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Domesday Book

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An ancient record of land ownership in England.

Commissioned by William the Conqueror in the year 1085 and finished in 1086, the book is a superb example of thorough and speedy administration, unequaled by any other project undertaken during the Middle Ages. Minute and accurate surveys of all of England were done for the purpose of compiling information essential for levying taxes and enforcing the land tenure system.

The work was done by five justices in each county who took a census and listed all the feudal landowners, their PERSONAL PROPERTY, and other information. The judges gathered their information by summoning each man and having him give testimony under oath. This is perhaps the earliest use of the inquest procedure in England, and it established the right of the king to require citizens to give information, a foundation of the jury trial.

Domesday was a Saxon word meaning Judgment Day, at the end of time when God will pronounce judgment against all of mankind. The name given to this record may have come from the popular opinion that the inquiry was as thorough as that promised for Judgment Day.

Two volumes of the Domesday Book are still in existence, and they continue to be valuable for historical information about social and economic conditions. They are kept in the Public Record Office in England.

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about 1 year ago

Who was the mastermind of the Domesday project? Who had the genius, the experience, the status and the influence to persuade William I and the clerics that it was achievable?

Was it William de St Calais, Bishop of Durham, one of whose clerics wrote most of the Great Domesday Book? Perhaps it was Samson (later Bishop of Worcester), a brother of Archbishop Thomas of York? Or Ranulf Flambard, a man of great ambition and talent who served as a later Bishop of Durham and in a supervisory role over the Exchequer of Henry I?

Was there a man associated with all these, whom William I trusted above all others for his loyalty, strength of character, legal, financial, administrative and negotiating skills? Someone to whom the king owed his life and the peace of his realm?

Such a man was Count Alan Rufus, one of William's closest relatives and the commander of his household knights. Alan's epitaph (4 August 1093, Bury St Edmunds) describes him as "precepto legum" and "secunda a rege".

Alan led the Bretons in England: his father Count Eudon supplied many soldiers for William's invasion in 1066, for which it seems he received a cameo in the Norman-French version of the Song of Roland as "Eudon, Lord of Brittany". Alan and his men are described by Wace as doing the English defenders "great damage" at Hastings.

In matters of law, Alan was a reformer, abolishing the Danegeld in Richmondshire and replacing it with a regular levy to pay for the civil courts: this was the first instance of the Sheriff's Levy. Royal sheriffs were excluded; instead, sheriffs were recruited from local people. His immediate tenants (the local lords) included an exceptional proportion of native people.

Noted for substantial cash donations to religious institutions, and the foundation of St Mary's Abbey in York in Jan/Feb 1088, he also funded developments such as the port of Boston in Lincolnshire.

Little Domesday covers an area of particular interest to Alan, as he was the greatest lay tenant-in-chief in East Anglia. This is also true of the Cambridge Inquest. The Inquest for Ely, which is adjacent, contains a statement of the survey's purpose. In the south-west circuit, of which we have partial knowledge from the Exeter Domesday return, Alan is known from his witness of royal charters to have been in the company of the king during 1086. Great Domesday contains an important conversion table in the section for Yorkshire, where Alan was the dominant magnate.

Alan was the one person, aside from the king, who was certainly and personally most closely connected with all of the Domesday documents.

His influence was such that William I agreed to grant all of Alan's tenants and men freedom from tolls, customs and other transit charges throughout England, an arrangement referred to in legal cases and respected by monarchs through to Charles I in 1641.

Among the outcomes of the Domesday survey was the exposure of illegal appropriations by many of Alan's court rivals, particularly Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, and his cronies. (Although still recorded as if he were Earl of Kent, Odo was at that time still in prison for his act of treason in 1082. He was released as part of William I's deathbed amnesty in September 1087.)

During the Rebellion of 1088, William II authorised Alan to seize the property of rebels. When the last enemy stronghold, Rochester Castle fell, the people wanted the defeated barons, especially their leader Odo of Bayeux, hanged. William II was dissuaded from this by his loyalists, among whom Alan was the most powerful magnate. Most of the rebels were forgiven, while Odo was condemned to exile for life, becoming chief advisor to Robert Curthose, the new Duke of Normandy.

So Alan held considerable sway with both monarchs, was well qualified to conceive of and oversee Domesday, and the records are consistent with this. What then of the other candidates?

William de St Calais, the learned Bishop of Durham, employed a clerk who wrote most of Great Domesday. When St Calais fell from grace by abandoning the royal army in 1088, William II authorised Alan to negotiate St Calais's surrender. Alan used this authority to sign a safe-conduct for St Calais, protecting him from harm before, during and after his trial. Alan took personal responsibility for this in court, expressed his sympathy for the person of the accused, and, in a carefully crafted phrase, firmly defended the Bishop against the King, clergy and other barons. Alan subsequently escorted St Calais to the ship that took him into exile in Normandy. Alan's was at Dover with the king in late January 1091, shortly before the English fleet sailed to Normandy, annexed large parts of the Duchy including Aumale and Mont St Michel, these being of particular personal or familial significance to Alan. St Calais, whose persuasive tongue had stymied decision-making in the ducal council, was retrieved and rewarded with full restitution.

Samson, later Bishop of Worcester, was a brother of Thomas, Archbishop of York, whose good graces Alan had assiduously cultivated for years. Samson, incidentally, bears the name of a Breton saint.

Ranulf Flambard was a small landholder in 1086, and although circa 1083 William I had made him keeper of the royal seal, he had not yet risen to great prominence in royal administration.