By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The making of Domesday Book was not so much a top-down royal project as a highly contingent and negotiated process that enabled tens of thousands of average English people to make their voices heard, establish their own understanding of the law, and air their grievances against the king and his predatory men ‘raised from the dust’. How?
A Cruel Irony
In 1086, William the Conqueror ordered a massive—and unprecedented—survey of the kingdom in order to maximize the amount of royal revenue he could extract, and to establish the ownership of land and other property. He was able to do so because of the pre-existing network of sheriffs, local officials, and juries. The data from this survey was eventually condensed into a massive codex known as Domesday Book because—as a waggish Norman clerk put it, in 1179, ‘the natives’ considered it to be as inescapable as their word for Judgment Day. The fact that the chief scribe of this book was English, probably from the decimated North country, is another cruel irony.
“So narrowly did [the king] have [the survey] done,” opined the keeper of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle at Peterborough, “that there was not even a single hide, not one yard of land, no not even—shameful as it is to tell, though not thought shameful to him to do it—an ox or a cow or a pig that was left out and not set down in his writing”.
Building on the work of historians such as Robin Fleming, who cataloged thousands of common-knowledge references to the Common Law within the corpus of Domesday Book, it is evident that local jurors used the inquests ordered by the king to push back against his rule in many different ways.
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Pushing Back the King’s Rule
One strategy to push back against the king’s rule was to plead ignorance about the history of an estate’s tenancy. Another was to insist—rightly—that the jury had ‘not seen or heard’ a legal writ empowering the sheriff to convene them, or attesting to the ownership of the holding at issue. In one case, William the Conqueror’s own cousin and bishop of Winchester, which was then the royal capital, was still trying to get his claim to a tiny estate recognized long after the king’s own death; this land was still in the de facto possession of common Englishmen because local officials had refused to recognize or had ignored the powerful bishop’s claim.
In another case, jurors in one part of the country cannily refused to accept the authenticity of forged charters, which had been presented as ‘evidence’ of a monastery’s claim to land, on the grounds that ‘they have never seen nor heard the writ on behalf of the king attesting to that land’. Instead, they called the monks’ bluff.
In fact, existing drafts of the writings later digested in Domesday Book show that there were attempts to reverse the Normans’ damnatio memoriae, ‘damnation’, of the legitimately elected English king, Harold Godwinson, whom the Normans claimed to have been a usurper and who had been killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. At least one entry in a draft booklet still extant in the cathedral archives at Exeter suggests that Harold was occasionally given his royal title in the survey’s earlier phases of documentation.
Moreover, the later restoration of Harold’s noble title, Earl (in Latin, comes), to all the passages mentioning him in Domesday Book suggest that the manuscript was later revised to reflect the conciliatory stance of William’s youngest son, Henry I.
Henry had succeeded his older brother, William Rufus, as king in 1100, under very suspicious circumstances—after William’s death in a hunting ‘accident’, which Henry himself had witnessed. The subsequent revision of ‘the king’s book’ to restore the dignity of Harold and other members of the Godwin family could be interpreted as a part and parcel of Henry’s desperate project to mollify his English subjects and legitimise his own dodgy claim to the throne.
This project also included Henry’s marriage to Edith—Matilda of Scotland—who was a direct descendant of Alfred the Great on her mother’s side; and it extended the promises of reform and reconciliation that were articulated in Henry’s coronation charter, in which the king pledged to “take away all the bad customs by which the kingdom of England was unjustly oppressed”.
The legislation of Henry I’s grandson, Henry II, built on these developments. Thus, Henry II made the 12-member jury a fixture of local governance and also established what would now be called a grand jury, via the Assize of Clarendon in 1166. This was a chosen group of respected men sworn to investigate and report local crimes to the sheriff, so that cases could be tried by itinerant justices who rode throughout the country on an established circuit, every year.
It was, thus, quite evident that Henry’s motive in mandating a standing local inquest and circuit system was to elevate royal justice above that of the nobility, who had their own manor courts—and who resisted these encroachments on their baronial authority.
Common Questions about the “Domesday Book”
William the Conqueror was able to do so because of the pre-existing network of sheriffs, local officials, and juries.
One strategy to push back against the king’s rule was to plead ignorance about the history of an estate’s tenancy. Another was to insist—rightly—that the jury had ‘not seen or heard’ a legal writ empowering the sheriff to convene them, or attesting to the ownership of the holding at issue.
Henry II made a twelve-member jury a fixture of local governance and also established a grand jury, via the Assize of Clarendon in 1166.