The Domesday Book probably ranks as one of England’s most influential and informative historical documents – certainly its most illuminating medieval records. Without the Domesday Book, we would have known very little of the medieval landscape, the country’s economy, landscape and demographic, as well as the aristocratic and ecclesiastical order. The scope of the survey was unparalleled by any other country during the era. Even in England, it took until the 19th century before an even larger population census took place.
But how was the information painstakingly collected and written in the Domesday Book in the first place?
After William the Conqueror and his royal court (the Curia Regis, a thrice annual court, which has evolved today to become the Privy Council of the United Kingdom) arrived at the decision to implement the great survey in Gloucester during the days leading up to Christmas of 1085, officials were sent to every corner of the realm to begin the survey to determine the size of landholdings, the number of livestock, farm production, and the projected cumulative revenue of every hundred (a formal division of a shire).
Geographic divisions were established manage the survey, in the form of seven (at least) circuits containing minimally five shires each. The officials were also required to record the land ownership under control of archbishops, bishops and abbots, as well as individual land owners. This was meant to determine all taxable assets and all land taxes, called geld, due to the King.The officials would be empowered with the King's decree for legal authorisation, and protection would be provided by local shire-reeves (or sheriffs) and local knights.
There was very little subterfuge by property owners, since 95% consisted of Normans who saw first-hand how the properties were stripped off from local English aristocrats. Any attempt at deceit would have seen them suffer the same fate. When a second confirmation is required, primary landholders were called before survey commissionersat shire courts where they are required to make a detailed presentation of their holdings.
Considering the logistical limitations faced by the surveyors (they were travelling on horses and carriages on terrible roads), it was remarkable that the Domesday Book was actually completed by less than a year after the monumental project began.Alas, King William I never saw the completed manuscript as His Majesty died from head and back injuries after falling from his horse in 1087 while riding in France during the Siege of Mantes. The Domesday Book was officially published from the transcription base at the Old Sarum in Wiltshire the following year under the reign of his son, William II.
King William II wasn’t as motivated as his late father to complete the great survey, and to the surprise of no one, little follow up was made upon the completion of the Little Domesday Book. As such, there were several notable omissions from the book, particularly several major cities including Winchester (the seat of the Treasury at the time), London and Bristol. Several counties, such as Tamworth, Northumberland, Durham and a number of other counties in the northwest, were also conspicuous absentees. In recent years, historians have also discovered several other omissions involving settlements which have now disappeared (well, absorbed by neighbouring cities or counties).