Domesday Book is the oldest government record held in The National Archives. In fact there are two Domesday Books – Little Domesday and Great Domesday, which together contain a great deal of information about England in the 11th century. In 1086, King William I (the Conqueror) wanted to find out about all the land in his new kingdom: who owned which property, who else lived there, how much the land was worth and therefore how much tax he could charge, so he sent official government inspectors around England to ask questions in local courts.
Fixed questions were asked, such as what the place was called, who owned it, how many men lived there, how many cows were there and so on. For each property, the questions were asked three times to see what changes had happened over time so that the king would know about the lands in Edward the Confessor’s time (before 1066), who William I had given it to and what it was worth then, and finally what the situation was in 1086 at the time of the survey. All the results of these questions were handwritten into the Domesday Book by scribes.
On 5 January 1066, Edward the Confessor, the King of England, died. Harold Godwin was crowned King of England. Two other men claimed that the throne belonged to them: Harold Hardrada, King of Norway; the other was William Duke of Normandy. Harold Hardrada invaded the north of England but the King managed to defeat his army. Shortly after, William – had landed in the south of England. On 14 October 1066, the English and Norman armies clashed in a battle just outside Hastings, in which Harold died – legend has it that King Harold was shot in the eye by an arrow! William, Duke of Normandy was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1066.
William took all the land and important jobs in the Government and Church away from the Saxons and divided it up amongst his Norman friends. He built castles to make the English feel so scared that they would not dare even to think about causing trouble. By 1085, William had a shortage of money and also many Normans had begun to disagree amongst themselves over the land they had been given as a reward for helping conquer England. William wanted to settle these disputes once and for all. Thus William decided to order a survey. The survey would list all the land in England. It would list who was looking after each area, what lands they had, and which other people lived there. Importantly, the survey would find out how much tax-money William could get from this land. Official government inspectors were sent around the country to gather information. The people in England spoke Saxon English and the Norman inspectors spoke French and Latin. A jury, which included the local important men such as the village priest and reeve who could understand the different languages, had to decide whether their neighbours were telling the truth.
The results of this survey were written into Domesday Book. Great Domesday contains most of the counties of England and was written by one scribe and checked by a second. Little Domesday, which contains the information for Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk, was probably written first and is the work of at least six scribes. Domesday Book describes almost all of England and more than 13,000 places are mentioned in it. Most of them still survive today. London, Winchester, County Durham and Northumberland were not included in King William’s survey. In spite of these omissions, the survey gives a wealth of information, as well as highlighting that a lot of property had been destroyed by William’s invasion in 1066. Most of the land originally owned by 2000 Saxons belonged to 200 Norman barons in 1086, showing just how powerful the Norman lords had become!
Illustration: Photograph of open volumes of Little Domesday and Great Domesday (Catalogue ref: E31/1 and E 31/2)
Source Image 1: Page from Vol. 1 of Great Domesday (Catalogue ref: E 31/2/1, f.26b)
Source Image 2: Extract of page from Vol. 1 of Great Domesday, showing survey entry of Preston Hundred in Sussex (Catalogue ref: E 31/2/1, f.26b)
This lesson could be used for History at key stage 3 (year 7), within Unit 2: How did medieval monarchs keep control? Section 2: How did William the Conqueror secure control of England? and Unit 3: How hard was life for medieval people in town and country? Section 1: What does the Domesday Book tell us about life in town and country? The activities also support the key stage 3 literacy strategy for the development of writing. Finally, the questions could also be used with key stage 2 pupils, fitting in with Unit 4 on famous people as well as contributing to the key stage 2 numeracy strategy.
The extension activities might be the basis for class discussion and group or individual work.
The story behind the Battle of Hastings and the leaders who fought it out in 1066.
The Domesday Book Online
This site gives background information to Domesday Book, its creation, historical context, and a timeline.