Detail of the Day of Judgement or ‘Doomsday’ after which Domesday Book may have been named.  From a late 13th-century psalter BL Additional MS 38116 f.1v; permission British Library
The Last Judgement

Introduction

Domesday is our most famous and earliest surviving public record. It is a highly detailed survey and valuation of all the land held by the King and his chief tenants, along with all the resources that went with the land in late 11th century England. The survey was a massive enterprise, and the record of that survey, Domesday Book, was a remarkable achievement. There is nothing like it in England until the censuses of the 19th century.

Great Domesday; Catalogue reference: E 31/2
Great Domesday; Catalogue reference: E 31/2

The Discover Domesday exhibition explains why Domesday was created and how you can interpret it. You can learn how the survey was carried out, what questions were asked, how the findings were written up and how its legacy has been preserved for more than 900 years.

Historical context

In 1066 William Duke of Normandyglossary icon defeated the Anglo-Saxonglossary icon King, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings and became King of England. In 1085 England was again threatened with invasion, this time from Denmark. William had to pay for the mercenary army he hired to defend his kingdom. To do this he needed to know what financial and military resources were available to him.

Seal of William Duke of Normandy as King of England
Seal of William Duke of Normandy as King of England

At Christmas 1085 he commissioned a survey to discover the resources and taxable values of all the boroughs and manors in England. He wanted to discover who owned what, how much it was worth and how much was owed to him as King in tax, rents, and military service. A reassessment of the tax known as the geldglossary icon took place at about the same time as Domesday and still survives for the south west. But Domesday is much more than just a tax record. It also records which manors belonged to which estates and gives the identities of the King’s tenants-in-chiefglossary icon who owed him military service in the form of knightsglossary icon to fight in his army. The King was essentially interested in tracing, recording and recovering his royal rights and revenues which he wished to maximise. It was also in the interests of his chief barons to co-operate in the survey since it set on permanent record the tenurial gains they had made since 1066.

Death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, 1066. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th  century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux
Death of King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings, 1066. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century; by special permission of the City of Bayeux

Recent research has suggested that William only commissioned the survey (descriptio) in 1085 and never intended the results to be written up into a book. Some say that it was his son and successor, William Rufus, who ordered the production of Domesday Book itself. Whatever the case, the Conquerorglossary icon threw the full weight of his administrative machinery into the initial survey.

Why is it called ‘Domesday’?

The nickname ‘Domesday’ may refer to the Biblical Day of Judgement, or ‘doomsday’, when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Just as there will be no appeal on that day against his decisions, so Domesday Book had the final word – there was to be no appeal beyond it as evidence of legal title to land. For many centuries Domesday was regarded as the authoritative register regarding rightful possession and was used mainly for that purpose. It was called Domesday by 1180. Before that it was known as the Winchester Roll or King’s Roll, and sometimes as the Book of the Treasury.

The Day of Judgement or ‘Doomsday’ after which Domesday Book may have been named.  From a late 13th-century psalter BL Additional MS 38116 f.1v; permission British Library
The Day of Judgement or ‘Doomsday’ after which Domesday Book may have been named. From a late 13th-century psalter BL Additional MS 38116 f.1v; permission British Library