‘All men at Doomsday shall arise with the same bodies in which each one lived here before in life, and then each man shall be doomed according to his deserts, either to misery in the torments of Hell, or to joy in the Kingdom of Heaven’
(Aelfric’s ‘Lives of the saints’, no 23, late tenth century)
THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT
Across the Christian world, people feared that the approach of the year 1000 might bring the ending of the world, and God’s Judgement of all men, living and dead. Even after it came and went, there was always the chance that the priests had merely got their calculations wrong, and the Last Day was just around the corner.
At the Battle of Hastings, in October 1066, the Day of Judgement did arrive for King Harold, his brothers, and the flower of the English aristocracy. In the months following, new Norman lords arrived in every village to take over from their English predecessors. Many people must have felt that the Final Day was drawing ever closer. The new men paid little respect to old laws and customs, and where arguments arose, they could always be settled in the end by force. Nevertheless, bitterness and resentment smouldered up and down the country, and erupted at times into open rebellion.
A GREAT SURVEY
King William was certainly aware that arguments about land ownership and traditional laws and customs needed to be settled once and for all. He wanted to know exactly how much of the land he’d given to his knights, how much belonged to him personally, and how rich his kingdom actually was, so that he could lay down the heaviest possible taxes on his subjects.
At Christmas 1085, nearly twenty years after his crushing victory at Hastings, he ordered that a Great Survey be made across England.
The commissioners had to find out how much land there was, who owned it, what it was worth, who lived on it, whether they were free men or ‘bondsmen’, how many ploughs there were, how many horses, pigs, cattle there were, how much tax was paid traditionally each year, what services were owed. If there was any disagreement, matters had to be settled there and then, and there was no appeal once decisions had been reached.
When William’s men arrived at each county court in turn, to hear what people had to say, to check they were telling the truth, and to make their judgements, it must have seemed more than ever that this was ‘Doomsday’, or ‘Judgement Day’.
How it was done
There were seven groups of Commissioners, each of which had to report back to the king the findings for several counties. Each group consisted of three or four noblemen, together with a handful of monks and scribes. To make sure that secret deals weren’t being done behind his back, William made sure that the details of each group were checked by a different group a few weeks later.
The scribes scribbled everything down in Latin, and their notes were then collected together and written up into larger books (The so-called ‘Little Domesday’ and the ‘Exeter Domesday’ may be examples). The final version was edited together, possibly by a single man, Samson of Winchester.
It was a huge task, but so efficiently was it carried out, that the Great Survey took little more than a year to complete. William himself never lived to see the final version – he died in 1087 – but he would have been pleased to find that he and his family personally owned about 17% of all the land in England. Churchmen owned about 26% and William’s ‘tenants-in-chief’ owned the rest. Most of them, unsurprisingly, have Norman names, but a handful of Englishmen seem to have held on to their possessions after 1066. There are also a few women landowners, but not many.
For many towns and villages across England, Domesday is the first written record of their existence. It’s also possible to make a very rough estimate the population in 1086 from the information in Domesday, although some areas weren’t covered. Figures vary between one and a half to more than three million.
Domesday was first translated into modern English and published in the 1970’s. Computerisation of the records has enabled the vast amount of information in it to be analysed in many different ways, giving us all sorts of insights into what England was like in the eleventh century. Much of the information is available online, including scanned images of the original pages.
Until the early nineteenth century, when the first National Census was taken in 1841, Domesday remained the most complete survey of the country ever completed. In its time, it was the cause of fear, wonder and no doubt bitter argument, but today it is a priceless window into the last days of Anglo- Saxon England.