The earliest and most iconic public record, Domesday Book, documents the transformational impact of the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066. It shows in minute detail who gained and lost land across England, and the value of lands, property and livestock.
Great Domesday Book
Catalogue reference: View the record E 31/2/1 in the catalogue
Great Domesday is a large volume of more than 800 pages. The neatly written, structured text is written in Latin on parchment, the prepared skins of various animals – sheep, calf and deer.
It contains abbreviated records of an inquest, unprecedented in England and which probably had no equivalent in Europe. It was called by King William I (‘the Conqueror’) at Christmas 1085 to address problems in how tax was raised and defence organised.
Over the next three years one main scribe copied out accounts for each manor and tenement in almost every county in England. William wanted to know who held what before and after his invasion and what land and property was and had been worth.
Domesday contains details of a staggering 270,000 inhabitants, both free and unfree, and 13,000 settlements.
Little Domesday Book
Catalogue reference: View the record E 31/1/1 in the catalogue
Little Domesday Book is larger than Great Domesday. Containing 900 pages, it documents a different part of William the Conqueror’s inquest into landholding in England, dealing with East Anglia.
The book is divided into chapters called ‘breves’, each of which records the holdings of one landowner. The information in both Little and Great Domesday came from the answers of jurors to questions asked of them by royal commissioners.
Such was the detail of the survey that the writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded in English: ‘… 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 left there left out, and not put down in his record; and all these records were brought to him afterwards’.
Date: Possibly around 1241
Catalogue reference: View the record E 36/284 in the catalogue
In the 13th century, Domesday Book, still in use as a reference, was copied in an abridged form in the scriptorium of Westminster Abbey.
This ‘Abbreviatio’ is a much more beautifully written document than Great and Little Domesday Books. At the beginning are two folios of illuminated scenes from the life and miracles of Edward the Confessor, William the Conqueror’s saintly predecessor.
Here, on folio 196, in the account for Derbyshire, we have a man apparently of black African descent dangling from the illuminated capital ‘I’ of ‘In’. This is one of the earliest examples of the black presence in England.
Date: Around 1500
Catalogue reference: View the record E 31/4 in the catalogue
Domesday Book has long been considered one of the country’s greatest treasures. It was originally kept in the royal treasury at Winchester but then moved to Westminster Abbey. Royal administrators often referred to Domesday when they needed to establish rights and privileges.
From around 1600 Domesday was kept in this large wooden chest clad in iron and reinforced with iron straps. It had three different locks, and for security three different officials held a key. It could only be opened with their consent.