Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about the Domesday Book - please read the information before you contact us with a question, it may be answered here.
What is the Domesday Book?
The Domesday Book is a great land survey from 1086, commissioned by William the Conqueror to assess the extent of the land and resources being owned in England at the time, and the extent of the taxes he could raise. The information collected was recorded by hand in two huge books, in the space of around a year. William died before it was fully completed.
Why is it called the 'Domesday' Book?
It was written by an observer of the survey that "there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was left out". The grand and comprehensive scale on which the Domesday survey took place (see How it was compiled), and the irreversible nature of the information collected led people to compare it to the Last Judgement, or 'Doomsday', described in the Bible, when the deeds of Christians written in the Book of Life were to be placed before God for judgement. This name was not adopted until the late 12th Century.
What information is in the book?
The Domesday Book provides extensive records of landholders, their tenants, the amount of land they owned, how many people occupied the land (villagers, smallholders, free men, slaves, etc.), the amounts of woodland, meadow, animals, fish and ploughs on the land (if there were any) and other resources, any buildings present (churches, castles, mills, salthouses, etc.), and the whole purpose of the survey - the value of the land and its assets, before the Norman Conquest, after it, and at the time of Domesday. Some entries also chronicle disputes over who held land, some mention customary dues that had to be paid to the king, and entries for major towns include records of traders and number of houses.
However, the Domesday Book does not provide an accurate indication of the population of England towards the end of the 11th century. Find out why, and what the population may have been, here.
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How was the information collected?
Royal commissioners were sent out around England to collect and record the information from thousands of settlements; the country was split up into 7 regions, or 'circuits' of the country, with 3 or 4 commissioners being assigned to each. They carried with them a set of questions and put these to a jury of representatives - made up of barons and villagers alike - from each county. They wrote down all of the information in Latin, as with the final Domesday document itself. Once they returned to London the information was combined with earlier records, from both before and after the Conquest, and was then, circuit by circuit, entered into the final Domesday Book.
When was the Book written?
The collection of information by the commissioners took place probably in the first few months of 1086, followed by the amalgamation of this and existing information into lengthy drafts. These were possibly finished by the end of the summer of 1086, with work on abbreviating the records into the Great Domesday (see below) probably starting alongside this. By the time of King William's death in September 1087 work had stopped, and could have ceased before this time. Although the Great Domesday Book was left incomplete, the draft of the remaining unabbreviated work (the East Anglian circuit) remains as the Little Domesday Book (see below).
Who wrote the Domesday Book?
Incredibly the final version of the main Domesday Book volume, all 413 pages of it, was handwritten by one unnamed official scribe, and checked by one other. Despite the speed at which the Book was compiled the text was carefully written in a short form of Latin.
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How long did it take to write?
See 'When was the Book written?'
Why was it made?
With the need to defend England from possible invasion threats from Scandinavia, and costly campaigns being fought in northern France, the vast army William amassed required substantial funding. The power to raise Danegeld - a uniform tax to pay for the defence of the country - had been inherited from the Anglo-Saxons, and William saw the need for the Domesday Book as a thorough assessment of the potential amount of tax he could raise from his subjects and their assets. The survey also served as a gauge of the country's economic and social state in the aftermath of the Conquest and the unrest that followed it.
What materials were used to make it?
The main volume, Great Domesday, is written on sheep-skin parchment using black and red ink only (red used for the county titles atop each page, and corrections and alterations).
How many places are listed in the Domesday Book?
There are 13,418 places listed in the Domesday Book.
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What areas of Britain did the Domesday survey cover?
The Domesday survey covered all of England as it existed in 1086, which included a small part of what is now Wales, some of Cumbria, but excluded the present day Northumbria. The entries for some major towns at the time like the important Winchester and London failed to make it into the book.
How many books make up the whole of the Domesday survey?
The survey was intended to be compiled into one complete volume, but the compilation was never fully completed, probably owing to King William's death before the sole scribe could finish his work. However, the information collected from the whole survey was retained and still exists today in 2 volumes: 'Great Domesday' - most of the counties, abridged, and 'Little Domesday' - the 3 counties missing from Great Domesday, in their unabridged form. See more about the two books here.
How many pages are there in the Domesday Book?
There are 413 pages in Great Domesday (see above) and 475 pages in Little Domesday (which shows how much detail was cut out to compile Great Domesday).
How many places listed in the Domesday Book still exist?
Amazingly almost all of the places mentioned in the Domesday Book can be found on a present day map of England (and Wales), though many of their names have been altered over time from their 11th century versions.
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Where can I see the Domesday Book?
The original Domesday Book is deemed too valuable and fragile to be exhibited in public and so is kept in private at the National Archives - formerly the Public Records Office - in Kew, London (though it is still used on occasions by students and academics interested in its study). A copy of the document has been made and can be seen in a special exhibition area at the National Archives. For details of how and when to visit see the National Archives website.
Why were many places listed in the Domesday Book as 'wasted'?
When William and his army invaded in 1066 they continued their conquest campaign towards western and northern England, leaving a fair amount of destruction in their wake. The term 'waste' or 'wasted' appears many times in the Domesday Book, most often describing settlements the army had passed through and left their mark on during their conquest, although the term was also used sometimes for manors simply not paying geld for one reason or another.
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Why is the Domesday Book still important today?
The Domesday Book provides an invaluable insight into the economy and society of 11th century Norman England. For historians it can be used, amongst other things, to discover the wealth of England at the time, information about the feudal system existent in society (the social hierarchy from the king down to villagers and slaves), and information about the geography and demographic situation of the country. For local historians it can reveal the history of a local settlement and its population and surroundings, whilst for genealogists it provides a useful and fascinating resource for tracing family lines. Through the centuries the Domesday Book has also been used as evidence in disputes over ancient land and property rights, though the last case of this was in the 1960s.
Some examples of what can be learnt from the information in the Domesday Book can be found in Life in the 11th Century.
I took part in the 'New Domesday' survey in the 1980s - where can I find the information that was collected?
Around a million people contributed to a snapshot of modern England in 1986 and the results, including a lot of multimedia, were compiled onto computer disks and put on sale. It ran into problems as the disks were only compatible with a special type of computer which was very expensive to buy. Subsequently very few of the disks were sold, and today only a handful remain, all rather worse for wear. A project to extract the information off the best preserved disks and put it on more widely available media has begun, and parts of the project can now be viewed online at the BBC Domesday Reloaded site.
For more details about the project and the issues involved see the following articles:
Is my house/street in the Domesday Book?
Except in specific cases (castles, mills, churches, etc.) individual buildings were not recorded in the Domesday Book. The survey was more concerned with assessing land values, however in certain towns trade buildings such as foundries were included. See 'what information was included?' for more.
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