After William conquered England, he needed to have some idea of what he owned for the purpose of raising taxes. From this came the idea of the Domesday Book, a grand survey of England.
The Domesday Book (also known as Domesday, or Book of Winchester), was the record of the great survey of England completed in 1086, executed on behalf of William the Conqueror.
William needed information about the country he had just conquered so he could administer it. Whilst spending the Christmas of 1085 in Gloucester, William "had deep speech with his counsellors and sent men all over England to each shire ... to find out ... what or how much each landholder had in land and livestock, and what it was worth."
One of the main purposes of the survey was to find out who owned what so they could be taxed on it, and the judgment of the assessors was final, whatever the book said about who owned the property, or what it was worth, was the law, and there was no appeal.
Domesday was written in Latin, although some vernacular words inserted for native terms for which there were no Latin equivalent and the text was highly abbreviated.
The book acquired the name "Domesday" (Middle English spelling of Doomsday) in the 12th century, to emphasize its definitiveness and authority (the analogy refers to the Christian notion of the Last Judgment).
Although we refer to the Domesday Book, there was actually two books, Little Domesday covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The other, Great Domesday covers the rest of England, except for lands in the north that would later become Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and County Durham (partly because some of these lands were under Scottish control at the time). There are also no surveys of London, Winchester and some other towns. The omission of these two major cities is probably due to their size and complexity, Cumberland is missing because it was not conquered until some time after the survey and the Prince-Bishop William of St. Carilef had the exclusive right to tax Durham. The omission of the other counties has not been fully explained.
Despite its name, Little Domesday is actually larger, as it is far more detailed, down to numbers of livestock. It has been suggested that Little Domesday represents a first attempt, and that it was found impossible, or at least inconvenient, to complete the work on the same scale for Great Domesday.
Domesday is not organised geographically, rather on the basis of fiefs, that is on ownership. Instead of appearing under the Hundreds and townships, holdings appear under the names of the local barons
For each county, the ownership is ordered by rank. First the king (which had possibly formed the subject of separate inquiry), then senior religious figures and religious houses, next the lay tenants-in-chief (barons), and last of all those of women, of the king's serjeants (servientes), of the few English thegns who retained land, and so on.
From the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it is known that the planning for the survey was conducted in 1085, and from the colophon of the book it is known that the survey was completed in 1086. It is not known when exactly Domesday Book was compiled, but the entire work appears to have been copied out by one person.
Each county was visited by a group of royal officers (legati), who held a public inquiry, probably in the great assembly known as the county court, which was attended by representatives of every township as well as of the local lords. The unit of inquiry was the Hundred (a subdivision of the county, which then was an administrative entity), and the return for each Hundred was sworn to by twelve local jurors, half of them English and half of them Normans.
What is believed to be a full transcript of these original returns is preserved for several of the Cambridgeshire Hundreds, and is of great illustrative importance. The Inquisitio Eliensis, the Exon Domesday (so called from the preservation of the volume at Exeter), which covers Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Wiltshire, and the second volume of Domesday Book, also all contain the full details which the original returns supplied.
Through comparison of what details are recorded in which counties, six "circuits" can be determined.
Domesday Book was originally preserved in the royal treasury at Winchester (the Norman kings' capital). It was originally referred to as the Book of Winchester, and refers to itself as such in a late edition. When the treasury moved to Westminster, probably under Henry II, the book went with it. In the Dialogus de scaccario (temp. Hen. II.) it is spoken of as a record from the arbitrament of which there was no appeal (from which its popular name of Domesday is said to be derived). In the middle ages its evidence was frequently invoked in the law-courts, and even now there are certain cases in which appeal is made to its testimony.
Domesday remained in Westminster until the days of Queen Victoria, being preserved from 1696 onwards in the Chapter House, and only removed in special circumstances, such as when it was sent to Southampton for photozincographic reproduction.
Domesday Book was eventually placed in the Public Record Office, London. It can be seen in a glass case in the museum at The National Archives, Kew.
In 1869 Domesday Book received a modern binding. Most recently, the two books were rebound for its ninth centenary in 1986, when Great Domesday was divided into two volumes and Little Domesday was divided into three volumes. The ancient Domesday chest, in which it used to be kept, is also preserved in the building at Kew.
4 August 2006, the Domesday Book was put on-line by the National Archives at Kew. [see Internet upgrade for Domesday Book]
County editions of the Domesday Book are available.