It was sometime in 1085 that William the Conqueror had the idea of the Domesday Book, an ambitious project to list all the landowners in England – including how much land they owned, what it was used for, and what it was worth.
During the course of the next year or so groups of Royal officers visited each county and held public enquiries to determine the land ownership of that county, with the help of a local ‘jury’ or committee. Remarkably the project was completed in 1086 and covered more than 13000 landowners across the country, an astonishing achiecvement given the technology and information available, and the absence of efficient transport in many parts of the country.
The goal was to impose taxes according to the landowners listed wealth – and there was no right of appeal against what was entered into the Domesday book. Not surprisingly this made the judgements based on information in the book often unpopular. The book is often referred to with the alternative spelling of Doomsday – not unreasonable, since the words share the same roots and the book name means ‘book of doom’ or book of final reckoning’.
Another important goal for William the Conqueror was to set down clearly which lands were now in Royal ownership, and clear up any ‘uncertainties’ – again, all claims were indisutable once entered in the book.
Using a quite sophisticated approach for the time, the men sent by the King to complete the work used existing references and documents and many long-standing disputes over land-ownership were resolved as a result (whether resolved rightly or wrongly is rather harder to say…) Certainly this was of great benefit to future generations, as England emerged from the Dark Ages and the many conflicts over land that had taken place over the preceding centuries had left many entitlements to land unclear.
The benefits of the Domesday Book proved greater than anticipated, as a sketch of England at a point in time. This provides historians with a great deal of information about land ownership at that time, and also helps to provide a more clear picture of life in Medieval times and a feeling for how important towns were, communication links between them etc. The Domesday Book has a fascinating amount of information that is almost superfluous to the task in hand, entered for information and completeness only, and it is often these throwaway comments that are as useful as the main book itself.
The maps of the Domesday Book, in truth, were not always as accurate as they might be. The detail provided for certain counties – Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex – is much greater than for other counties: these three counties featured in the so called ‘Little Domesday Book’ with the others in the ‘Great Domesday Book’. London and some other important cities were not covered, and neither were certain northern counties such as Northumberland. Likewise estimates of wealth were not always very accurate, and we can only speculate about the level of corruption and bribery that might have been involved in the preparation of such a work.
Nonetheless the Domesday Book provides one of the earliest and most extraordinary works to be tackled on such a scale and is a fascinating document even today, almost 1000 years later.