The Domesday Book

Illustration representing the compilation of the Domesday Book

The Domesday Book was a complete written record of property ownership across England, and was completed in less than a year. At the time it was called the Winchester Book, but later became better known as the Domesday Book.

Why was the Domesday Book written?

Invading and conquering England had been expensive for William. Loyal supporters were rewarded with land rather than cash but by 1085 the Norman land owners were beginning to argue over who held what piece of land. William had spent nearly twenty years imposing Norman control over all of England and he did not want his work to be undone by disunity amongst his own followers.

In December 1085, William met his Great Council in Gloucester to discuss how to solve these problems. At this meeting William decided to order a survey. It would list all the landowners and their tenants and the lands they held. It would describe any other people who lived on the land, from villagers to slaves. It would describe how the land was used, for example if it was used for woodland, meadow or animals. All buildings such as castles, churches or mills were to be recorded.

The Domesday Book was designed to perform three key functions.

The key functions of the Domesday book - Land Ownership, Value of Estate and Taxation
  • To record the transfer and possession of land. After the conquest huge amounts of land in England changed hands and a record of these changes was needed to keep track.
  • To record the value of each estate (land owned by an individual).
  • To introduce a new system of taxation on each estate that allowed the king to raise more money from all landholders quickly.

Raising taxes could always cause anger amongst the people so William had to be careful not to demand too much. The final question William’s inspectors would ask landowners gives us a good idea about his intentions, asking ‘Can more (tax) be had than is had?’