Great Domesday Book is the incomplete, last draft of the information collected by the Domesday survey, commissioned by William the Conqueror at Christmas 1085 and using a detailed list of questions to record who owned which estate. Completed a mere seven months later, by 1 August 1086, the survey provided a detailed record of 13,418 settlements in England in thirty-four counties (omitting London, Winchester, Westmorland and Cumberland).
Contemporaries recorded their sense of awe at the survey’s scale and intrusiveness. Richard fitz Nigel, the royal treasurer (d. 1198), reported that the English called the book Domesdei, the Day of Judgement, because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgement, could not be appealed.
Remarkably, three original manuscripts of Domesday Book survive:
- Exon Domesday is a fair copy of returns for the south-western counties
- Little Domesday records data for Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk
- Great Domesday contains a reorganised and highly compressed account of 31 counties, breaking off unfinished before the East Anglian counties.
The main scribe of Great Domesday used red ink to highlight each county’s name, the names of the holders and the name of the estate (crossed through with a red line). Each holder is numbered in sequence, to correspond with a list of names starting each county section.
Although the Domesday survey was made in 1086, the detail it preserves is crucial for historians of earlier periods. For example, Great and Little Domesday provide an exceptionally important record of the Danelaw counties of England because of archival losses sustained in the viking wars of the 9th century.
The imprint of Scandinavian settlement is evident in Great Domesday in the personal and place-names and in the units of assessment: carucates and bovates, rather than the hides and virgates used in the south. Numerous manors on these pages are described as empty or abandoned (wasta).
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 1068 King William ‘plundered and utterly laid waste’ Yorkshire in response to an attack on York by a Danish fleet and its English allies. Historians argue from the Domesday evidence that the ferocity of the reprisals is reflected in these large areas of ‘waste’ in the north.