Public records: Domesday Book

The feudal system

To use Domesday Book and, to a greater or lesser extent, most other medieval records, it's useful to know something of the prevailing system of land tenure. In post-conquest medieval England, land was not owned, in the modern sense, by anyone but the monarch. Instead it was held by tenants, from lords (or occasionally ladies) in return for the obligation to perform some service. This was the feudal system, with the king at the top of the ladder, his direct tenants (tenants in chief) beneath him, and lower still under-tenants of various sizes, down to the peasant farmers who held a few acres in return for labouring on the land of the local lord.

The main building block of the feudal system was the manor, an estate on average somewhat smaller than the parish (typically a parish might contain several smaller manors or one larger one, though sizes could vary considerably, and some manors were much bigger). Most frequently the service performed for the king by his tenants was military - in this case feudal holdings were measured as so many knights' fees, according to how many knights the holder of the land was obliged to provide. Land might also be held by serjeanty, that is by some non-military service, often in the royal household, or in the case of religious houses by free alms, that is by spiritual service.

Land held by a lord himself, rather than by his tenants, was known as demesne. The same term describes the royal estates (held by the king rather than his tenants in chief), manors held by tenants in chief rather than under-tenants, and even the part of a manor held by its lord, rather than manorial tenants.

Whatever their ancestors may have thought of its merits, genealogists have reason to be grateful for the documentation produced by the feudal system. It was obviously in the king's interests to be very clear who his tenants were, what obligations they had to him, and who had the right to succeed them when they died. Consequently, most of the documentation concerns the tenants in chief, and the under-tenants immediately beneath them, at least as far as public records are concerned. Fortunately, as well as the great magnates, this class included many comparatively small men, who might hold as little as a single manor, and have no under-tenants of their own.

See also the sections on land taxes and feudal surveys and inquisitions post mortem.

Domesday Book

Domesday Book is the earliest, and by far the most famous, English public record. It is the record of a survey which, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William the Conqueror ordered to be taken at Christmas 1085; a survey so thorough that not 'one ox nor one cow nor one pig' was omitted. This is something of an overstatement: there are no Domesday entries at all for Durham or Northumberland, and few for Cumberland, Westmorland or northern Lancashire (although some parts of Wales near the English border are included). A number of towns were also omitted, notably London, Winchester and Bristol.

For the remainder of the country, there is a very detailed survey, describing the value, the population and the resources of each manor. The authority of the record was immense, and within a century it had acquired its popular nickname of 'Domesday' because, like the Last Judgment, there could be no appeal against its statements. Its interest to genealogists, of course, arises because it names the tenants in chief, and many of those who held manors as their immediate tenants, both at the time of the survey, and before the Norman conquest in the reign of Edward the Confessor. The humbler classes, as a rule, were counted but not named.

For some parts of the country, the Domesday survey has left behind more detailed records still. The eastern counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex are not included in the main volume, known as 'Great Domesday', but are covered in a separate volume - 'Little Domesday' - which is thought to reflect an earlier stage in the editing of the original returns. The same is true of several other documents:

Other material, also thought to be connected with the survey, is preserved in a number of monastic cartularies (see Hallam, pp.38, 39).

Domesday Book and the genealogist

Detailed though the Domesday records are, it must be said that it is very difficult, in most cases, to trace a descent from a Domesday tenant. Hereditary surnames were rare (see note on surnames), and there is a lapse of about three generations before the next comprehensive series of public records begins. If the family concerned was sufficiently prominent, its genealogy might be recorded by the chroniclers; otherwise, evidence for the generations immediately after Domesday must be sought in other sources, such as monastic cartularies.

Fortunately, specialist studies are available to help the genealogist. In particular, much of the contemporary evidence about land tenure and succession from the century after the Norman conquest has been drawn together, in the Continental Origins of English Landholders, 1066-1166 (COEL) project, by Katharine Keats-Rohan and her collaborators. [not available, 26 June 2023; see the Internet Archive's copy of this page, from June 2022] The principal sources are Domesday Book itself and the associated documents, the pipe rolls, local surveys and the Cartae Baronum of 1166 (see feudal surveys), and nearly 60 collections of charters. The outcome was a searchable database, containing biographical and genealogical information with supporting texts. Many of the data are also available in print, in two published volumes. The first, Domesday People (1999), contains entries for Domesday tenants (arranged alphabetically by forename), giving a discussion of continental origins and references to sources. The second volume, Domesday Descendants (2002), covers others who held land in the century following the Conquest (and is arranged alphabetically by surname).

As its title suggests, the main emphasis of the COEL project is on people of continental origin who held land in 1086; it does not attempt complete coverage of the tenants who were native English, though many are included. Anglo-Saxon landholders, at the time of Domesday and before, are covered by the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) database, which is available online. But genealogically speaking, apart from a few well documented examples, it is extremely difficult to trace a pre-conquest English descent (although there was quite a vogue for 'Saxon ancestors' in Victorian times, and many were invented then).

Links and bibliography for Domesday Book

For source material on the internet, click here

Works useful to the genealogist

Discussion and reference

Editions of Domesday

The Latin text of the Domesday Book (P.R.O. E31) was originally published in 1783, using a specially designed record type, under the editorship of Abraham Farley. The most accessible printed editions today are:

Editions of associated documents

A total of 18 'satellite' documents associated with Domesday are discussed and listed by H.B.Clarke, The Domesday Satellites (pp.50-70 in Domesday Book: A Reassessment, ed. P.Sawyer; London, 1985). The most substantial are the 'Exeter Domesday', the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis and the Inquisitio Eliensis.

Some information is available in the Satellites section of the Hull Domesday Project website.

The 'Exeter Domesday'

In Exeter, Dean and Chapter MS 3500 (Liber Exoniensis).

Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis and Inquisitio Eliensis

Copies of both are in British Library, Cotton Tiberius A vi (two other copies of the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis are at Trinity College, Cambridge).