Domesday Books

The original Great Domesday and Little Domesday of 1086, seen in the musum at the National Archives, Kew, England.

 

In 1066, a combination of religious intolerance and greed meant that the days of English independence were numbered. William the Bastard, duke of Normandy, landed an army on English shores in an expedition sponsored by the papacy. He overthrew in succession the last two English kings and had himself anointed king in their place. After nineteen years of genocidal war (by 1085), English resistance had all but ended and it was time to take stock ... literally. Harnessing the massive administrative power of the English civil service, William commanded a survey of his new realm, so that by the following year he knew who held - and paid rent on - each scrap of countryside of any value.

 

His commissioners made circuits of every country parish in England - following a system that must have been in existence beforehand - and took oaths from all the people as to who held what rights and obligations over the land in the former times of the English kings. Then the holdings were set out in these books in a new order - according to the relative ranks of the new Norman expropriators.

 

Holdings in towns are generally not included, and in particular there is nothing at all on central London. Other than this, the scope of the project is illuminating. The whole of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, which previously owed allegiance to the King of England, had already disappeared from view. Presumably their commercial value did not justify their military cost - as other invaders have found before and since. Also just about the whole of the North of England is missing, having been devastated in the wars of the English resistance. With the population dead or starving, these lands also provided no value for any new overlord to expoit.

 

Copies were made and sent out to various regional centres. This set is among the few that survive. The "Domesday" was the authoritative source on matters of ownership of land for several centuries after. It got the name (an earlier spelling of "doomsday") because its judgements were unalterable - and presumably would be consulted even by the Judge of All on the Last Day. Today this copy has pride of place as the centrepiece of the museum of the National Archives in Kew.

 

A zealous curator was sure that cameras weren't allowed. When I assured him that they were, he went away and considered, then came back and agreed that they were. Non-flash and non-commercial use only, of course, which this clearly is. In the dim light I was glad of my new 50mm f/1.8, though I had to stand a long way back - but sorry about the limited DOF, the best I could do handheld in the light available.

 

Tenuous Link: collection of old books

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Taken on December 30, 2008
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