Date of Great Domesday

The year of the Domesday Inquest - 1086 - is well-attested by Little Domesday and chronicle sources. In addition, it has been argued that the Inquest was probably completed within seven months and its results presented to the Conqueror at Salisbury on 1 August 1086. On that occasion, on the eve of his final departure for Normandy:

all the landowning men of any account throughout England, whosoever men they were, came to him and swore oaths of fealty that they would be faithful to him against all other men

In return for their oaths, the recently-completed Inquest provided the new Norman aristocracy with written confirmation of the estates they had accumulated over the previous twenty years: oath and Inquest were probably causally related.

The date at which Great Domesday was compiled cannot, unfortunately, be established within such narrow limits. It has been calculated that the single scribe who wrote the bulk of the manuscript would have needed at least eighth months to write the text of Great Domesday. Since he also had to digest and abbreviate the six circuit returns, a year for the task seems a more realistic estimate. The earliest returns are unlikely to have been submitted much before the middle of 1086, so the earliest feasible date for the completion of the manuscript of Great Domesday is the summer of 1087. William the Conqueror left England in the late summer of 1086 and died abroad on campaign in September 1087 so it is probable that he never saw Great Domesday Book, even if it were completed before his death. 'All these records' of the Domesday Inquest which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us were brought to him were perhaps the circuit returns. Domesday Book itself strongly implies that one of these returns - the Liber Exoniensis - was available to the king on the eve of his final departure for Normandy. An entry for Taunton records a grant to the bishop of Winchester (SOM 2,9), adding:

King William granted these lands ... as he acknowledged himself at Salisbury in the hearing of the bishop of Durham, whom he ordered to write down this grant of his in the records.

The bishop of Durham referred to here is William of St Calais, the man who has been identified as the 'master-mind' behind the Domesday survey. In the Liber Exoniensis, this entry is inserted out of place, as though it were a late addition. Moreover, it is written in a distinctive hand, similar to that of the Domesday scribe and so probably by a clerk in the entourage of the bishop of Durham. These circumstances suggest that the royal 'records' referred to in the entry in Great Domesday was the Liber Exoniensis, a case strengthened by the probability that the Liber Exoniensis was, in origin, a Salisbury manuscript.

Although it is logistically possible that Great Domesday was completed during the Conqueror's lifetime, there is no clear evidence that this happened. Moreover, it has recently been denied that the idea of Domesday Book ever occurred to the Conqueror or his officials. Hitherto, despite uncertainty as to the date of the completion of Great Domesday, the Conqueror has always been credited as its 'ultimate begetter', the author of its plan and purpose. There is, after all, no doubt that he ordered the Inquest, and the well-informed Anglo-Saxon Chronicle plainly states in its obituary that the results of the Inquest 'were set down in his record'. But Dr David Roffe has recently argued that the Conqueror had not planned to produce a permanent record of the findings of the Domesday Inquest: for him, the Inquest was an end in itself. The feudal structure of Great Domesday was designed to serve the purposes of the new king, his son William Rufus. It is to the reign of William Rufus that we should look for the plan and the purpose of Domesday Book.

Dr Roffe bases this provocative thesis on two main grounds: a story told by Ordericus Vitalis, and the argument that work on Great Domesday did not begin until after Rufus came to the throne.

The story told by Ordericus Vitalis is well-known and has usually been viewed as a garbled account of the Domesday survey. Writing in the 1130s about the events of 1089, Ordericus denounced the king's principle servant, Ranulf Flambard who, he said:

unsettled the new king with his fraudulent suggestions, inciting him to revise the survey of all England, and convincing him that he should make a new division of the land of England and confiscate from his subjects, natives and invaders alike, whatever was found above a certain quantity. With the king's consent he measured all the ploughlands, which in English are called hides, with a rope, and made a record of them; setting aside the measures which the open-handed English freely apportioned by command of King Edward, he reduced their size and cut back the fields of the peasants to increase the royal taxes. So by reducing the land which had long been held in peace and increasing the burden of the new taxation he brutally oppressed the king's helpless and faithful subjects, impoverished them by confiscations, and reduced them from comfortable prosperity to the verge of starvation (Ecclesiastical History, edited by Marjorie Chibnall, vol. 4, pages 172-73)

There is no other evidence of a new Domesday survey, or a new geld survey, during the reign of William Rufus, so this lurid account is probably a confused recollection of an aspect of the Domesday Inquest. But whatever construction is placed upon it, the story says nothing at all about a novel plan to produce a feudal record of the lands of the king's tenants-in-chief, or about the writing of the manuscript of Great Domesday.

What of the evidence that Great Domesday was not written until Rufus came to the throne? So far as the bulk of the manuscript is concerned, this depends upon the argument from silence, since it cannot be demonstrated when it was written, only that it was probably complete before 1100, the date of the earliest reasonably unambiguous reference to Domesday as the 'king's book'.

There are, however, a handful of entries which throw some uncertain light upon the date of writing. What appear to be the most clear-cut examples are two references to one of the Conqueror's principle lieutenants, William of Warenne. William was probably created earl of Surrey by William Rufus at some time between September 1087 and the earl's death on 24 June 1088. Two Domesday entries call him earl and so would seem to have been written after the accession of Rufus. But though this is indicative, it is not conclusive evidence that the writing of the manuscript was in progress - still less that it was only begun - after the Conqueror's death. We have only the report of an anonymous chronicler, and two contradictory accounts by Ordericus Vitalis, for the approximate date of the creation of Warenne's earldom. Both were written half a century after the event. Moreover, we do not know how peerage creations were treated in the eleventh century. In the later middle ages, when procedures were presumably more formalised, news of the creation of peers could be circulated months before their official elevation.

Additionally, both entries concerning the earl are odd and may well involve clerical errors. In one case (SUS 12,9), Warenne is called earl instead of William just once in 55 successive entries. This particular entry involves another earl, Earl Godwin, so it is possible that the scribe nodded momentarily, repeating 'earl' when he should have written 'William' as he did in the preceding and succeeding entries. In the second case (HUN 14,1) a tenant-in-chief, Hugh of Bolbec, is said to hold his one manor from an unidentified 'Earl William'. The preceding fief was that of William of Warenne who may therefore have been the 'Earl William' in question, though no explicit connection was made by the scribe. But tenants-in-chief did not hold fiefs from other tenants-in-chief; they held them from the king. Stenton's suggestion that the scribe wrote 'Earl William' when he meant 'King William' should not be dismissed, particularly in view of the fact that Warenne had no known interest in Bolbec's manor at this or any other date. Warenne's manors in Huntingdonshire form a tight group and had all been acquired from Earl Harold; Bolbec's single manor was some distance from this group and was inherited from Saxi. On balance, Stenton's explanation, though not conclusive, seems the most plausible explanation of these facts.

These inconclusive indications that parts of Great Domesday may have been written after the Conqueror's death are counter-balanced by others pointing in the opposite conclusion. A well-known entry for Pyrford (SUR 6,5) records in the margin that its tax assessment had been reduced. The writ ordering this reduction survives, sealed with the seal of the Conqueror and dated 'after the description of all England'. The original text of the entry had evidently been written before the writ was received, perhaps in the early summer of 1086. In a similar case at Itchen Abbas in Hampshire, it is noted in the margin that the Conqueror had ordered that a manor be returned to its rightful owner (HAM 44,1). The entry had evidently been written before the king issued this order. Another entry, for Isham, records a case of wrongful possession which was settled by a royal writ issued before the end of 1087 (NTH 55,1); no alteration was made to bring the entry up-to-date.

In addition, there are several references to the king's wife and children - Rufus notoriously had neither - which would surely have been re-phrased had the compilation of Great Domesday been ordered by Rufus. One of these, at Stalbridge, refers to Rufus himself (DOR 3,6), in unflattering terms. At Hatch Warren, which names his sister, the scribe has interlined the phrase 'the king's daughter'. A scribe writing during the reign of William Rufus would surely not have made such an addition (HAM 67,1). In all the thousands of references to the king and his family, there is never the slightest indication that the king was not the Conqueror or that he was not alive and well. Since it is amply attested that the Domesday scribe recast the materials before him as he wrote, it is astonishing that he did not once lapse into anachronism if he were writing after the Conqueror's death.

Finally, there is no indication in Great Domesday that any effort had been made to update the text to meet the changed circumstances of the reign of William Rufus, which saw massive redistributions of land early in the reign, following a revolt in 1088. Incidental references which may be later than 1087 tend, if anything, to validate an early date for the manuscript, since they are most plausibly ascribed to the year 1088 and were clearly written after the body of the text was complete, being added in the margin, in a different hand, or a different ink (HAM 1,46; STS 12,30-31).

Though the evidence is inconclusive, the most plausible deduction from these few clues is that the writing of the manuscript of Great Domesday was certainly begun, and possibly completed, during the Conqueror's reign. Rufus had no part in its design and structure, nor are the events of his reign reflected in its contents. The plan and purposesof Domesday Book are those of the Conqueror.

For the Domesday scribe, see Michael Gullick, 'The Great and Little Domesday manuscripts, Domesday Book: studies, edited by Ann Williams and R.W.H. Erskine (1987), pages 93-112; for the Warenne entries, Chris P. Lewis, 'The earldom of Surrey and the date of Domesday Book', Historical Research, vol. 63 (1990), pages 329-36; for the 'master-mind' behind the Domesday survey, Pierre Chaplais, 'William of St Calais and the Domesday survey', Domesday Studies, edited by J.C. Holt (1987), pages 65-78; for the relationship between the Salisbury oath and the completion of the Domesday Inquest, J.C. Holt , '1086', Domesday Studies, edited by J.C. Holt (1987), pages 41-64; and for the attribution of Great Domesday to William Rufus, David Roffe, Domesday: the Inquest and the Book (2000).