What has it been used for?

Signature and seal of Samuel Pepys, 1701; Catalogue reference: PROB 1/9
Signature and seal of Samuel Pepys, 1701; Catalogue reference: PROB 1/9 f.4

For many centuries Domesday was used for administrative purposes, especially to provide proof of landholding, tenures and boundaries. From the late 16th century it was frequently used as a historical source, though the famous 17th century diarist and naval official, Samuel Pepys, was not impressed with its contents, as it contained nothing about the sea or London. For the vast majority of places within its pages, Domesday provides the first recorded description of their human and natural resources. Over 90% of the towns and villages in Domesday still exist as modern day communities.

Domesday’s home

Wooden chest in which Domesday Book was kept stored from about 1600. Catalogue reference: E 31/4
Wooden chest, cased, lined and bound in iron and secured by three different locks, in which Domesday Book was kept stored from about 1600. Catalogue reference: E 31/4

Domesday was originally kept with the royal treasury at Winchester. But from the early 13th century, when it was not travelling around with the King, it was housed in Westminster at first in the palace and then in the abbey. From about 1600 it was kept in a large iron-clad chest and reinforced with iron straps. The chest had three different locks, the keys to which were divided between three different officials, so that it could only be opened by consent of all three. In 1859 Domesday was removed to the new Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London. In 1996 it was brought to The National Archives, Kew.

Domesday as a public record

Illuminated capital letter ‘I’ taken from the Domesday Abbreviatio entry for Derbyshire, possibly c.1241; Catalogue reference: E 36/284
Illuminated capital letter ‘I’ taken from the Domesday Abbreviatio entry for Derbyshire, possibly c.1241; Catalogue reference: E 36/284

Domesday Book is a public recordglossary icon and its information has always been made available. Because of its importance many copies have been made including at least three from the 13th century including the Exchequer abbreviation, Domesday Abbreviatio (Catalogue reference: E 36/284). For many centuries individual entries from Domesday were copied as evidence of ancient demesne and land title. Such was the reverence and awe in which Domesday was held that when copies were made not only were the exact words copied but often the same style of script, called Caroline miniscule, was used. In 1589 a local historian wrote after reading Domesday:

The book is very ancient and hard to be read, and who so findeth anything must pay for the copy of every line 4d., and it must be exemplified in the self same correctness as it is written in the book, which is strange and hard for any man to read.

Historical editions

Various editions of Domesday Book have been published:

  • Abraham Farley text, Domesday Book, seu Liber Censualis Willelmi Primi Regis Angliae, printed for Parliament in 1783 and published by the Records Commission in 1817. A special font exactly reproducing the Domesday script was produced to print this transcription. The project took 16 years to prepare and cost the government £38,000 at the time. Marginal notes and what was thought to be extraneous matter were deliberately left out.
  • Photo-zincograph edition, Domesday Book or the Great Survey of England of William the Conqueror (1861-63): Domesday was taken outside and photographed by the Ordnance Survey. Victorian ingenuity even managed to reproduce in colour the red highlighting of the original.
  • Victoria County Histories of England (ongoing): Many opening volumes of these county histories include a translation of, and essay on, Domesday’s entry for that county.
  • Phillimore publishers (1975-1992): These separate volumes for each county use the Farley Latin transcription facing a modern translation. They contain footnotes and short introductions and maps. There are cumulative indexes to persons, places and subjects. The series includes a supplementary volume: the Boldon Book, a survey made in 1183 that covers much of Northumberland and Durham, two counties not included in Domesday. For using these volumes see our guide to Domesday Book.
  • Alecto (1985): In 1985 when Domesday was rebound, every page was photographed. The result is a high quality colour facsimile of both Great and Little Domesday. Extensive county introductions, maps, and historical essays accompany the facsimile and its translation.
  • Alecto/Penguin translation (2002): This single volume contains the Alecto translation and an index of places. It has an extensive glossary of terms used in Domesday.
  • Digital age: Phillimore’s CD-Rom Domesday Explorer (2000) includes the Farley transcription and the Philimore translation of Great Domesday. It combines interactive mapping and refined searching. The Alecto CD-Rom (2002) Digital Domesday Book reproduces images of Great and Little Domesday, the Farley text, a translation, historical essays and the county introductions. The translation (and accompanying essays) can be word searched; it is available for searching on site at The National Archives.
  • You can access the Alecto images and translations of Domesday Book by searching on Discovery.
A return on a writ of certiorari, 1629, Lincolnshire; Catalogue reference: C89/17 no.7
A return on a writ of certiorari, 1629, written in Domesday script. The manor described is that of Kirton in Lindsey, Lincolnshire; Catalogue reference: C89/17 no.7
Opening page of the Berkshire section of Farley’s edition of Domesday (1817) with its specially designed type reproducing the Domesday script
Opening page of the Berkshire section of Farley’s edition of Domesday (1817) with its specially designed type reproducing the Domesday script
Opening page of the Berkshire facsimile from the 1863 photo-zincograph reproduction of Domesday photographed in the open by the Ordnance Survey
Opening page of the Berkshire facsimile from the 1863 photo-zincograph reproduction of Domesday photographed in the open by the Ordnance Survey