
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 endeavoured 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 reckoned, by command, 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 are traces that it had been occasionally modified. The great bulk of Domesday Book is devoted to the somewhat arid 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. fishing weirs), 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 reckoning is very crude.
The rearrangement, on a feudal basis, of the original returns enabled the Conqueror and his officers to see with ease the extent of a baron's possessions; but it also had the effect of showing how far he had engaged under-tenants, and who those under-tenants were. This was of great importance to William, not only for military reasons, but also because of his firm resolve to make the under-tenants (though the "men" of their lords) swear allegiance directly to himself. 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.
To a large extent, it comes down to the king's knowing where he should look when he needed to raise money. It therefore includes sources of income but not sinks of expenditure such as castles, unless their mention is needed to explain discrepancies between pre-and post-Conquest holdings. Typically, this happened in a town, where separately-recorded properties had been demolished to make way for a castle.