Reading Domesday entries

Domesday is written in a heavily abbreviated Latin with small marks to show where a letter or letters have been left out, to save space. This is rather like today where we write ‘won’t’ as an abbreviation for ‘will not’.

This is the Domesday entry for one of the manorsglossary icon of Earley, near Reading in Berkshire. We read that in 1086 it was held directly by the King. Another neighbouring manor, also called Earley, was held by a Normanglossary icon tenant of the King, Osbern Giffard.

Entry for the royal manor of Earley (Herlei), near Reading in Berskhire; Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.57
Entry for the royal manor of Earley (Herlei), near Reading in Berskhire; Catalogue reference: E 31/2/1 f.57.

The following is an expanded translation (Domesday words directly translated in bold) of the entry for the royal manor of Earley, Berkshire:

The King (William) holds in demesne Earley (in lordship – that is, by and for himself; he has not let it out to a sub-tenant). Almar (an Anglo-Saxon) held it in alod (freehold) from King Edward. Then (in 1066, it was assessed for tax purposes) at 5 hides, now (in 1086 it is assessed) for (the equivalent of) 4 hides. (There is) Land for use by 6 ploughs. In demesne (on the lord’s land there is land for) 1 plough and (there are) 6 villans (villagers) and 1 bordar (smallholder) with 3 ploughs. There (are) 2 slaves (owned by the King) and 1 site (or close) in Reading (presumably owned by or part of the manor) and (there are) 2 fisheries worth (rendering) 7s and 6d (per year) and 20 acres of meadow. (There is) Woodland for (feeding) 70 pigs. At the time of King Edward (1066) it was worth 100s, and afterwards (when William acquired the manor) and now (1086) it is worth 50s.

Insight into society

Domesday Book reveals an elaborate feudal structure of landholding from the King down. Under the feudal system the King stood at the top of the feudal ladder and all land was held from him, either directly or indirectly. The King granted parcels of land called fiefsglossary icon to the tenants-in-chiefglossary icon beneath him - his chief barons, bishops and abbots. This was partly as a reward for helping him to conquer the kingdom, partly to keep their loyalty, and partly to ensure that certain difficult geographical areas were being securely held for him. In return he received their loyalty and service. This service usually came in the form of supplying the King with a number of men-at-arms and knightsglossary icon for a specific period should he wish to raise an army. In turn the barons could parcel out the land given to them to their own sub-tenants who likewise owed them loyalty and service – again usually military. Domesday is thus more than a legal and fiscal document. It is also a record of the new feudal system of landholding imposed by William on his new kingdom.

Apart from the feudal structure Domesday also gives the:

  • Names of landholders in each county
  • Manors which they held and their values
  • Names of their sub-tenants
  • Names of many boroughsglossary icon and details of their customs
  • Number of freemenglossary icon, sokemenglossary icon, unfree peasants and slavesglossary icon on each manor
  • Resources of each manorglossary icon

The inconsistencies and omissions within Domesday, coupled with our own imprecise understanding of the meanings of some of the terms it uses, mean that it is very difficult to use the information within it for precise statistical analysis. But by analysing the vast amounts of information we discover that in 1086 that:

  • The King held about a seventh of the landed wealth of England in own hands
  • The Church (under its new Norman leadership) held about a quarter of the landed wealth
  • Of the lay tenants-in-chief, 12 or so leading barons controlled almost a quarter of landed wealth
  • There were only three Anglo-Saxonglossary icon tenants-in-chief who still had large estates: Thorkhill of Arden, Coleswain of Lincoln and Gospatric, son of Arnketil, a landowner in Yorkshire
  • The most prominent living female tenant-in-chief was Countess Judith, a niece of King William

Domesday Book provides details of:

  • About 13,400 individual places
  • 48 castles including Windsor
  • 112 boroughs
  • Over 60 major religious houses
  • Over 300 parish churches
  • Around 6,000 mills (but no windmills)
  • About 45 vineyards
  • Various woodlands
  • Numerous markets
  • Several mints
  • Inland and coastal fisheries
  • And some industry including salt pans, lead working, quarries and potteries

By comparing the information in Domesday relating to 1066 and 1086 we can gauge the impact of the Norman conquest in such areas as:

Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th  century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux
Woodland was valuable for hunting game, as swine pasture and for felling timber. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux
  • The replacement of Anglo-Saxon ruling groups by a new aristocracy of Frenchmen, Normans and Bretonsglossary icon
  • The reordering of society along feudal lines constituting a tenurial revolution
  • A building programme of castles, cathedrals, abbeys and lesser churches in which many houses were destroyed to make way for castles
  • The varying fortunes of places like Dunwich in Suffolk where Domesday shows that the village lost half its farmland to sea erosion between 1066 and 1086

Domesday often provides fascinating insights into local customs and laws giving us a rare picture of everyday life in late 11th century England. For example, in:

  • Chester if you killed a man on a holy day you paid a fine of £4 but on other days 40s
  • Wallingford, Berkshire, before the Norman conquest if the King sent an army out, 1 thegnglossary icon (nobleman) was sent from every 5 hidesglossary icon to attend him
  • Oakley, Buckinghamshire, Aelfgyth the maid had been granted half a hide by Godric the sheriff as long as she taught his daughter gold embroidery

Domesday descendants

Domesday Book is not a census and does not contain the names of everyone living in late 11th century England. Although Domesday contains many thousands of names very few families can, with any certainty, trace their lineage back in the male line to an Anglo-Saxon forebear mentioned in Domesday. Anglo-Norman ancestors who held large estates and are often given surnames in Domesday are easier to trace. But even here the problem remains that between 1086 and 1154, the date of the first continuous series of public recordsglossary icon, there is a significant gap in the archival record. For more information consult A.J. Camp, They Came with the Conqueror (Society of Genealogists, 1990).

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