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What is the Domesday Book?

What is the Domesday Book?

Posted on 09th May, 2017

The Norman Conquest lead by William the Conqueror lead to great changes to England including the building of Lincoln's Cathedral and Castle, and the writing of the Domesday Book – one of England’s most iconic documents.

The Domesday Book is the greatest land survey of medieval Europe and, in terms of the information it contains, it is probably the most fertile mine of data for any historian studying medieval England.

Origins

By 1085 King William felt under threat: his son was rebelling, the Count of Flanders threatened the southern coast, and an invasion from Denmark was being prepared. When the invasion never materialised, William gathered a council at Christmas where he decided to survey his kingdom.

The survey was finished in 1086 and the results are now in two main books; the one that covers most the country is called Greater Domesday, whereas Lesser Domesday covers Essex and East Anglia.

Originally the books were kept in Winchester, which was the capital of England in Norman times. But today they are kept in the National Archives in Kew, only going out on loan on very special occasions.

It didn't get the name ‘Domesday’ until a century after its completion, because of its definitive nature. Any judgement based on the book was final, much like the final judgement in the Doomsday of the Bible.

Records

The Domesday Book recorded 19,500 people and over 13,400 places, far more than in any previous document. In fact, more Anglo-Saxon place names are recorded in Domesday Book than in all the Anglo-Saxon documents put together.

The Domesday Book shows how cosmopolitan the population of Lincoln was. As well as the Norman lords, there are people mentioned with very Anglo-Saxon names like Godwine and Beorhtric, and some people with very Scandinavian sounding names like Svertinger and Ulfr.

Also mentioned was Colswein of Lincoln, one of only two major English landowners left by 1086, the rest now being Norman or a few Bretons. Coleswein’s great-great-granddaughter, Nicola de la Haye, famously defended the castle so stoutly in the 1217 Battle of Lincoln.

Purpose

Historians have argued over the purpose of The Domesday Book. Most modern historians see it probably not as a tax assessment or a census, but merely a way of trying to make a definitive record of who owned what in a kingdom that had been subject to a massive change in land ownership over the previous two decades.

The Domesday Book also records the amount of local woodland; important as it supplied fuel and building materials as well as being a useful place to graze animals. The Normans introduced a new set of laws for forests, which were special areas set aside exclusively for the king to hunt in.

The first area William made a royal forest was the New Forest, and the Hampshire section of The Domesday Book records this new innovation. These forest laws were later codified and made less harsh by the 1217 Charter of the Forest.


In the summer of 2017, Greater Domesday will be on display in Lincoln Castle alongside the 1215 Magna Carta and the 1217 Charter of the Forest, as part of the Battles & Dynasties exhibition. Visit the exhibition to see Domesday for yourself between May 27th and September 3rd. 2017 marks the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest, which is on permanent display in Lincoln Castle.

Thanks to local historian Dr Erik Grigg, for this article.

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  • What is the Domesday Book?

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