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Breaking the seal: Opening The Domesday Book

Updated Monday 14th February 2000

Perhaps the most famous census ever, the Domesday Inquest was more than just a single book...

Domesday book Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

Bettany Hughes
This is the Public Record Office in London with its vast 95 miles of archive and these are just two examples of the kinds of things you can find here. They're statements signed by Guy Fawkes. One before and one after he was tortured and seeing the second, he can scarcely write. Documents like these bring us face to face with people from the past and that's what this series is about. We'll be travelling all over the country, seeking out stories of weird taxes, mediaeval land protests, strange church rituals, and the experiences of soldiers and criminals. Human history written down as it happened.

Alan Macfarlane
Kings College Cambridge

England is absolutely fantastic for its records. There's no other country in the world which approaches it. That is to say if you went to great civilisations like China, Japan, Islam, you would never find anything like the English records. Partly, it's because of their continuous length. There are good records back for 500 years and fairly good records back for 1,000 years. In England, because of the general trustfulness and interest in truth and relaxed feeling towards those who keep our records, this meant that they are very trustworthy.

Bettany
With a thousand years of records to choose from, where to start? At the Public Record Office they've got every kind of historical document you can conceive of. Tax accounts, wills, speeches, treaties, charters, seals, and an x-ray of Hitler's skull. But I'm on the trail of something else unique. The first nation-wide census made a generation after the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Domesday Book.

The Domesday Books in the National Archives [Image: Electropod under CC-BY-NC-ND licence] Creative commons image Icon Electropod via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
The Domesday Book on display at the National Archives (the name adopted by the Public Record Office in 2003) [Image Electropod under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

 

Elizabeth Hallam Smith
Curator at the Public Record Office

t's difficult to believe that this is where it's been kept. This is the great chest in which Domesday was kept at the Palace of Westminster from the 16th to the 19th centuries. As you can see, it's extremely heavy. It was secured by three great locks. Now here is great Domesday itself. The original manuscript.

Bettany
Obviously it's a very, very precious artefact itself, but why is it so significant?

Elizabeth
It's one of England's great national icons. It's a picture of life at the start of this millennium.

Bettany
But I'm right in thinking, aren't I, that there were two books?

Elizabeth
Yes, Great Domesday and Little Domesday, which couple together 37 pre-1974 counties in England and a little bit of North Wales as well. These are the facsimiles here. Now I'm going to move the original because we don't film it open because it is very precious.

Bettany
When was it written?

Elizabeth
Between 1086 and 1090, substantially by one man which is very remarkable.

Bettany
Incredible. And it's not French is it? It was written by the Normans, but that's Latin isn't it?

Elizabeth
That is Latin, yes, that's the language of government and of the church.

Bettany
And what kind of picture does it give of the country both pre- and post-conquest?

Elizabeth
Well, let's go now to Warwickshire. I've got an example here, very small village, lands of William Fitzansculth. This little place is held by Richard Falhide, 120 acres and there are five billings and four bordars who are unfree peasants, and this little place is worth 20 shillings both in 1066 and at the time of Domesday.

Bettany
And what's the name of the village?

Elizabeth
This place is Birmingham.

Bettany
The city?

Elizabeth
Yes, now the City. Very small place at that time.William the Conqueror was an absolutely terrifying figure. He appears as such on the Bayeux Tapestry and the native English was so afraid of him and of the survey that they nicknamed the survey Domesday Book, from the Day of Judgement against which there could be no appeal.

Bettany
Elizabeth then pointed out to me a man called Sasswallow in Warwickshire who had 10 slaves and enough land for 12 ploughs. The interesting thing is Sasswallow survives.

The Domesday Book seems so remote now but it's hard to imagine that anyone could have a direct connection with it. But the Shirleys are one of the few families in England can trace their line back to Norman times. Philip Shirley still owns land in the very same Manor of Ettington mentioned in the Domesday Book. But were they Normans or Saxons, winners or losers at the Norman Conquest? That's one question Philip's going to try to answer as he trawls the family records.

Bettany
A beautiful house but it's definitely not dating from Domesday, is it?

Philip Shirley
Certainly not, no. We've only been in this house since last October.

Bettany
But I am right in thinking that your family has an entry in the Domesday Book.

Philip
That's right. We still own the same Manor which we owned in the Domesday in the male line.

Bettany
So what is the description, what does it say about you?

Philip
I think what it says is that we held the land from Henry de Ferris who was the tenant and chief, and the land amounted to 17 hides and was valued then at £30 and then it goes on to say that there was a mill and a church and various other things about the property.

Bettany
And were you Shirleys at that point?

Philip
No, we weren't Shirleys. My original ancestor's name was Sasswallow.

Bettany
Bingo. Looks like I've got the right man.

 

Bettany
We then went a mile down the road to Ettington Park, the Shirley's Warwickshire seat. A Victorian gothic pile built over a much older building. It's leased out as a hotel nowadays, but Philip showed me around.

I suppose this is the ancestral home, there's plenty of concrete evidence.

Philip
Fairly concrete evidence, that's our motto there and that's our coat of arms.

Bettany
It's incredibly grand as a hotel, never mind a house and Philip told me it wasn't always their main family home. Out in the grounds we found the remains of the parish church which struck me as more of a Shirley museum.

Bettany
So how many centuries worth of ancestors are commemorated here?

Philip
Well, I think that the earliest ancestor is Sir Rape Shirley, died in 1327.

Bettany
We'll be hearing more about the Shirley family later. The oldest references we have to Domesday Book call it the Book of Winchester. So I'm off there to continue my research into how the Domesday Book was compiled.

The initial Domesday survey took a little over seven months to complete. Without a car or computer, most of the country's land was set down in writing, along with a list of who lived where, and what animals they had.When it first arrived, it must have struck everyone what an extraordinary feat of organisation it was. This was a country with primitive roads, with poor literacy, and with Saxon landlords who were still rebellious. The Normans had only just arrived. So how did they pull it off?

In the grounds of the cathedral, I met up with another expert on the Domesday Book, Ann Williams. Ann thinks that huge achievement though Domesday was, the Normans took advantage of a sophisticated Saxon system of administration that was already in place. The Shire Courts. How did William's officers get all the information that they needed?

Dr Ann Williams
University of East Anglia

Well, they divided the country into seven circuits, we're in circuit one here, Hampshire, and each circuit had four commissioners, and then the commissioners held special sessions of the shire courts within their circuits and collected evidence from the juries of the shire and the hundreds, which are the sub-sections of the shire, and even the village juries were summoned as well.

Bettany
And where were those meetings held?

Ann
The shire courts were normally held in the open air, simply because of the number of people involved.

Bettany
As well as being England's capital, Winchester was an important religious centre, as it is today. You can still see where the old Saxon Minster stood from this ground plan. The Normans took it down and built a new cathedral on a more accurate east-west alignment. I wondered whether this kind of destruction of a Saxon shrine was typical of the Normans.

Ann
All the great churches, without exception, were re-built. The whole lot. And on the whole, when they were re-built they were re-built bigger. One of the reasons why this cathedral is the size it is, is because the original was itself a very large building and so this one, the Norman cathedral, is built deliberately twice the size.

Bettany
I think I'm getting a fuller picture of the Normans now. They clearly wanted to put their stamp on the whole country and the Domesday Book must have played a vital part in doing just that. Apparently there's a document in Exeter Cathedral called Exon, which is an important part of the Domesday jigsaw. Now I don't know much about it, but I'm hoping that it'll help me understand what the Normans did with the data they collected and, above all, what the fundamental purpose of the Domesday survey was.

In fact, I've a second reason for coming down here and that's to meet a man with a new theory. Dr David Roffe has dedicated 20 years of his life to the Domesday survey. He believes it came out of a crisis when, in 985, England was threatened with another Danish invasion. King William needed to know whom he could rely on and for what.

Exon Domesday, the book of Exeter, turns out to be one of many surveys done for what's called the Domesday inquest. It was a list of questions designed to find out who owned what in south west England.

Dr David Roffe
Historians have confused two completely different events. The Domesday inquest, which took place in 1086, produced documents like this. And then the production of Domesday Book itself was later. It occurs five years later in fact in 1089 or 1090 and the circumstances of that are completely different from what produced this. And the whole point of the Domesday inquest is to find out what is happening in the country. And find to what limits the king can press his demands for money and for services.

Bettany
When the inquest was completed in the summer of 1086, William summoned his lords to Winchester and demanded their loyalty. The inquest had settled his relationship with these barons. They would now agree on how much tax should be paid to the king and what sort of military service he was owed. It was the beginning of the feudal order.

I've yet to find out from David how Domesday Book itself came about but I thought I'd take a break from the library to follow up one of the entries in Exon.I'd been told Exon mentions a farm in Dunsden that still exists. I knew the buildings couldn't be the same but I drove over there with landscape archaeologist, Steve Rippon, to see what, if anything, remained.

 

 

Bettany
What was the typical farm building at that time?

Dr Stephen Rippon
University of Exeter

It was what was called a long house. A long rectangular building where you'd have both the residential uses and also the live stock animals and the crops stored, all within the same building.

Bettany
And no farmyard?

Stephen
No. This sort of arrangement of agricultural buildings and residential buildings around a central yard is quite a late development.

Bettany
And so would the field layout have been similar?

Stephen
Well, certainly down here in the south west there was a very long tradition of having enclosed fields, and what we've got here, is a very traditional example of a DeBettanyn, a hedge bank. And although we can't say that is 11th century, the fields down here would have been enclosed by something very similar to that.

Bettany
But presumably Exon Domesday is useful for you to look at how patterns of land settlement have changed.

Stephen
Oh yes. It's enormously useful for reconstructing things on a regional scale, like the distribution of woodland and meadow and population and so on. And although we can't really use it to reconstruct the layout of an individual farm, what we can say is what was the ward pattern of settlement and here in DeBettanyn, for example, we can see there's sort of scatter of farmsteads. Very typical of western parts of Britain and also the south east corner of England. And Domesday just enables us to reconstruct regional patterns like that for the 11th century landscape.

Bettany
It was beginning to dawn on me that the great survey of Norman England that we associate with William the Conqueror is actually contained in books like Exon and not the Domesday Book, which is pretty amazing. Could David Roffe be right, that Domesday Book was compiled in 1089-90? That would put it in the reign of William the Conqueror's son, William Rufus. I wanted David to prove to me that it was written so much later than people think.

David
At the very beginning in Huntingdonshire, there is a reference to Earl William of Warren. It's very significant because we know that William of Warren was not made Earl until sometime between late 1087 and middle 1088. So we have a passage which cannot have been written before the end of 1087.

Bettany
And when did William the Conqueror die?

David
He died in 1087, in the middle of the year.

Bettany
So the bulk of the book has definitely, following your theory, been written after William's dead, which is completely different from what everybody's assumed.

David
We do have one reference in an early 12th century chronicler, called Aldric Fatales, who says that it happened in 1089.

Bettany
England, at that time, was in turmoil. William Rufus faced rebellion from his brother, Robert, and from almost all the Norman barons. They'd taken his lands and he wanted them back, so he needed to know exactly which estates he owned in order to reclaim them after the rebellion.

David
Here is the answer to what Domesday Book was for. It was there to provide a guide to settling the great rebellion of 1088.

Bettany
So, the Domesday Book I saw in the Public Record Office was an entirely new land register, quite separate from the inquest conducted by William the Conqueror. It was compiled from surveys like Exon, but the information was then abridged and then re-arranged to produce the Domesday Book we know today.

Philip Shirley has made the journey to Oxford and Linacre College. He's there to meet Katharine Keats-Rohan who, in addition to being the author of a Who's Who of Domesday Book, has created a database to cross-reference the 30,000 names mentioned in the survey.

Katharine
If we look at the Domesday records here, you'll see that there are seven holdings which are attributed to a man called Sasswallow. The holdings themselves, some of them have quite healthy values attached to them, £20, 100 shillings, with some of them quite large. And in fact I know that your family has asked itself the question of whether this man is an Englishman or not. I would say definitely not. This name is well evidenced in this part of the continent and for me, there is no doubt at all that he is Norman from the lordship of Ferian in Normandy.

Bettany
Katharine's database covers the existing government documents from Domesday up to 1166 including the Cartide Baronum, which records the military service owed to the king in terms of a number of knight's fees.

Katharine
So we see the importance of this family because the Carta entry actually begins with them.

Bettany
The family was determined to consolidate its wealth, so Henry, son of Sasswallow, agreed with his brother, Fulcher, that he would leave his own inheritance to Fulcher's son, another Sasswallow, making him a rich man who could offer the king the military service of nine knights.

Katharine
This shows how important this family was as a tenant family of the Earls Ferrer. And of course, Sasswallow who acquires the rights of the first born is even more distinguished because by the 17th century his family, the Shirley family, is actually acquiring the title of Earl Ferrers, which is saying that the family was very good at husbanding its resources and making the most of them.

Bettany
Meanwhile, I'm heading back to London, my head full of ideas about the Domesday Book and wondering what the affect of it must have been on the running of the country. As soon as you write people's names down and what they own, it's a major step towards controlling the population. People become accountable.

 

Bettany
Domesday Book was really the beginning of governmental record keeping. It paved the way for Henry I in the 1100s to create the most effective system of accounting known in the middle ages. The Exchequer.

Dr Michael Clanchy
Public Record Office

The Exchequer is so called because it says in the Tower of London there is this table on which is a chequered cloth. That was used for doing the accounting. What was done on a table, then had to be recorded. What I've got here is the earliest of the pipe rolls of the Exchequer, the annual accounts, and they were called pipe rolls because they look like pipes. And when one begins to unroll it, this is the protective covering you unroll, this is the earliest record of taxation, written in big script on very wide pieces of parchment. The earliest record of what each of these named individuals owes or has paid into the Exchequer, here are the sums of money in Roman numerals. LXIX - sixty nine.

Bettany
It doesn't say Sasswallow, does it?

Michael
Is that a family you know? I've never heard of them before.

Bettany
They're still around. They're called Shirley now. But what did they owe then?

Michael
Seven marks of silver, which is paid and he has quit, he's paid the whole lot, quiatus means complete.

Bettany
And in a way this couldn't be further from the Domesday Book, but it's all part of the same system of record keeping, isn't it?

Michael
Yes and amazingly enough, they went on making pipe rolls like this in this form using this script right down to the beginning of the 19th century, to the 1830s. The government's information. But in addition to that, if you paid money into the Exchequer, what you were issued with, and this may seem hard to believe, is a piece of stick.

They're called tally sticks, meaning the accounting sticks, as used in the Exchequer. For example this is a stick for £20, £40. And the county is Bedford, Buckinghamshire, and here it has Willelmo de Turville, from William of Turville, Vic - Vice Comity, Sheriff, debitis pleurinis - concerning many debts. What's important about tallies is they were in two halves. This is the stock, the main portion, but you can see here it's been split. One section was kept by the Exchequer and the other section by the Sheriff to whom the receipt is being given. Even at the time the Bank of England, in the 1690s, is issuing for the first time public shares. They issued them in the form of tally sticks, that's why they're called stocks.

Bettany
This is an amazing box of tricks, isn't it. It's a very impressive seal.

Philip
It is rather a fine seal, there. It's a horse, something to do with Thomas de Shirley Knight.

Bettany
So, the Shirleys have their share of seals and tally sticks too. I caught up with Philip again at the County Record Office in Warwick. He'd found an 18th century map which showed that the Shirleys had decided to improve their farming by enclosing their fields.

Philip
This looks very much like the map which was used for the Enclosure Acts which were at the end of the 18th century.

Bettany
Yes, that's the Bill, the Enclosure Bill. 1796 I think. And so the changes, all these are new fields presumably. They would have been the narrow strip field system.

Bettany
Even more interesting was a census return which listed the entire Shirley household at Ettington Park in 1851.

Philip
Evelyn J Shirley. Head. Age 62, describing themselves as the landed proprietor.

Bettany
But presumably that would be how you'd be described right up until today, because we're just about to fill one out, aren't we?

Philip
I suppose I'll have to describe myself as a chartered accountant.

Bettany
But that's not half as interesting. Put chartered accountant stroke landed proprietor. That'll give your story much more meat to deal with in future years.It will be interesting to think that historians might well be turning over your whatever they are, tax records or, you know, land returns in a hundred years time.

Philip
Possibly. One never knows from the records whether the records that everybody keeps tend to be the most boring and it's the ones which they throw out as uninteresting tend to be the ones which people find more interesting later.

Bettany
I don't know, I think we can glean some pretty good things from this. I'm glad they survived. Good for the Shirleys.

Bettany
It's a rich history that Philip's uncovered. Not Saxons, as he'd thought, but Normans who amassed wealth through the centuries until they became Earls Ferrers. I'm pretty sure one of them was hanged for murder. We'll check that out in a later programme.

It is a remarkable thing that so many of our documents, often written in the course of day to day business, have survived the centuries. But I think that at the time their significance lay in the power that they gave to the people who were creating them.

Over the last thousand years, the very existence of records like these has come to be a statement of authority. Proof that the powers that be are modern, effective and in control. But what about the future? Will we continue to leave detailed written evidence of our lives for tomorrow's historians to pick over? We've got another national census coming up in 2001. They'll be asking all sorts of questions about us. But where does that information go?

Rod Massingham
Office for National Statistics

The technology has enabled us, for the first time, to consider the use of the destruction of the paper forms themselves once we've quality assured all the results that we're trying to get from the 2001 census. This has been achieved simply because we've converted the paper into electronic images and the images are stored on microfilm at the Public Records Office to be viewed in 100 years' time.

Bettany
So will other paper records be destroyed? The thought of that does bother me. Who's going to decide what is kept and how? So many records from the past have survived by accident. But perhaps there will be people in the future who decide that they want certain things wiped out forever.

Alan Macfarlane
Nowadays, all you need to do is press one button and you've destroyed a whole year's records. So that is one reason why I think in the future you may find that the recording is very bad. Another reason is a fear of the invasion of privacy. For example, I've been instructed that if I'm keeping official records in my department I must destroy them if they are no longer strictly necessary. I must check them for accuracy because if they're inaccurate in any way, I could be sued. So we're being basically told to burn our records. So the future may well be one where, for computer and other reasons, we don't have good records. But luckily up to the 20th century, we do.

Bettany
And that's where this series wins. Next week, we'll be looking at some of the fascinating records to do with the weird and wonderful history of tax.

This is a full transcript of a Breaking The Seal programme

 

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