Purpose of Domesday Book

What was Domesday Book for?

Many incidental aims have been highlighted - the settlement of disputes, confirmation of legal title, a line drawn under the Conquest - but most historians agree that the principle concern of Domesday Book was royal revenue, and its main purpose was to increase it. How this increase was to be achieved, however, has been the subject of prolonged debate, a debate whose rival positions might broadly be characterised as either fiscal or feudal.

The foundations of the fiscal view of Domesday were laid over a century ago by J.H. Round. His starting point was the satellite text known as the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis, or ICC, an early draft of the text for the county of Cambridge. Unlike Domesday Book, the ICC was organised geographically by Hundred and vill rather than by tenant-in-chief. Additionally, the ICC emphasised the geld assessments by providing an assessment for each vill as well as for the individual manors within it. The vill total was placed at the head of the entry for each vill and was the only statistic treated in this manner. These features, Round argued, provided 'the true key to Domesday, and to the system of land assessment it records'. The 'original returns' sent to Winchester by the circuit commissioners were structured around the geld because geld was central to the purpose of the Domesday Inquest.

F.W. Maitland was the most eloquent advocate of this fiscal view and enlarged upon its implications for the form and content of Domesday Book:

One great purpose seems to mould both its form and its substance; it is a geld book. ... All the lands, all the land-holders of England may be brought before us, but we are told only of such facts, such rights, such legal relationships as bear on the actual or potential payment of geld. ... Our record is no register of title, it is no feodary, it is no custumal, it is no rent roll; it is a tax book; a geld book.

But it was a record of a tax in dire need of reform. Two generations previously, levies as high as £72,000 - the total assessed value of the whole of England in Domesday Book - are recorded under King Canute. 'William might well regard the right to levy a geld as the most precious jewel in his English Crown'. But due to evasions and exemptions, it is doubtful whether the Conqueror was able to raise a tenth of the amount Canute had extracted. To restore the geld to something like its previous efficiency was 'worth a gigantic effort, a survey such as had never been penned since the grandest days of the old Roman Empire'. Hence Domesday Book.

This fiscal view of Domesday held the field for almost half a century until V.H. Galbraith pointed out that however the Inquest was conducted, Domesday Book itself is organised on feudal principles which make it all but useless as a tax gathering or tax reforming document. Domesday Book was feudally organised because feudal revenues were more valuable than the geld. Galbraith also pointed out that both Little Domesday Book and the Liber Exoniensis demonstrated that the returns made by the circuit commissioners were already in a feudal format before they were sent to Winchester to be abbreviated by the Domesday scribe. It would have been an impossible task for the Domesday scribe to write the entire manuscript and simultaneously restructure the text from a geographical to a feudal format. Whatever the role of documents like the ICC, they were demonstrably not the materials from which Domesday Book was compiled. They were therefore irrelevant to its purpose.

With some refinements, Galbraith's thesis held sway until the last year of the old millennium. Until then, three principle modifications had been suggested. First, Professor Sally Harvey argued that the Domesday Inquest assessed ploughlands as a basis for re-allocating the tax burden. This complemented rather than undermined Galbraith since Dr Harvey did not challenge his view of the significance of the feudal revenues of the Crown. Secondly, Dr Clarke demonstrated that the dichotomy between geographical and feudal structures in the data was a red herring, since it is easy to switch between the two by the use of conversion tables. Finally, Sir James Holt pointed out that the best clue to the purpose of Domesday Book was how it was used, and it was used as Galbraith indicated: to inform royal officials - notably sheriffs - in their dealings with the lands of the king and his tenants-in-chief, most of which will have concerned royal revenues. As Dr Green has shown, when financial records first become available it was these two sources which produced the bulk of royal income.

This consensus in favour of a feudal interpretation of the purpose of Domesday has recently been challenged, however, by a modified version of the Round thesis, proposed by David Roffe. The great weakness of Round's view was that Domesday Book itself was in a feudal format ill-suited to the purposes of the taxman. Dr Roffe has proposed to eliminate this weakness by denying that the Domesday Inquest had anything to do with Domesday Book: the Inquest and the Book had different authors, purposes, and results. The Conqueror's Inquest had reform of the geld system as its main focus; the purpose of Domesday Book was political, not financial, and was the work of the Conqueror's son. It is too early to know how this thesis will fare; but the evidence linking Rufus to Domesday Book is not compelling, and the feudal purposes of Domesday are already evident in the Liber Exoniensis and Little Domesday circuit returns, produced while the Conqueror was alive.

For further discussion, see J.H. Round, Feudal England (1895); F.W. Maitland, Domesday Book and beyond (1897); Sally P.J. Harvey, 'Taxation and the ploughland in Domesday Book', Domesday Book: a re-assessment, edited by Peter H. Sawyer (1985), pages 86-103; H.B. Clarke, 'The Domesday satellites', ibid., pages 50-70; J.C. Holt, '1086', Domesday studies, edited by J.C. Holt (1987), pages 41-64; Judith A. Green, The government of England under Henry I (1986); and David Roffe, Domesday: the Inquest and the Book (2000).