Domesday Boroughs – a Red Herring?

Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 8 March, 2004


Thank you for inviting me to give a paper at the Cambridge Antiquarian Society. It is a delight to be here in Cambridge again: I’m glad to see that the Gardenia is still with us, if only just. However, I must confess that I stand here - in the Faculty of Divinity - with not a little trepidation. Some hundred years ago another historian addressed the Society on the subject of Domesday Boroughs, and that was one of the greatest – no, the greatest – medievalist of all time, F. W. Maitland. I cannot help feeling that he is looking over my shoulder. If so, I hope that he likes what he is about to hear.

            In the nineteenth century a legalistic approach was taken to boroughs and their origins. It was an age of municipal reform that sought to rationalize the anomalies of the past. It was also an age of burgeoning civic pride. The two trends were a heady mixture, and it is not surprising that contemporary historians of towns saw the distinctiveness of boroughs in charters and organized urban communities. Maitland was not immune to this zeitgeist, but his analysis of the origins of towns was more nuanced than most. He recognized the continuities between the town and countryside, but plumped for tenurial heterogeneity as the key factor in the identity of boroughs. As settlements they were set apart from the countryside by a multiplicity of lords that ensured that, apart from the king, no one individual dominated. This especial circumstance was occasioned, Maitland argued, by the garrisoning of boroughs in the late ninth and early tenth centuries to counter Danish raids and then colonization. The duty of defence was vested in the lords of the surrounding countryside and each kept a house in town to facilitate the discharge of his duty.

            This, the garrison theory as it is now known, was quickly demolished. Tait pointed out in his review of Maitland’s Domesday Book and Beyond that cities and boroughs had long been central places in the ninth century in which lords had maintained residences as much for access to markets and courts as for defence. Nowadays we recognize no one mechanism for borough formation. Archaeological excavation has uncovered all sorts of origins. Towns might be founded for military purposes, but they were as likely to owe their existence to cult centres, markets, crossroads, river crossings, courts, or any number of other contingent factors. Whatever, by the late Saxon period it is clear that there was a vibrant urban economy. Major towns like London, Winchester, Norwich, Lincoln, and York were international trade centres. At a lower level there was a network of national and local markets.

In 1086 there were about 100 or so settlements that we would call towns. ‘Towns’ is the operative word here, for urban historians like Susan Reynolds have rejected the legal connotations of ‘borough’ in describing eleventh-century urban settlements. There remains the certainty, however, that these towns had a distinct identity as communities that distinguished their representation in Domesday Book. We shall start by looking at what is considered a ‘typical’ Domesday borough.

            Stamford in Lincolnshire exemplifies the type. Domesday Book is above all a survey of lordship. County by county it is arranged by chapters relating to the lands of each tenant-in-chief. So, where a settlement was divided between a number of lords, it is necessary to look in the chapter of each to reconstruct a full account. Domesday Book is arranged by estates rather than settlements. This is the norm, but the account of Stamford has no truck with it. It is entered, in Maitland’s words ‘above the line’ at the beginning of the account of Lincolnshire and it is entered in its entirety in considerable detail. The interests of no less than eleven lords are described and there are numerous references to identifiable topographical features. There is mention of the bridge, market, and castle, and four churches are either named or can be identified from later documentation. We are left with a fairly comprehensive idea of the shape of the town in 1086.

But there is more: the account even affords some idea of the status of the town and its administration. Stamford was assessed at 12½ hundreds, indicating that, in a Lincolnshire context, it had a court which was somewhere between a riding and a hundred in status. Moreover, it is recorded that the town was divided into six wards which presumably coordinated the maintenance of law and order. Finally, we learn that there were twelve lawmen who, judging from later evidence, formed some sort of jury of doomsmen representing the king’s interests.

            Not all the accounts of boroughs are as complete as Stamford’s, but it is now a truism to maintain that they are all entered as settlements like this because they did not fit into the Domesday scheme of things. Boroughs were communities with separate identities and by necessity were therefore treated differently. This is a notion with which I wish to take issue today. I shall argue that community depends on perspective, and for the townspeople and the Domesday commissioners the Domesday borough was anything but.

The modern consensus is, I think, fostered by a very mechanistic understanding of the Domesday process. From the days of Round and Maitland the aim of the whole enterprise has been seen as the production of Domesday Book, a feudal survey of land. The process has been understood as follows. It started with existing administrative documents and possibly a survey of the king’s lands. These records were then brought together in the open sessions of the Domesday inquest in regional centres where lords provide an account of their lands. Drafts, already in the form of Domesday Book, were then produced and returned to central government where Domesday Book was finally abbreviated from them.


We are left with a very tight taxonomy of the thirty-seven or so documents that have survived from the process. All, save Great Domesday Book, are classified as ‘satellites’, that is they were subordinate to the central purpose of producing Domesday Book. Howard Clarke has eloquently fitted them together in a teleological sequence in which one leads onto another with an inexorable logic. It is an altogether either/or approach. Boroughs are not feudally arranged and therefore they must represent communities.

In Domesday: the Inquest and the Book I raised objections to this baroque structure. In reality there is nothing in all of Domesday corpus of documents that necessarily indicates that they were subordinate. They could have as easily been collected, and returned to Winchester or wherever, for the information that they contained. This is indeed the import of the literary evidence. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle account of the genesis of the inquest explicitly distinguishing between a survey of the king’s assets and a geld survey, on the one hand, and an account of the lands of the tenants-in-chief, on the other.

The king had much  thought and deep discussion with his council at Gloucester about England how it was occupied or with what sort of people. Then he sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire, or what land and cattle the king himself had in the  country, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. ALSO he had a record made of how much land his archbishops had, and his bishops and his abbots and his earls - and though I relate it at too greater a length - what or how much everyone had who was occupying land in England, in land or cattle, and how much money it was worth. So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate but it seemed no shame for him to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards [Capitalization mine].

A letter by Bishop Robert of Hereford confirms that the Domesday inquest was a two- stage process, indicating that one was conducted in the shire and hinting that the other was in regional assemblies.

            We know from later medieval sources, such as the surveys from Abingdon and Crowland, that different types of source from the process were kept in the Treasury and I have argued that they all represent different aims of a Domesday process. I have reconstructed it as follows. First, there was a survey of the terra regis which was coupled with a geld survey. In 1085 England was under threat of invasion from Denmark and William had brought a vast force of mercenaries into the country to defend it; he urgently needed an audit of his resources in order to raise cash to cover his outgoings. Both initiatives produced records that were returned to central government. Then came the survey of the lands of the king’s men which I have related to a removal of tax emption and a reassessment of service. Again, records were returned to central government, probably at Salisbury in August 1086. Finally, Domesday Book was subsequently compiled from the amassed records.



            Conceptually, there is good reason for believing that the production of Domesday Book was later and a separate enterprise. There is also textual justification – I date Great Domesday Book to c.1090. But that is irrelevant to our purpose today. The point I want to make is that this understanding of the Domesday process provides a completely different perspective on the Domesday boroughs. Once delivered from the tyranny of either/or, we can see that the orthodoxy is just plain wrong.

At the outset it is clear that the unity of the composite accounts of the Domesday boroughs is less real than it appears. Derby is a prime example. The account starts with the lands of the king and the value of the borough is appended to it. Then there is a one-line space – filled in with a postscriptal account of the manor of Litchurch - and the lands of the tenants-in-chief follow. Here a series of paragraphoi, gallows marks, is used to indicate that this material is exceptional or at least different. Finally, we have an account of various customs and the like. This form is typical of the composite borough entry. We are left with an impression of various sources.

            That this is true is apparent when we look at the account of boroughs as a whole. In reality the composite account is the exception. Out of a total of 61 boroughs only 13 (coloured gold) are entered above the line in their entirety. In the rest, 48, there will usually (although not always) be found an account of the dues that belong to the king at the head of the county. Lands of tenants-in-chief are also recorded there, but more usually they are found in the chapter of the relevant lord. It begins to look as if the information for the borough was collected from at least two sources.



            This is hardly surprising considering that the interests of the king in the borough were different from those of the tenant-in-chief. Herrings were rendered by burgesses at, among other places, Sandwich. Anyone who has strayed in from the Cambridge Angling Society will be relieved to see that we have finally got down to the fish. The king’s tenants owed what were called customs which ranged from food renders of this kind through to sake and soke. They were in fact little different from the king’s sokemen or free men in the countryside. Indeed, in Stamford 77 townsmen are explicitly called sokemen. Burgesses widely shared the same customs of socage tenure like ultimogeniture, Borough English, in the later Middle Ages.

The king’s hall was often in the borough, as at Hereford and Maldon, but not invariably so: in Gloucester it was situated outside the city at Kingsholme. The borough was more regularly an element in a wider complex of royal estates. We have already seen in passing that Derby was associated with the manor of Litchurch. Likewise, York was associated with the Ainsty, Hereford with Marden, Cambridge with Chesterton, and so on. Renders in kind like iron and honey, usually associated with rural estates, at Gloucester, Oxford, Leicester, Colchester, and the like underline that the borough was akin to any other royal estate.

These, the customary tenants, were responsible for the farm of the borough and constituted the borough proper. The remaining properties were non-customary, that is their dues were paid elsewhere. The largest was that of the earl, usually in the hands of the king in 1086. At Exeter his hall, Irlesbiri¸ was situated within the city, but more usually it was adjacent to the borough. We know most about the earl’s estate in Nottingham. There the king’s hall was within the English Borough. The earl’s estate, by contrast, was extramural. His hall was situated on St James Street within what was to become the French Borough. Likewise, at Warwick the hall was at the adjacent Coten, at York outside Bootham Bar.



            Other non-customary tenements were what we can call anachronistically ‘urban liberties’ or manors. One in Winchester held by the abbey of Whewell consisted of a church and some properties. It is well documented and is a rare example of where we can put a boundary to a Domesday tenement. Others were held by important townspeople like the lawmen of Stamford, Lincoln, and Cambridge, and the better men of Shrewsbury. Yet others might belong to moneyers or even the holders of mills.

Most non-customary properties, however, belonged to rural manors. Here I have mapped those in Leicestershire with properties in the city. Historiographically, these are known as ‘contributory manors’. The reality is the other way round. In Warwick, Chester, and elsewhere they are explicitly said to be valued in the manors. Into the thirteenth century they were considered to be integral parts of the country estates.

The twofold division of the borough fits neatly into the procedure of the Domesday inquiry I have outlined. The king’s customs were surveyed in the first stage of the inquest like any other royal estate. The other interests had to wait for the second stage devoted to non-royal lands. Thus, in all the sources that precede Domesday  Book - Exon, Domesday Monachorum, Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis, and Inquisitio Eliensis - the lands of the king and others are enrolled in the appropriate tenurial context, not as a whole. The two elements of the Domesday borough do not come together until Domesday Book was compiled. The first composite account appears in the Norfolk folios of LDB and thereafter the idea was enthusiastically taken up by the scribe of GDB.



            To understand why, we must look at the context in which the scribes enrolled the information. The boroughs are not the only category of information to be enrolled above the line. In Cheshire we have the customs of the City. Well, they could easily be considered as ‘borough’ matters. But what about Kent where the lands of St Martin of Dover are entered with Dover and Canterbury? And then we have Welsh lands in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Above all, we have various summary accounts of the income of the king from the shire as a whole in a dozen or so counties. Here, I believe, is the nub. Worcestershire illustrates the point. First the borough is described and then comes a statement of the value of the city, the demesne manors in the shire, the  shire farm and pleas. There follow comments on the yield of hundreds, the king’s peace, and finally a statement of military customs. What is common to all of these is that the sheriff was directly responsible for the issues of each. It would seem that The borough in Domesday Book is accorded special treatment only in so far as it was an item, one among many, in a financial account.

            To summarise, historians have been right to reject nineteenth-century legal notions of the borough, But in replacing it with the vaguer notion of town and community they have fostered an equally anachronistic construct onto the eleventh century. Urban communities there were but they were many and the Domesday commissioners adopted one or another depending on the information they were eliciting. Some townsmen belonged to the king, others to the earl. Still others were appurtenant to rural estates. No one organization embraced them all. We must think instead of ‘communities of the borough’ and they slotted imperceptively into other non-burghal communities. ‘The Domesday Borough’ is indeed a red herring.


©David Roffe, March 2004