The name given to the record of the great survey of England made by order of William the Conqueror in 1085-86
Domesday Book is the name given to the record of the great survey of England made by order of William the Conqueror in 1085-86. The name first occurs in the famous “Dialogus de Scaccario”, a treatise compiled about 1176 by Richard Fitznigel, which states that the English called the book of the survey “Domesdei”, or “Day of Judgment”, because the inquiry was one which none could escape, and because the verdict of this register as to the holding of the land was final and without appeal. Certain it is that the native English resented William’s inquisition. “It is shame to tell”, wrote the chronicler, “what he thought it no shame for him to do. Ox, nor cow, nor swine was left that was not set down upon his writ.” The returns give full information about the land of England, its ownership both in 1085 and in the time of King Edward, its extent, nature, value, cultivators, and villeins. The survey embraced all England except the northernmost counties. The results are set down in concise and orderly fashion in two books called the “Exchequer Domesday”. Another volume, containing a more detailed account of Wilts, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall, is called the “Exon Domesday”, as it is in the keeping of the cathedral chapter of Exeter.
The chief interest of the Domesday Book for us here lies in the light which it throws upon church matters. As Professor Maitland has pointed out, a comparison of Domesday with our earliest charters shows not only that the Church held lands of considerable, sometimes of vast, extent, but that she had obtained these lands by free grant from kings or underkings during the Saxon period. We find, for example, that four minsters, Worcester, Evesham, Pershore, and Westminster, were lords of seven-twelfths of the soil of Worcestershire, and that the Church of Worcester alone was lord of one-quarter of that shire besides other holdings elsewhere. It is probable, however, that this did not imply absolute ownership, but only superiority and a right to certain services (Maitland, “Domesday Book and Beyond”, pp. 236-42). This must be borne in mind when we see it stated, and so far correctly, on the authority of Domesday, that the possessions of the Church represented twenty-five per cent of the assessment of the country in 1066 and twenty-six and one-half per cent of its cultivated area in 1086. These lands were in any case very unequally distributed, the proportion of church land being much greater in the South of England. The record does not enable us to tell clearly how far the parochial system had developed, and though in Norfolk and Suffolk all the churches seem to have been entered, amounting to 243 in the former, and 364 in the latter, county, the samecare to note the churches was obviously not exercised in the West of England. Much church property seems to have been of the nature of a tenancy held from the king uponcondition of some service to be rendered, often of a spiritual kind. Thus we read; “Alwin the priest holds the sixth part of a hide”, at Turvey, Beds, “and held it tempore regis Edwardi, and could do what he liked with it; King William afterwards gave it to him in alms, on condition that he should celebrate two ferial masses [ferias missas] for the souls of the King and Queen twice a week.” Valuable as is the information which the Domesday Book supplies, many questions suggested by it remain obscure and are still keenly debated. A facsimile of the whole record was brought out some years ago by photozincography, and at the end of the eighteenth century an edition was printed in type specially cast to represent the contractions of the original manuscript.