Decoding Domesday

David Roffe asks why exactly Domesday Book, the oldest and most precious of the English public records, was compiled – and for whom.

Domesday Book must have always impressed. It is in fact not one hook but two. Volume One, known as Great Domesday, is a large folio of almost 800 pages. In it, shire by shire and lord by lord, is contained an account of thirty of the thirty-three counties of late eleventh-century England. Volume Two, Little Domesday, is smaller in format but, at nine hundred pages, is slightly longer. It contains a more detailed account of the remaining three shires, Essex, Norfolk, and Suffolk. Both volumes, now bound in five parts, are preserved in the National Archives at Kew as the oldest and most precious of the English public records. Why should it need decoding?

The basics of its creation have always appeared reassuringly clear. From the mid twelfth century the production of Domesday Book was seen as the aim of the survey or inquest which William the Conqueror (r. 1066-87) commissioned in his Christmas court at Gloucester in 1085. Exactly why William undertook such a monumental survey, though, has always been debated. Richard FitzNigel, writing c.1179, believed Domesday Book was compiled 'to bring the conquered people [of England] under the rule of written law'. Since then the survey has been variously perceived as a tax list, a tax return, a tax reassessment, a register of title, a blueprint for the new feudal society of Norman England, an affirmation of the Norman settlement, and much else. What remains constant in all these varying views is the certainty that Domesday Book was an inventory of the realm of England in 1086.

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