Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

Domesday: The Inquest and the Book

Domesday: The Inquest and the Book


Domesday Book is the main source for an understanding of late Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest. And yet, despite over two centuries of study, no consensus has emerged as to its purpose. David Roffe proposes a radically new interpretation of England's oldest and most preciouspublic record. He argues that historians have signally failed to produce a satisfactory account of the source because they have conflated two essentially unrelated processes, the production of Domesday Book itself and the Domesday inquest from the records of which it was compiled. New datingevidence is adduced to demonstrate that Domesday Book cannot have been started much before 1088, and old sources are reassessed to suggest that it was compiled by Rannulf Flambard in the aftermath of the revolt against William Rufus in the same year. Domesday Book was a land register drawn up byone of the greatest (and most hated) medieval administrators for administrative purposes. The Domesday inquest, by contrast, was commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 and was an enterprise of a different order. Following the threat of invasion from Denmark in that year it addressed thedeficiencies in the national system of taxation and defence, and its findings formed the basis for a renegotiation of assessment to the geld and knight service. This study provides novel insights into the inquest as a principal vehicle of communication between the crown and the free communitiesover which it exercised sovereignty, and will challenge received notions of kingship in the eleventh century and beyond.


Everyone has heard of Domesday Book. In the English-speaking world of today it may not be so sharply perceived as, say, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, or the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, it exists as a subliminal presence at the beginning of our common history. Mark Twain made good use of this fact, to considerable comic effect, in Huckleberry Finn.

My, you ought to have seen old Henry VIII when he was in bloom. He was a blossom.
He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And
he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. 'Fetch up Nell Gwynn,'
he says. They fetch her up. Next morning 'Chop off her head!' And they chop it off.
'Fetch up Jane Shore,' he says; and up she comes. Next morning, 'Chop off her head'—
and they chop it off. 'Ring up Fair Rosamun.' Fair Rosamun answers the bell. Next
morning, 'Chop off her head!' And he made every one of them tell him a tale every
night; and he kept that up until he had hogged a thousand and one tales that way,
and then he put them in a book, and called it Domesday Book—which was a good
name and stated the case. (Chapter 23)

Twain's understanding of the origins of Domesday Book might be eccentric, but there can be no doubt that it struck a chord in his readership. Why this should be generally so is a complex story. There is clearly much to be said for a good name; 'Domesday Book' is as striking as the Tibetan Book of the Dead (or, come to that, H. P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon), and such a sonorous title is bound to guarantee some degree of celebrity. But this begs the question: how did Domesday Book come to merit its name?

It does not seem to have been founded in any defining ideology, for authorities of one sort or another have done little to bring the work into a sharp focus. It has always been perceived as a document of the first importance, but the very fact prevented the emergence of any consensus as to its significance. In the later medieval and post-medieval periods it was used by polemicists as a stick to beat their opponents with, and in the modern world it has become the subject of often equally acrimonious academic debate. Agreement has never persisted long enough to find its way into school textbooks (or analysis has been too technical to warrant inclusion).

Far from taking a lead, on the contrary, politicians and historians have followed. The best explanation for the persistence of Domesday Book in the popular mind seems to lie in the survival of a genuine folk tradition. It received its name by the acclaim of the people rather than by the calculation of any government bureaucrat, and the continuous use of the document kept alive and fuelled a mystique that has resonated into the modern period. This . . .

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