Domesday: the Inquest and the Book
the text of a lecture delivered at the Public Record Office, Kew, on 26 February, 2000

Introduction | Inquest | Consequences | Salisbury | DB | Dating


Last year the Guardian ran a lovely story about the horn dance of Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. On the Monday following the first Sunday after 4 September six villagers don antlers and dance through the streets of the village in what they describe as an ancient fertility rite. By all accounts it is very picturesque, quintessential timeless England. Academics, spoilsports as they are, have tended to take a more jaundiced view, dismissing the dance as a Victorian invention. However, one in their eye, the antlers have recently been carbon-dated to 1065, give or take eighty years. The Guardian report concludes that nothing is certain, but 'The Abbots Bromley lads could...have baffled the Normans when they came round with the Domesday Book'.

Trust the Guardian to be spot on. Well, today I bring my own book along. You may be sad to hear that I express no views in it on the antiquity of Morris dancing at Abbots Bromley or indeed elsewhere. But I do express a slightly different understanding of the Domesday process. I shall come clean at once. I propose that the Domesday inquest and the production of Domesday Book were two different and distinct activities. The one, the inquest commissioned by William the Conqueror, was a response to the threat of invasion from Denmark in 1085 and tackled the shortcomings in taxation and defence that the crisis had brought to light. In short, it saw the extension of the geld to formerly exempt demesne and a renegotiation of knight service. The compilation of Domesday Book, by contrast, both Great and Little, was undertaken some four or five years later in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1088 against William Rufus. It followed widespread tenurial chaos throughout the country and, as a record of the status quo ante, it was conceived of as an administrative aid that informed the settlement.

I can see that you think Roffe has lost it, he's off his trolley. In Domesday studies there are, after all, certainties. Documents mean what they say and say what they mean. We know, don't we, that the inquest cannot have been primarily about taxation since geld was collected hundred by hundred and yet most of the Domesday records are seigneurially arranged. Nor can knight service have been at issue, for there is no mention of it in the Domesday corpus. From beginning to end the Domesday process was about the lands of tenants-in-chief. For some, it is true, the proceedings of the inquest may have loomed larger than the record that came out of it. But, nevertheless, it seems clear that the production of Domesday Book was the aim of the enterprise. This, indeed, is how one near contemporary saw it. Writing within two generations of the event itself, an anonymous Worcester chronicler carefully paraphrased the ASC account of the genesis of the Domesday inquest, but added his own gloss. Where his source finished with the statement that all the records were brought to King William, he further asserted:-

And the king ordered that all should be written in one volume (volumen), and that that volume should be placed in his Treasury at Winchester and kept there.

If any doubt remain that this understanding represents the reality of 1086, IE dispels it. This twelfth century collection of Domesday documents preserves a record of what is seemingly the questions asked by the Domesday commissioners and it can be seen that they inform every page of Domesday Book. In the words of V. H. Galbraith, Domesday Book embodies the whole business of the Domesday inquest.

This, the notion of a single integrated process, looks well-founded and it is a perception that has coloured almost all work on 'the Making of Domesday Book'. Documents have been analysed and categorized in terms of their relationship to the perceived end of the process, and so it is that much Domesday research has been concerned with the taxonomy of 'satellites', returns', and the like. The result has been satisfying, if only in the sense that it seems to order difficult and otherwise intractable material. Howard Clarke's analysis in these terms has been the most influential. His summary table, published in Domesday: a Reassessment, has been a boon for a generation of students attempting to get a handle on Domesday. And indeed it is a fine synthesis. However, like all similar taxonomies, it has forced us as historians to make stark choices. No one, for example, can deny that Exon, a seigneurially arranged Domesday-like account of the south western shires, and ICC, a geographically arranged account of Cambridgeshire, are both part of the Domesday process. But how do you fit them into a single schema?

The strategies for dealing with contradictions of this kind have been various. The deus ex machina of pre-existing documentation has been adduced by Sally Harvey to explain some divergent forms. More commonly, the procedure of the inquest has been elaborated to take account of differences. Professor Sawyer, for example, has hypothesized seigneurial arrangement within hundred rolls to explain characteristics of the Norfolk text and Evesham A, and I myself have invented more stages than I care to think about. More radically, evidence that does not fit has been excluded. We know that a geld inquest was underway in 1086, and its results seem to permeate the Domesday corpus. Summary geld accounts are found in Exon and there is a directly comparable document in GDB in the description of Lincoln; there are numerous references to non-payment and exemption; and in many counties the account of land is organized in terms of units of taxation like the vill and twelve-carucate hundred. Even more explicit is LDB. There we have a record of how much each vill owed in geld for every pound assessed on the hundred. This has been interpreted as a unique system of geld assessment in East Anglia. With evidence of comparable method of payment in the North, we can understand the formula for what it is: a record of geld payment. Surely here we see something of what the AS chronicler was on about in his account of the Domesday inquest when he reported that the king wanted to know 'how many hundred hides there were in the shire' and 'what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire'. And yet the geld inquest has been seen as an entirely separate enterprise.

The inquest

We have treated Domesday like a stick of seaside rock: we have expected, demanded indeed, that it carry the same message from beginning to end. Now, I could say that there is little intrinsic evidence for such an expectation. It is true that we can relate the major texts to each other in some sort of sequence, but there is nothing beyond faith to order most of the documents in the Domesday corpus. That, however, begs the question. In the absence of an explicit statement of intent, it is difficult to see what would constitute proof either way. So I shall start on a different tack, and that is the business of the inquest. What can be said with some certainty is that, in the context of medieval inquests in general, Domesday would be highly unusual if the production of the abbreviation that is GDB were its aim. The engrossing of records for references purposes was, of course, a commonplace of medieval administration. We owe the survival of many of our sources to the process. With the passage of time these digests assumed considerable authority in their own right, but this obscures their initial status. At the time when the concerns of the inquest were still live issues, they were, as far as I can see, secondary and subordinate to sealed verdicts. Thus, in the C13 we find annotations in digests which exhort the reader to 'consult the roll' and verdicts themselves show signs of continual and extensive use. We can begin to see here something at the very heart of the inquest and the verdict that informed it.

In recent years there has been much discussion about the role of jurors. Chris Lewis and Robin Fleming in particular have been at pains to show that in a Domesday context 'those who swear' did not produce disinterested statements of fact. Nevertheless, there has remained the assumption that as the embodiment of the free community of the shire, they were still involved in a process of determination of right. Their verdicts were in some way intended to be effective. That this is true of some verdicts in GDB is likely. The proceedings recorded in the clamores sections are ostensibly concordia, that is settlements. It tells us so in the heading of the Lindsey West Riding pleas. But the clamores relate to sessions subsequent to those recorded in the body of the text, and they were of a different order. Patrick Wormald has demonstrated that plaintiffs regularly failed to make good their title in the open court sessions of the Domesday inquest despite the testimony of all and sundry. Attempts have been made to explain the apparent anomaly in terms of the intricacies of C11 dispute resolution. What has not been pointed out is that it is characteristic of all of the major inquests of the C12 and C13. With the benefit of the survival of an increasing number of original returns from the later Middle Ages, we can see that where verdicts were uncontested they might assume the force of judgement in the course of time. Otherwise they regularly heralded protracted legal action though the normal processes of the law. As far as our evidence goes, this had always been so. I need hardly remind you of the famous case of the sons of Boga of Hemingford who claimed land from Ely Abbey in the late C10. Their plea turned on the timing of Edward the Elder's movements in 917 in his conquest of the Danelaw, and what was effectively a jury of old men was called to declare the facts. Their evidence favoured the abbey's interpretation, but, what is interesting for the present purposes, this verdict did not determine the matter. Ely only subsequently made good its title, after extensive pleadings in the hundred, by enlisting a host of oath helpers. This, of course, was no royal process. Nevertheless, the fact is irrelevant. Verdicts were not recognitions, they were not intended to determine matters. Rather they produced more or less authoritative evidence for further action. In effect they informed an investigative process.


Now, I have laboured this point because it has important ramifications for the way in which we read inquest records. At the beginning I said that records mean what they say and say what they mean. And indeed there are contexts in which this is true. In routine administrative and judicial contexts we might well expect records of any part of the proceedings to give us a fair idea of what was going on. In the eyre, for example, presentments, pleadings, recognitions, and judgement all hint at dispute resolution. But the inquest was not a bureaucratic or executive instrument of this kind. There was no point in an investigation if the facts were already known and a course of action had been decided upon. By its nature the inquest invites negotiation. Indeed, as John Maddicott has eloquently shown, in the later Middle Ages we can detect a regular dialectic of inquest, legislation in Parliament, and enforcement. The immediate implication of this formulation is an unsettling one for the historian. Since verdicts informed but did not determine decisions, they are only contingently related to the purpose of an inquest and its outcome. Ouch! Put more starkly, they do not necessarily tell us what is going on.

I shall illustrate this point by taking one of the more visible concerns of the Domesday inquest, that is the ploughland. The statement 'there is land for so many ploughs' has been one of the most difficult of interpretation. Debate has centred on whether it was a real measure of land or a fiscal unit, but to my mind the dichotomy is an artificial one. I have no time to argue the point here in detail - it is somewhat technical and you can skip it at leisure in my book - but it seems clear from Exon that the ploughland is a measure of the extent of fiscal land. We regularly find there the formula 'there are x hides of land which y ploughs can plough' which is translated into GDB as 'land for y ploughs'. In effect the formula holds up a real or notional ploughland - it matters not which - to the hide of land that pays geld. This tells me that the king was interested, in some degree, in the capacity of the tax system; am I getting as much as is possible?. But it emphatically does not betray an intention to introduce a new assessment. If there is one thing that comes out of the vast literature on hidation, it is that it was never a simple matter of land measurement. The strength of the geld was that it was infinitely flexible and what was assessed and paid was always the subject of negotiation. The record of ploughlands is a measure of how much tax went in the tenant-in-chief's back pocket. That was fact, but what it presaged depended on a subsequent settlement.

From this I must conclude that Domesday Book can no more embody the whole business of the Domesday inquest than any other document drawn up in the Domesday process. In the later Middle Ages we can perceive that it was common for a king to start with the proposition 'I'm broke' and order an inquest. What information he might demand was clearly related to likely sources of cash. But how he went about it almost always involved a number of different avenues of inquiry. Indeed, it is the rule rather than the exception in the C13 for the commission to be expanded a number of times. One thinks here of the numerous inquests into sergeancies and the two inquests of 1275. It seems to me to be more likely than not, then, that William conceived of the geld inquest as part of a larger, manifold enterprise. No one part, however, will tell us exactly what was on his mind.


To know that and what was subsequently decided we have to look not at the documentation of the inquest, but at the consultations that preceded it and the negotiations that ensued. Of the one the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bishop Robert of Hereford, our two near contemporary sources, tell us precious little: they are long on the what and how, but short on the why. Of the rest, we know even less. Professor Sir James Holt is surely right to see the meeting at Salisbury in August 1086 as the occasion on which the important decisions were made. The harsh fact is, however, that beyond the oath of all free men that William demanded, we have neither agenda nor minutes of the proceedings. We lack the key that would tell us beyond all doubt what the Domesday inquest was about.

Nevertheless, there are clues. We can best start with the outcomes. There are preserved in IE, Exon, and GDB some twenty summaries of fees. It can be shown that these summaries issued from some late stage in the Domesday inquest, and what is especially interesting about them is that they accord a special place to the ploughland. Where the hides, ploughs, villagers, and the like of the lord and his men are totalled separately, ploughlands are given as a grand total at the end. They are given, moreover, in a common but otherwise unique formula, 'this land suffices for so many ploughs', which surely hints at a central concern. Where a measure of tax capacity figures so large, can it be coincidental that, as Judith Green has shown, demesne exemption was revoked after Domesday, in the case of the church in 1096, but in lay lands apparently before? Surely here was one result of the negotiations that followed the Domesday inquest.

It was not the only one. The Domesday corpus is not so devoid of interest in service as it appears. The manor acts as a proxy. In GDB, of course, the scribe got the beast round his neck and stopped trying to make any sense of it after the first hundred folios or so. In LDB, however, there are numerous references to land granted for so many manors and land delivered to make up manors. The institution clearly had content in the relations between king and lord when land was granted. Nor was that content of academic interest in 1086. Again, the summaries carefully record how many manors the tenant-in-chief had in each county. Such an interest should occasion no surprise. Fiddling around with demesne probably always had implications for service. Before the Conquest the king's thegn's right to sake and soke, geld in the widest sense, had as its counterpoint a 'nighness' to the king that demanded personal attendance on him. A similar equation is apparent in post-Conquest sources. Geld exemption is explicitly linked with the duty to defend the realm in Henry I's coronation oath and clause two of the 'Laws of King William', which may reflect something of the business of the meeting at Salisbury in 1086, states the duty of all free men to do likewise. Might we not, then, expect some redefinition of knight service at Salisbury? Love him or hate him, this was certainly the understanding of Orderic Vitalis in the early twelfth century in what is the earliest surviving statement of the purpose of the Domesday inquest.

A reform of the tax system. A definition of service. For the background of the Domesday inquest, we are surely drawn to the crisis of 1085. Invasion threatened from Denmark and William brought into England a large body of mercenaries to defend his realm. His need for cash must have been great, but his tenants-in-chief must have had their own concerns, for the troops were billeted on their land. Can we not sense here a feeling that 'Something must be done'? A geld inquest, a measure of tax capacity, a survey of resources begin to fall into a comprehensible scenario.

Domesday Book

What, then, of Domesday Book? It certainly does not embody any settlement in these terms. Nevertheless, was it intended from the start? Here we come up against the so-called articles. The questions of the IE prologue are indeed very close to Domesday Book. By the same token, however, this should have long ago put us on our guard. As it stands the prologue has close affinities with LDB. Notably, it distinguishes free men from soke men and enjoins that statistics should be drawn up for 1066, when the land was acquired, and 1086, al characteristics of the accounts of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex. However, it makes no reference demesne livestock, a preoccupation of all the extensive sources that precede GDB, and in form it is closest to the account of the Northern Danelaw in GDB. Its order of questions is reproduced almost exactly in the standard entry of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire folios. The prologue must be late in the Domesday process. If not a literary deceit of the C12, it seems to me best interpreted as a guide to abbreviation of the records from which GDB was compiled.

We are left with Exon. Here is an early Domesday source that is indubitably seigneurially arranged. It has become the touchstone of all modern accounts of the supposedly integrated Domesday process. Its significance, however, must be radically revised in the light of Caroline and Frank Thorn's detailed examination of the source. They have shown from the changes of scribe, corrections, and differences in format, that Exon was a series of working documents, in effect an office file. If the slightly earlier Bath A, an account of the lands of Bath Abbey, is taken as a seigneurial presentment, we can see that Exon was the first writing down by officials of the evidence that tenants-in-chief presented, a process I have called inbreviation. This explains a lot. What comes from the horse's mouth is neighs and oats. When prompted about land lords talk about their estates. The form of Exon is a function of data collection. It is irrelevant to the nature of the so-called returns and what has been made of the purpose of the Domesday inquest from them.

It remains true, as the Thorns have amply demonstrated, that Exon was the main source of the GDB account of the south western shires. But the procedure there was exceptional. My analysis of forms and content shows that in at least 21 counties, including Norfolk and Suffolk, inbreviation was just the first step in recording the evidence. Thereafter, the presentments of the tenants-in-chief were rearranged and presented vill by vill and hundred by hundred, before the extant texts were compiled from them. There is a marked disjunction between the normal form of the inquest records and Great and Little Domesday Book. I am forced to conclude that they addresses other problems than those of the inquest.


Orderic Vitalis again comes to our support here. For the year 1089 he asserts that Rannulf Flambard 'revised' the description of the whole of England. The meaning of this is not immediately clear and the passage has been dismissed as nonsense, not the least because he also maintains that the all the land was measured with a rope. There may well be crossed wires here, but the idea of a revision, a second bite at the cherry, does chime well with what we can comprehend of the date of Domesday Book. LDB is now usually dated from the colophon to 1086 and is interpreted as the return of the East Anglian circuit of the Domesday inquest. The passage in question, however, written by a scribe who was not otherwise involved in the production of the volume, is far from unambiguous. To my mind, as to Round's, the ista descriptio, 'that survey' which is dated must refer to the inquest rather than LDB itself., and this is a possibility that gains strength from the fact that the volume was compiled from ICC-like sources.

Be that as it may, what cannot be doubted is that LDB was an integral part of the GDB project. Galbraith argued that it became associated with the more accomplished volume for want of anything better: for whatever reason it was never abbreviated. It seems to me this is putting effect before cause. My analysis of the writing of GDB indicates that the scribe started with the folios of Yorkshire and the northern shires of Circuit VI and then continued in an ordered fashion though the East Midlands, the South East, the West Country, and the West Midlands before finishing with Central England. Had he intended including East Anglia he would surely have done so after his account of Huntingdonshire. He did not. The reason is plain, he either had LDB in front of him before he started his work or he knew the volume inside out. Otherwise, how do we explain the formative influences that the manuscript had on his work? The reason he included the dimensions of vills in the Yorkshire folios, but not elsewhere, can only be because they are recorded in LDB. Likewise, clamores make an appearance because they were perceived as analogous to the invasiones of LDB. These, and a small number of resonances in diplomatic and forms, indicate that LDB was a model, probably the model, for GDB. What is now known as volume two of Domesday Book would in origin appear to have been volume one.

I would not say that LDB can therefore be dated by reference to GDB. It was, after all, the work of different scribes. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that its sequel is of a later date than previously thought. Chris Lewis has drawn attention to a passage in the Huntingdonshire folios that refers to William de Warenne as Earl William, and has shown that he was granted the earldom of Surrey by William Rufus sometime between late 1087 and mid 1088. My own work has demonstrated that the scribe was only some 100 folios into his work when he wrote the passage. Orderic's date of 1089 does not look so silly after all. And the context begins to make sense too. The rebellion of the previous year had seen a widespread dislocation of tenurial relationships, and, although Rufus was generous in victory, any settlement had to involve the restitution of land. The compilation of Domesday Book, embracing an account of royal lands as well as tenants-in-chief's, to provide a snapshot of the status quo ante is eminently reasonable at this point.

I rest my case. I'm afraid that the lads of Abbots Bromley will have to do without their Domesday Book. It remains possible that their ancestors bamboozled the Normans. The intuition that the whole business was about relationship and negotiation is, after all, spot on. As for you today, I have given you enough rope to hang me several times over. But before you rush off to look for the nearest convenient beam, I must point out that I have only been able to give some idea of the types of evidence that I have used to reconstruct the hidden Domesday process. For the rest, you will have to read my book. However, what I hope I have done this morning is convince you that it is at least possible that Domesday is much, much greater than sum of its visible parts.

ã David Roffe, 2000.