The Domesday BookCategory: 11th century
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says: “In 1086 William the Conqueror sent his men all over England, into every shire to find out what property every inhabitant of all England possessed in land, or in cattle and how much money this was worth … and then all these writings were brought to him.” That was the first registration in England.
Before the arrival of the royal officials a special commission prepared the necessary information in each shire. The commission consisted of the sheriff, the lord of the estate, the priest, the hundred-elder and six peasants. They would measure the land, write down how much plough-land there was and how much meadow, pasture, and woodland. They would visit everyone’s house and find out how many oxen were kept. They would have to know the number of mills and ploughs in the village and how many fishponds there were. Then the royal officials would arrive with a number of warriors. One of the officials knew both the English and the Latin language, so that he could act as interpreter. The villagers would give their answers in English but the official would have to write them down in Latin. After the members of the commission had taken a solemn oath to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” the royal official began to ask questions. The interpreter repeated his questions in English. Another official with a pen in his hand and an ink-horn hanging from his waist-belt stood by to write down the answer. As each question was answered and interpreted into Latin the official wrote it down on a sheet of parchment.
This went on perhaps all day. There were the same questions in each village. The name of the owner of the village was written down, and what the villagers possessed, and what it was all worth, and what they should pay to the king. The Anglo-Saxons were afraid of the registration and hated it. The villagers used to say that nothing could be concealed from the king’s officials just as you would not conceal anything from God on doomsday. The villagers were threatened to be punished on doomsday in case they did not tell the w’hole truth. That is why probably the book in which all these accounts were written was called by the people of England the Domesday Book.
All the kings’ vassals wrere registered in the Domesday Book and William I could now see to it that they all performed their military service. William I knew the exact value of their estates and he demanded that when he called upon them they should bring a certain number of their retainers in proportion to the value of their estates.As the names of all the new owners of the estates were written down in the official state document, the Domesday Book, the Norman lords were considered now the lawful owners of the English lands. Thus the feudal registration of 1086 consolidated the position of the conquerors.
The two volumes of the Domesday Book now kept in the Public Record Office in London.
Great changes were brought about in the life of the Anglo-Saxon peasantry as a result of the registration organized by William the Conqueror. Before the Conquest many peasants were serfs, or villeins, as they were called in England. The villeins were “bound to the soil and to the lord”. They belonged to the feudal estate, or to the manor, as it was called in England. They were not allowed to leave the lord of the manor. However, alongside with the villeins there were many semi-bondsmen whose services to the lord of the manor were much lighter than those of the villeins. There were also many peasants who cultivated their own land but whose freedom was slightly curbed because they could be tried only in the lord’s court. Now all those semi-bond peasants were registered in the Domesday Book as villeins. Many of those who before the Conquest had been tried in the lord’s court and owed some minor services were also registered as unfree peasants. To cite just one example: in the county of Sussex 10,400 peasant families were registered, of which 9,800 were registered as unfree families and only 600 as free.
In addition to everything else, the peasants had to pay heavier taxes. Before the registration William the Conqueror collected all the old taxes which had been imposed in England before the Conquest. He continued to collect even the old Danegeld, a tax which had been imposed to organize resistance to the raids of the Danes. As a result of the registration the Conqueror had the exact data for taxation and he increased the old taxes considerably. Moreover, a heavy property tax was imposed on the population of England.
Thus the Norman Conquest aggravated feudal exploitation and it hastened the process of turning the free peasants into serfs. The Norman conquerors became not only the owners of the English lands but also the masters of the people who lived on it.
The original of the Domesday Book is kept now in the Public Record Office in London. In the reign of the Conqueror it was looked upon as a tax book for it gave the data for taxation. But its actual value is much greater. No other written document before or after has given us such a clear picture of the period.