On Christmas Day in 1085, William the Conqueror commissioned a great undertaking: a full survey of the kingdom of England. For the next several months, his commissioners went through the land compiling detailed records of every church, manor, and field. These were compiled into what is known today as the Great Domesday Book, though it was also called the Book of Winchester, where it was originally kept for safekeeping, the King’s Roll, and the Book of the Treasury. The majority of its 413 folios were written in 1086 by a single scribe in Protogothic book hand. The Latin records are highly abbreviated and rubrication is used to accent place names and land holders.
The Great Domesday book records information about over thirteen thousand places in England. Together with the Lesser Domesday Book, it was the foundation of English property records through the Middle Ages. Today it serves as a written record of the hierarchy and organization in England and is a priceless snapshot of society at the beginning of medieval feudalism.
A Detailed Survey of Twelfth-Century England
William I of England commissioned the creation of a complete survey of the realm on Christmas Day of 1085. A mere seven months later, the work was completed, which compiled information on 13,418 settlements in England in thirty-four counties.
Some cities, such as London and Bristol, are not included, and much of modern-day counties of Cumbria, Northumbria, and Durham were not included. The seven-circuit summaries were then edited and compiled in a single volume. The Great Domesday Book, which records 31 of these counties, ends abruptly at East Anglia, perhaps due to the death of the king in 1087.
Organizing a Vast Kingdom
The Greater Domesday Book was written, for the most part, by a single scribe with some additions and corrections made by others. The book is organized by county, the name of which is written in the top margin in red vermillion. Each chapter begins with a list of the king’s fees or fiefdoms, those who owed the king taxes and service. Then follows a record of the county beginning with the king’s land, then that held by the Church, and finally the laity.
The scope of the project was vast and was completed extraordinarily quickly—in less than a year. This can be seen in how the book was written. The scribe begins with carefully ruled pages of 44 lines in two columns, but by the later pages abandons ruling the pages at all and is squeezing in almost double the lines.
“Domesdei” – Akin to the Day of Judgment
Richard fitz Nigel, royal treasurer under Henry II, recorded in his Dialogue of the Exchequer of 1179 that the book was called Domesdei, the Day of Judgment, because, right or wrong, the information written within it could not be appealed or altered. It was always kept in the possession of the Royal Treasury of England in Westminster.
The book has been rebound several times, the original bindings were partially replaced in the fourteenth century. It received new covers during the Tudor dynasty. It recently underwent conservation work for its 900th anniversary. The Great Domesday Book was separated into two volumes and the Letter Domesday Book into three. Today they are housed at the National Archives in Kew, London.