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What was the Domesday Book for?

Domesday Book

Domesday Book

Its purpose may never be known. However over the years our reasoning has changed its purpose several times. 

This confusion is not a new thing as it is believed that as early as the mid 12th century, only 70 years after it was commissioned, confusion had already started.  Records then imply that the Domesday Books (little and larger) were commissioned by William the Conqueror as a record for taxation.  In fact in approximately 1179 Richard FitzNigel wrote describing the Domesday Book as a record, “to bring the conquered people under the rule of written law”.  Since these first assumptions others such as; a tax list, a tax return, a tax reassessment, a register of title, a blueprint for the new feudal society of Norman England, an affirmation of the Norman settlement and several other reasons have been suggested. Whilst many of these might sound the same they are not. Maybe all or some were reasons.  The truth is we may never know.

This is a strong statement to be made about a record that was undertaken in just two iterations.  To clarify it is believed that the work was not of just one man over the years of his life but of at least six men and possibly stretching over as many as a hundred years.  It would seem impossible for a record to continue in a same purpose for that length of time without its original direction being lost.  It has also been noticed that not only were there many scribes but also over the years even the same scribe changed what they recorded and how they recorded it.

To further add confusion what is recorded for different counties differs.  Each county was instructed to hold an inquest into property holdings, however a clear view of what was required seems to have never been made.  So one county will show reasonable records of the number of people living in areas, whereas others did not.  The names stated add another layer of confusion as in the 19th Century it was believed that the places listed were villages whereas common belief now is that they were for lordships of manors.

The purpose of this blog is to highlight that even with what we believe to be our most accurate record from the 11th century there is still enormous confusion.  If a Crown record of this standing and longevity cannot be taken as completely accurate how can we use historic records to determine the ownership of lordships today?  The answer is, “we cannot”.  The law has created a vacuum for manorial lordships in that proof of ownership relies on a complete, correctly executed and concurrent set of deeds from hundreds of years ago to today.  But even if some exist their accuracy could probably be brought into question.  This provides us with an even greater confidence that by using what records we do have, or do not have, we can allow these rights to continue to be held in legal accord.  This may not assist with normal convention but then these rights never will unless fresh government policy is created.  Whilst enthusiasts like ourselves put great store in the value of these old rights in the scheme of modern law they will probably never have sufficient priority to warrant legislation.  Of course the other issue would have to be, what could be legislated?