In 1086, William the Conqueror launched his plan to survey and analyze the lands he controlled in England. It was a project which would lead to the famous Domesday Book. To accomplish this mission, he sent agents throughout the regions of England, each tasked with making detailed notes on the wealth and possessions of nobles, clergymen, landlords and any other class of people that provided knights to the king or paid taxes to the state. William the Conqueror’s detailed survey was completed at a remarkably fast pace, and the king was able to read the reports before his death in 1087. The scope, speed and accuracy of the survey continues to impress scholars to this day, and they often deem it to be one of the greatest feats of statistics gathering done by a medieval government. Yet, while modern viewers give the Domesday Book glowing reviews, William the Conqueror’s survey project was received with much less warmth by his contemporaries. In fact, it is believed that the “Domesday” title given to the project after its completion was a reference to “Doomsday.” As far as the late 11th-century English landowners and taxpayers were concerned, an administrative Day of Judgment had arrived.
Contemporaneous English accounts that commented on William’s survey included the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (actively maintained c. 9th-12th centuries) and The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester (Florence died c. 1118). The former source wrote the longest entry about the survey, making note of the diligence of the king’s agents and also mentioned that the project was seen as embarrassing or shameful by some. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated:
“Then he sent his men over all England, into every shire, and caused to be ascertained how many hundred hides were in the shire, or what land the king himself had, and cattle within the land, or dues he ought to have, in twelve months, from the shire. Also he caused to be written how much land his archbishops had, and his suffragan bishops, and his abbots, and his earls; and—though I may narrate somewhat prolixly—what or how much each man had who was a holder of land in England, in land, or in cattle, and how much money it might be worth. So very narrowly he caused it to be traced out, that there was not one single hide, nor one yard of land, nor even—it is a shame to tell, though it seemed to him no shame to do—an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine, was left, that was not set down in his writ” (entry for 1085).
Florence of Worcester’s description of the Domesday Book survey was shorter than the one just quoted, but his commentary elaborated on the psychological impact that the project had on the English people at that time. His chronicle stated, “King William caused a record to be made through all England of how much land each of his barons held, the number of knight-fees, of ploughs, of villains, and beasts; and also of all the ready money every man possessed throughout his kingdom, from the greatest to the least, and how much rent each estate was able to pay; and the land was sorely harassed by the distress which ensued from it” (Chronicle of Florence of Worcester, AD 1086).
A later 12th-century monk-historian, Orderic Vitalis (flourished 1109-1141), commented on the Domesday Book in a more neutral tone. Born from an English mother and a Norman father, he could sympathize and criticize both sides. He showed little criticism, however, for the Domesday survey of William the Conqueror. Instead, he made note of the military benefit that the survey provided to the king. Orderic Vitalis wrote, “King William also caused a careful survey to be taken of the whole kingdom, and an accurate record to be made of all the revenues as they stood in the time of King Edward. The land was distributed into knights’ fees with such order that the realm of England should always possess a force of sixty thousand men, ready at any moment to obey the king’s commands, as his occasions required” (Ecclesiastical History, IV.VII).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration depicting the writing of the Domesday Book, by Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons.).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published in 1854.
- Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Orderic Vitalis, translated by Thomas Forester. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854.