Hello, my name is Jessica Nelson, and I’m the Head of Premodern Legal and Maps Collections at The National Archives. And today I’m going to talk to you a little bit about our earliest public record and perhaps one of our most famous, indeed iconic public records: Domesday.
Domesday is held within the Exchequer collection at The National Archives. The Exchequer was the kind of financial centre of medieval and early modern government, and our Exchequer collection contains millions of documents recording money spent, money going in and out, and so forth.
But the Exchequer also had a sort of secure area called the Treasury of the Receipt, and that contained some of the the documents that were considered most important to the kingdom. And Domesday was one of those documents. And that’s why Domesday is an Exchequer record.
So very briefly, Domesday is a record of lands, landholding and resources in medieval England. As you can see, it’s in the form of a book, and lots of people do call it the Domesday book. In fact, it’s never been just a single book.
Originally, there were two Domesday books: Great Domesday and Little Domesday. And in 1986, those books were divided by our Collection Care department into parts to help them be better preserved. So now, Great Domesday is in two parts, and Little Domesday is in three parts.
What we have here isn’t actually the real Domesday. Domesday itself is now so old and fragile that it stays in very carefully controlled conditions in one of our secure repositories. So instead, here we have a facsimile edition of Domesday, which is a really excellent copy, which looks very, very similar indeed to the real thing, although it’s printed on paper rather than being written on animal skins.
So as we can see, the writing in Domesday is really neat and clear. Most of Great Domesday was written by a single scribe, which, considering it’s around 2 million words, is no mean feat I think. It’s written in Latin, in medieval Latin, even though nowadays most people can’t read and write Latin. In the medieval period, it was very much the language of educated people and it was used all over Europe. So by writing Domesday in Latin, they were making sure that people would be able to understand it, whether they spoke French or English or any other of the European languages.
William the Conqueror had conquered England in 1066 and nearly 20 years later, at Christmas in 1085, he ordered a great survey to be carried out of lands and land holding in his newly conquered kingdom. He wanted to find out who held the land and what the resources were on that land. And it’s that survey that was written up in Domesday Book. So the survey was carried out in 1086 and written up soon after that.
And I said it was a survey of lands and landholding and who held the land, and that’s quite an important phrase. It’s not about who owned the land, it’s about who held the land, because the structure of society that William had imposed upon his newly conquered kingdom. Effectively, he, the king, owned everything, and below him there was a layer of great lords, churchmen and secular lords who held land of him, and they were called his tenants-in-chief, and then other people in turn held land of them and so on and so forth. But it was the king, William, who was at the top of this pyramid, and we think that one of the purposes of Domesday, as well as recording all the information about the lands and who holds what and the resources on that land, is to kind of put down in writing this new structure of society that had come about because of the Norman Conquest.
Domesday talks in great detail about the resources and the individual units of land called manors: how much they were worth, how much tax they owed, how many men lived there, the amount of land there was for arable, for woodland, and even goes into detail about things like vineyards and fisheries and mills.
It’s organised county by county and within each county, it lists the landholding by landowner. Most counties begin with a list of the landholders in the county, starting with King William and then listing the tenants-in-chief. And that serves as a sort of a contents page for each of the counties.
As well as telling us about lands and landholding, Domesday also records some really interesting customs, particularly the customs of the urban areas throughout the country. So here’s the entry for Chester in Cheshire. This entry tells us that if a man shed blood between Monday morning and noon on Saturday, he had to pay a fine of ten shillings. But if you shed blood between noon on Saturday and Monday morning, you have to pay a fine of 20 shillings. And you also had to pay the higher amount if you shed blood on a religious holiday, and it lists some of the holidays such as Christmas, Easter and the Feast of the Ascension. And when it says shed blood, it means an individual injuring somebody else. And this entry tells us that if a man or a woman was caught brewing bad beer, they either had to pay a fine of four shillings or be put in the dungstool. And I think we can only imagine how grim a trip to the dungstool must have been.
So the most obvious purpose of Domesday was to help the king get the most out of his new kingdom in terms of taxes and resources, and to keep a record of who held what. But there’s also, I think, a deeper purpose to it. I’ve already mentioned about how it records the new structure of society, and it’s also really interesting that Domesday itself completely skates over the fact that there’s ever been a conquest. There’s no mention of the Battle of Hastings or anything like that. Domesday allows the readers to think that William the Conqueror was the natural successor to King Edward the Confessor and doesn’t mention King Harald at all. So in this entry for Odiham in Hampshire, it tells us that King William holds the land and that Earl Harald held it and it calls him Earl Harald rather than King Harald. By writing Harald’s kingship out of history, William is able to present himself as the heir to England by right rather than by force.
One of the things about Domesday, which is really amazing, is that it provides this information on land and resources, not just for the time the survey was taken, but also on the eve of the conquest and just after the conquest. So it allows us to see the incredible changes that were wrought on English society by the Norman Conquest and gives us this amazing snapshot of a medieval society in transition. That makes Domesday really important to our understanding of medieval England, but also of England as a whole, because the Norman Conquest wrought really important changes and long lasting changes on language, society and culture in this country.
There is no other document like Domesday in the collections of the National Archives, or, to be honest, in any other collections anywhere else in the world. So Domesday is certainly not typical of our Exchequer records. But while Domesday is unique and incredibly important, it certainly isn’t the be all and end all of our medieval records, and we have millions of other medieval documents that can shed light on almost every aspect of medieval society.