Seminary XXXIX: how many times did William the Conqueror survey England?

Seminars at the Institute of Historical Research have resumed as heralded here earlier, and the Earlier Middle Ages one started a week late on Wednesday 21 January for reasons I haven’t gleaned, with Sally Harvey speaking to the title, “Domesday Book: an inquest of sheriffs?”

Great Domesday, at the National Archives

Great Domesday, at the National Archives

There is such a wealth and weight of scholarship on Domesday Book that several of the audience confessed themselves unable to keep up with it, in fact John Gillingham said that one of the luxuries he’d permitted himself on retirement was to stop trying. That said, we still don’t fully understand what the thing was actually for, and whether it could have fulfilled that purpose or not. Its partial coverage (however massive the successful coverage was), its inconsistent recording standards and its wealth of information seem to fit no single purpose, and any combination of purposes badly. There is more information there than one would want for a tax register, or a land register, or a simple inventory of England even, and yet many dues not recorded, much land omitted, and so on. At the moment, therefore, I think the consensus is that it didn’t really work, so intuiting its purpose from the actual result is probably impossible. Work is however getting somewhere by working on the process of its manufacture and compilation, and this is where Professor Harvey came in.

I don’t want to try and explain the whole process of compilation, because I’m not up with that research either and anything I say will probably be outdated and wrong (David Roffe’s pages linked in the sidebar will give you a far better grounding than I can). So I will give you first the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle version of events, and then explain how Professor Harvey was differing from it and what it might imply if she be right. The Chronicle, first. Only the E manuscript, also known as the Peterborough Chronicle, covers this (the only other late-runner, D, coughing out in 1079 except for one misplaced entry), and it says:

… the king had great thought and very deep conversation with his council about this land, how it was occupied, or with which men. Then he sent his men all over England into every shire and had them ascertain how many hundreds of hides there were in the shire, or what land and livestock the king himself had in the land, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. Also he had it recorded how much land his archbishops had, and the diocesan bishops, and his abbots and earls, and – though I tell it at too great length – what or how much each man had who was occupying land here n England, in land or in livestock, and how much money it was worth. He had it investigated so narrowly that there was not one single hide, not one yard of land, not even (it is shameful to tell – but it seemed no shame to him to do it) one ox, not one cow, not one pig was left out, that was not set down to the record, And all the records were brought to him afterwards.

The Chronicler pretty clearly remembered the commissioners’ visit, or knew someone who did, and from that we can tell that they felt that Peterborough abbey (or Medeshamstede, as it then was) had been pretty thoroughly hung out to dry, and they seem to have heard similar complaints from elsewhere. But that only tells what they knew, of course, and we know that in fact large areas were not covered, most obviously London (which would have been impossible, given how much of it must have been small plots belonging to someone whose principal holdings were in other places). Professor Harvey was emphasising, albeit with considerable pauses to check her place in her notes and so on that made this paper something of an endurance test for the audience, that the towns generally were quite poorly covered, however, and that quite a lot of their returns are less inventories than records of exemptions that would be covered elsewhere because of belonging to various important tenants-in-chief. In these exemptions, she argued, it becomes clear that the sheriffs were reporting to the king or to the commissioners. Once, once only, a sheriff’s report is copied up in such a way that his first-person record is preserved, but Professor Harvey thought that mostly such things were beyond recovery (I did ask, because that sounded marvellous). She also found many lesser cases where sheriffs clearly had difficulties accounting for the dues that had once been paid and now weren’t, and generally reading these records closely reveals land-grabbing and corruption on a huge scale, although as many people pointed out, it had after all been a Conquest…

Anyway, the sheriffs seem to have been deeply involved in the recording, and Professor Harvey suggested (to general agreement) that in fact a preliminary return was probably made by the sheriffs, at least for the royal lands—who else could do it, after all?—and maybe for others too, and then checked by the commissioners, all of whom were operating outside their home areas like early Carolingian missi (if Wendy Hoofnagle is reading, her ears may now be pricking up…).

Everyone's favourite corrupt Anglo-Norman sheriff

Everyone's favourite corrupt Anglo-Norman sheriff

Why do we think they were checked? Because Dr Harvey also however found protests against sheriffs, complaints and stories of abuse and theft, that were allowed to remain in the finished Domesday, or we wouldn’t know. And of course we know that commissioners were appointed and sent out, and we can identify some of them, even if the Peterborough experience may not have been typical. And sometimes the sheriffs were able to put their side, and sometimes their victims got to put theirs, and whether anything was done about it is hard to say: there is some evidence of sheriffs being removed or pursued for compensation for misdeeds before Domesday, but after it gets very confused because of William I’s death and an almost immediate coup against William II that confuses motives for removal from office. All the same, what I can’t help but call ‘tormented voices‘ singing out through Domesday Book really struck me as an idea.

One thing that came out in questions was that coup, in fact. The resentment that Peterborough felt about the survey is pretty clear. Also pretty clear is that most of England was covered by it in varying degrees, with people apparently being encouraged to check on each other, rat on their officials, and generally mess things up for sheriffs all of whom would presumably have had their friends among the big aristocracy, who would be watching their own backs even as William made them check on other peoples’ favoured sheriffs… It was observed that the 1088 coup is very hard to get hold of because there seem to be so many sides; perhaps it was less Rufus and more Domesday that set them all against the power and each other. How close did William the Conqueror get to destroying the kingdom of England with a survey, at that rate? Worth pondering…

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is quoted here from Michael Swanton’s translation, M. Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996, repr. 1997), s. a. 1085 E.

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8 responses to “Seminary XXXIX: how many times did William the Conqueror survey England?

  1. The seminar also got another classic Susan Reynolds comment (I try and jot the best ones down), on how she imagines the chief scribe for Domesday Book sitting there on a Friday afternoon, saying ‘O God, London, I’ll start that on Monday’, and never being able to face doing it.

    But January’s strangest fact on Domesday Book (as heard from a talk by George Garnett, which I will write up some time), is that in the C17 the only copy (since it had not been printed) was still in the Tower of London, and scholarship on it was hampered by the fact that a substantial charge was made by the keeper of the tower to consult it.

    • I missed the Garnett talk, assuming that it was the one at Patrick’s literary wake, as I can’t help thinking of it. If you do get round to writing that up I will be happy to be able to read it. I’d forgotten Susan’s comment but you’re right, it deserves record…

  2. Pingback: Teaching Domesday Book « On boundaries

  3. hey im doing an project about this survey ! What questions did he write on the survey?

    • I suggest consulting the reading list your professor provided and then reading something from it! Or, try clicking some of the links in the post. And then you may be able to do your own homework! This will prove an important skill in later life!

  4. do you realy think this is all real

  5. im doing an assigment on the domesday book but im having trouble cause i cant find any inforation


    • There are these things called links, of which you’ll find a few in this post already. They can often lead to information. Try these for starters:

      That’s quite a lot of information, and the last one about as up-to-date as it gets. If you don’t mind actually reading something these will help you. If what you were hoping for was your essay already written, however, alas that service I do not provide.

      As to the previous question, no, I don’t think it’s all real. Part of the problem with Domesday is working out how much of the scholarship has read things into the book that aren’t there. Do I however think what it records was real at the time? Yeah, pretty much. There’s some very odd things in there for it not to be.

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