1086, 1886, 1986 and all that

John Dodgson

  • Domesday: 900 Years of England’s Norman Heritage edited by Kate Allen
    Millbank in association with the National Domesday Committee, 192 pp, £3.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 946171 49 1
  • The Normans and the Norman Conquest by R. Allen Brown
    Boydell, 259 pp, £19.50, January 1985, ISBN 0 85115 427 1
  • The Domesday Book: England’s Heritage, Then and Now edited by Thomas Hinde
    Hutchinson, 351 pp, £14.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 09 161830 4
  • Domesday Heritage edited by Elizabeth Hallam
    Arrow, 95 pp, £3.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 09 945800 4
  • Domesday Book through Nine Centuries by Elizabeth Hallam
    Thames and Hudson, 224 pp, £12.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 500 25097 9
  • Domesday Book: A Reassessment edited by Peter Sawyer
    Arnold, 182 pp, £25.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 7131 6440 9

1986 has been notable for the return of Halley’s Comet, one of the features of the Bayeux Tapestry, which records its appearance in 1066, conveniently ominous for the tapestry’s mendacious propaganda on behalf of the Norman Conquest. 1986 sees another remarkable periodic manifestation: this year is the 900th anniversary of Domesday Book, and centennial celebrations are in progress.

Domesday Book consists of two volumes compiled in 1086: a parchment folio, Great Domesday Book, and a vellum quarto, Little Domesday Book, which are kept in the Public Record Office. It is the first and most important Public Record, and it has never been out of official custody. It is the report of a royal commission ordered by William the Conqueror to conduct a stocktaking survey of the great Anglo-Norman feudal estates of his realm of England as they stood 20 years after the Conquest: a report based on the corroborative evidence of six villagers, the priest and the steward from each village in England, sworn and recorded and reported to the Anglo-Norman Royal Exchequer through the Anglo-Saxon local government system of Hundred and Shire Courts. Thus, it is a model and a symbol of that synthesis of Norman and Anglo-Saxon theory, form and custom of administration and government which was the foundation upon which was placed the kingdom of Medieval post-Conquest England.

The National Domesday Committee and Millbank Publications have published Domesday: 900 years of England’s Norman Heritage to represent the importance of the business. The magazine, a paperback quarto, is an Establishment celebration souvenir in mixed taste, for a mixture of purposes – not the least tourism. It has a foreword by the Prince of Wales with photograph in naval uniform, carrying off a Domesday role as Duke of Cornwall; the frontispiece is a colour photograph of the Archbishop of Canterbury, a member of the Domesday Committee. By the time we reach p.ix we have been well admonished of our duty to Realm and Church despite or through a screen of advertisements by Rover, Kodak, Mathew Gloag’s, the Financial Times, the Sunday Times and Fiji Film. In his preface, Robert Smith, Chairman of the Domesday Committee, observes:

Every Briton is something of an historian. Britons have to be or they are not a hundred per cent British ... This country has been and will continue to be governed through its institutions. Through the Reformation, civil war, the rise and fall of empire, Continental and world wars, our adaptable institutions have stood the test of time ... Domesday Book was much more than a record. It was, and still reflects, a philosophy of administration unique in Europe. It was the forerunner of all local government in this country. It was the basis on which land was distributed for profit and reward, and how this land was administered and controlled. It set the scene for local accountability and parliamentary democracy.

One begins to wonder if this is what the Committee’s celebration of the 900th anniversary is all about. They want us to go on as if, given a reverence for the Institutions of Realm and Church and the inimitable benefits of Parliamentary Democracy which have descended to us over the past nine centuries from the contending hands of landed gentry and servile labour, we might expect British society to survive and outlast the complaints and machinations of desperate redundant 20th-century villeins; as if attention to History will make studious grateful Britons of the many among us nowadays who, without pedigree or property descended from the Conquest, are not (you know!) truly British; as if this very year 1986, which will see the wilful exercise of absolute central government power in the demolition of embarrassing local democratic institutions amid the ruins of Lancashire, Yorkshire and London, is the apt occasion for a celebration of local accountability and of the Domesday-Book inspiration of the County Councils. Nevertheless, this unusual magazine contains useful historical articles which give the souvenir a certain gravity and consequence beyond the range of merely tory or mere patriotic sentiment, or the requirements of an occasion.

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[*] The 1986 Facsimile of Domesday Book, edited by Ann Williams and others, Alecto Historical Editions, limited to 2000copies: comprising the Library Edition, Parts I-IV, £2500 the set before 29 May, thereafter £3000, May 1986 to late 1987, and the County Edition, 31 vols, estimated £150 per volume, October 1986 to 1989. The Phillimore Domesday Book, edited by the late John Morris and others, is in 35 volumes, £400 and £250 the set.