Domesday Book – To bring the Barons in line?

Domesday Book

Earlier this week we wrote a blog highlighting some of the issues historians have in interpreting the Domesday Books.  One of the reasons not mentioned in that article is a means of maximising taxation from the barons and just as important limiting the wealth and power of the barons.

In the Domesday Books there are huge inconsistencies between what is recorded and how accurately it was recorded.  The one piece of information that is believed to be accurate is the tenants-in-chief for each of the places listed.  These were the barons upon which William was reliant for both the defence of the country and for revenue (taxation).  Although recorded, the demesne lands of the barons were not attributable for taxation.  The old saying of, “an Englishman’s home is his castle” is never more true.  The barons were not taxed on their homes but the lands held by their tenants and from the freemen of England.  This may seem very generous of King William however it was not.  In exchange for non-taxation on the demesne lands each baron had to fight on behalf of the Crown.  This was known as Knight’s service and was not the same for each demesne.  Small holdings would be measured in parts of a knight’s fee. Whereas it was possible for an assessment to be for several and in some cases tens of knight’s fee for large baronies.

By undertaking the inquests required to compile the Domesday Books William could see what surpluses the barons were generating from their demesnes but also identify where the taxation was not in line with the revenue generated from the tenanted land.  An interesting fact to impart at this juncture is that around the coast of England most of the land remained tax free as William did not wish it to be cultivated so that if the country was invaded there would be no resources available to the invaders to support their forces.

It is also believed that a complete opposite reason to that stated above.  It may be that the Domesday inquests and the Books were undertaken and written so that the barons could limit how much they had to pay the Crown.  There are records to show strong support by the barons for the Domesday work which would be at odds with our initial theory here.

Whatever the reason for the Domesday Books it does provide us with our best view of the management structure of 11th century England and for that we must be grateful.