Domesday book

Domesday Book is a manuscript that records the great survey of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086. The Domesday book (sometimes spelt Doomsday) is one of Britain’s most famous and earliest surviving public record. It is a very detailed survey conducted in late 11th century England, of all the land held by the King and his chief tenants, as well as all the resources that went with the land. The survey was a massive enterprise, and the record of that survey, became known as the Domesday Book. The next time a record of this type was conducted was not until the censuses of the 19th century. The manuscript is held at The National Archives, Kew, in South West London. In 2011, the Open Domesday site made the manuscript available online.

In 1066 William Duke of Normandy (William the Conqueror) defeated King Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings and became King of England. In 1085 England was again threatened with invasion, this time from Denmark. William had to pay for the mercenary army he hired to defend his kingdom. To do this he needed to know what financial and military resources were available to him.

He commissioned a survey to discover the resources of all the boroughs and manors in England and threw the full weight of his administrative machinery into the initial survey. He wanted to discover who owned what, how much it was worth and how much was owed to him as King in tax, rents, and military service.  But Domesday is much more than just a tax record. It also records which manors belonged to which estates and gives the identities of the King’s tenants-in-chief who owed him military service in the form of knights to fight in his army. The King was essentially interested in tracing, recording and recovering his royal rights and revenues.

Why is it called ‘Domesday’?

The nickname ‘Domesday’ refers to the Biblical Day of Judgement, or ‘doomsday’, when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Just as there will be no appeal on that day against his decisions, so The Domesday Book had the final word – there was to be no appeal beyond it as evidence of legal title to land. For many centuries Domesday was regarded as the authoritative register regarding rightful possession and was used mainly for that purpose.