Taxation is a complicated procedure and it takes a reasonably sophisticated government to tax a population by whatever means it pleases. Even modern governments, those of middle-income or wealthy countries included, often struggle to collect certain taxes effectively. In the case of an income tax, an income needs to be validated some way, and this is a tricky task. By contrast, taxes on goods or property, which have physical evidence, are easier to collect. Prior to the start of the 20th century, these are what governments relied on most. Of course, these too require a complex administration. Yet, in the 11th century, the King of England, William the Conqueror, set about measuring the capacity of his kingdom to pay a tax via a survey; the product was the Domesday Book.
The backdrop for the Domesday Book was the aftermath of the Norman conquest of England led in 1066 by William the Conqueror. William had won a war of succession between himself, Harold of Wessex, and King Harold Hadrada of Norway. He defeated the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold of Wessex, at the Battle of Hastings. In the subsequent years, William put down rebellions, particularly in the north of England in 1069-1070.
After the Norman conquest, a smaller Norman aristocracy replaced a much larger Anglo-Saxon one. The land of the latter was redistributed to the former. Just three Anglo-Saxon barons continued to hold major tracts of land after the conquest. This was just part of a series of great political, social, and economic changes brought by the conquest.
The Domesday Book was the final product of a survey William commissioned on Christmas Day 1085 and which was conducted largely in 1086. The results of this survey were compiled into the Domesday Book which contains information on the incomes, resources, and tax assessments of estates. It is a fairly comprehensive account of the nation’s resources nine and a half centuries ago and survives to this day in The National Archives of the United Kingdom, its earliest surviving record.
The book, split into two volumes, was written in Latin on about nine hundred leaves of parchment. It took several months to complete. For its age and detail, its unique in the world. The work is arranged by county; its main volume begins each county’s section by identifying its landowners, followed by a description of its boroughs, followed in turn by the description of all its other lands. The list of estates for each county would start with the king’s own direct holdings. Those of his ecclesiastical tenants-in-chief, lay tenants, and sub-tenants came afterwards, in that order.
Altogether, the Domesday Book lists 13,400 places. Besides meadows and cultivated land, among the assets of the country included in the book are forty-eight castles, one hundred and twelve boroughs, three hundred and sixty major church sites, six thousand mills, about forty-five vineyards, and various woodlands, markets, mints, fisheries, mines, salt pans, quarries, and more.
The below entry in the book, representative of a typical one, describes Olney, a particular land of Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances in Buckinghamshire and which, like the vast majority of place names in the book, is still in existence today. Hardly an engaging read, the readability isn’t helped by the book’s heavy use of abbreviations.
It lists in the first line, that the holding consists of ten hides (“x hid”), a unit of land corresponding to the amount of land that could support a household (roughly 120 acres). This land required ten plough teams to cultivate (“x car”), each consisting of eight oxen. The second line explains that three of these hides are cultivated by the lord himself (“In dnio iii hide”) and that there are three ploughs there (“iii car”). It also states that the holding is home to twenty-four villagers (“xx iiii vitti”). The third line adds that the estate is home to five smallholders (“v bord”) with seven ploughs between them (“vii car”) as well as five slaves (“v servi”) and one mill valued at forty shillings (“i mol de xl sol”).
The fourth line begins to list the miscellaneous other resources on the manor, including two-hundred eels (“cc anguill”), meadows for the oxen which pull the ten ploughs (“prat x car”), woodlands (“silva”), and four hundred pigs (“cccc porc”). The valuation of the land is contained on the fifth line, twelve pounds (“xii lib”) but just seven pounds when acquired by its present owner (“do recep vii lib”). It also notes that the manor was worth twelve pounds in the time of King Edward (“TRE xii lib”). The sixth line identifies the pre-conquest holder of the land as Burgred, father of Edwin, and one of his freedmen.
The Domesday Book must be understood in its feudal context. All land was technically owned by the king. The king appointed tenants-in-chief, namely barons or bishops, benefiting from the fiefs granted to them in exchange for providing the king their loyalty and supplying him with knights and men-at-arms when needed. The largest of this class of just about two hundred had disproportionate wealth. The Church and a dozen or so leading barons alone controlled about half of all of England’s land.
Under the feudal structure tenants-in-chief might have rented out land to sub-tenants. These sub-tenants would in turn accept military service in exchange for the land, allowing the baron to fulfill his obligations to the king. In practice, peasants worked the land in exchange for protection, housing, and plots for personal use. There were also slaves who worked the domains of the lord as well.
The Domesday Book becomes more impressive a document when one considers how it was prepared. England was divided into counties, at the time further subdivided into hundreds. Sheriffs were the king’s agents in the counties and these counties were grouped into at least seven circuits. Each circuit was visited by a set of commissioners, bishops, lawyers and barons from elsewhere. These commissioners would question landholders and responses would be reviewed by jurors under oath in the county court. The court provided an audit of sorts.
The juries were comprised by local landowners. Commissioners would question jurors, benefiting from their local knowledge. One such questionnaire survives from Cambirdgeshire. Jurors there, and presumably elsewhere, were asked about the name, history, size, population, resources, and value of an estate. For each estate, the questions would be repeated three times, once in relation to the time of King Edward (pre-1066), when King William gave the land to its new owners (in 1066 or shortly thereafter), and at the time of the survey (in 1086). Much of this information would be made public or at least disclosed to a broad audience. The survey was a remarkably systematic intrusion by the state for a society at the dawn of the High Middle Ages.
Still, the survey was limited to the parts of England that the Normans effectively controlled. It excluded Scotland, Wales, and the northern reaches of England. It also excluded London and some other cities and contains only limited information on a few northern counties. Once reviewed by the county courts, the results were sent to the royal exchequer in Winchester where they were compiled for the whole country and approved. The ‘main’ volume of the two-volume book was never formally completed, perhaps because William’s death in 1087 caused work on it to largely stop, though later information was added and the record is nonetheless fairly comprehensive.
The role of the Domesday Book has been debated, but it was no doubt more than just a land registry, at least in purpose. The fact that once examining a specific county in the book, the contents from there were organized by landholder rather than by location suggests that the goal was no so much to identify parcels of land as to compile the holdings of particular persons. This, together with land value information, supports the argument that the book was more of a fiscal document, something that could be used in taxing barons, rather than a land registry.
Work on the Domesday Book was most likely initiated in response to the threat of invasion from Denmark. William’s plan was to hire an army of mercenaries paid for with taxes. While in an earlier medieval era, armies were paid largely by plunder, the taxation system being too primitive to effectively fund armies, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that pre-dated the Norman conquest already had a more advanced taxation and administrative system than existed in other parts of Europe. It was perhaps the most advanced on the continent.
Still, much had changed since 1066 and William needed to assess the capacity of the country to pay these taxes. While he may have also needed to implement these taxes transparently to placate the barons, the book nonetheless allowed the new dynasty to impose its authority. Besides taxes, the Domesday Book was perhaps used to record what lords owed in terms of military service, in the form of knights employed in the king’s army, and perhaps to solve land disputes.
Specifically, the Domesday Book was used to collect a tax called the geld, levied annually on landholders. This tax had its origins in the danegeld, a tax used to pay tribute to the Vikings in exchange for a pause to their pillaging. This was levied on all subjects, the first direct tax of this breadth in Europe. The new geld was based on a landholder’s ability to pay as measured by the survey and recorded in the Domesday Book. This ability to pay was based on the value of a landholder’s estates, measured by their annual income. This isn’t to say that there weren’t politically motivated concessions that characterized the tax system as well.
The wealth of data in the Domesday Book allows for some conclusions to be made about differences in tax treatment in 11th century England. For one, larger estates or those held by tenants-in-chief with many estates were given less favorable tax treatment, perhaps because larger estates were more efficient. By contrast, those estates farther from urban centers and worked by sub-tenants rather than by the lord received favorable treatment.
The Domesday Book, comprehensive and standardized, became indispensable to the administration of the treasury. It also continued to be used for validating landholdings for centuries. The English historian Frank Barlow described it as the “the bible of the treasury” but the book had no official name when it was created. The name ‘Domesday Book’ came by a comparison with the biblical final judgement. A metaphor, Domesday reflected the book’s authority as its contents had final say in disputes and could not be overturned. This is understandable; no similar survey of the country would be conducted for centuries.
The production of such a prodigious book as the Domesday Book a thousand years ago, in a period in history often derided, may seem astounding. The survey necessary to produce it was extensive and may seem to test the limits of such a primitive government. However, there is always a strong incentive to develop and maintain the ability to collect taxes and doing so is not so simple as it may seem. Many modern states struggle to efficiently and fairly collect taxes from their populations to this day.
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1. “Domesday: Britain’s Finest Treasure.” The National Archives, 18 May 2017.
2. Godfrey, Andy, and Keith Hooper. “Accountability and Decision-Making in Feudal England: Domesday Book Revisited.” Accounting History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1996, pp. 35–54.
3. Jones, Michael John. “Domesday Book: An Early Fiscal, Accounting Narrative?” The British Accounting Review, vol. 50, no. 3, 2018, pp. 275–290.
4. McDonald, John. Economy of England at the Time of the Norman Conquest, 9 Sept. 2004.