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.

The National Committee’s brochure says ‘Domesday’s 900th anniversary will be the media event of 1986,’ and outlines a programme: presentation of the Domesday facsimile to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Courts of Justice (Her Majesty will not lack for Domesday Books by the end of the year); jousting in Regents Park and Norwich; Domesday weeks in London, Winchester, Norwich and other historic towns; traditional mayor-making ceremony in Norwich; giant laser show in Hyde Park; special Domesday stamp issue; BBC Domesday project involving 300,000 people (at Wembley?); Domesday Summer Ball at Hampton Court Palace. So far, there have been cocktails at Brooks’s with the Master of the Rolls and Millbank Publications (to which your reviewer was not invited), and a jolly good party (to which he was) at the College of Heralds with Garter Principal King of Arms, where the forthcoming full-colour photofacsimile of Domesday Book was advertised by Publications Alecto. Meanwhile, in the Great Hall at Winchester, the Phillimore edition was exhibited, and the Alecto facsimile again advertised, in the very place where the original Domesday Book was in hand in 1086.[*]

The impending 1986 celebrations might well have prompted the publication of the second edition of Allen Brown’s The Normans and the Norman Conquest. Originally published in 1969, this book presents the Conquest of England as a part of the Norman ‘expansion’ which also colonised Sicily and Antioch. It is corrective of the Anglo-Saxon propaganda of Freeman and Stenton, proper to bear in mind as we contemplate the 900-year history of a great monument which the Norman administrative and political genius constructed upon the durable remains of Anglo-Saxon custom.

The Introduction of Brown’s book should be made compulsory reading for every Beowulf- and Maldon-inspired romantic eulogist of that well lost world in which the unscrupulous and ambitious half-Scandinavian clan of the upstart Earl Godwin and his sons usurped the authority and eventually the kingdom of the unpretentious and unimpressive half-Norman Edward the Confessor – a world whose social structure and legal forms and local customs were clearly recollected or remembered by the deponents who testified to the DB commissioners. Yet it would be, still, as well to weigh Allen Brown’s reasonable apology for the Norman achievement against V.H. Galbraith’s reservation: ‘We shall not go too far in maintaining that the imperfect hold of later English Kings upon the allegiance of their barons goes right back to their awareness that the feudal settlement described in the pages of Domesday Book was based upon an initial lie. William’s title to the throne was no better than that of Harold, indeed it was worse.’ Neither the later propaganda fabrication of the Bayeux Tapestry, nor the legal inventions of the Norman Chroniclers, nor the patently invented claim of DB itself, that King William the Conqueror was the direct heir and successor of King Edward the Confessor, can remove the manifest and documented fact that King Harold Godwinsson did indeed, and in law, reign as King of England.

The forthcoming full-colour facsimile of Domesday Book by Editions Alecto will be a great event of the year. It will be expensive and elegant, and beautiful on desk and wall, in study and picture frame. To the studious reader, it will be a valuable substitute for first-hand access to the original manuscripts. These, if replaced by a good imitation in the Public Record Office, Chancery Lane showcase, could probably now be permanently locked away, in their clean new binding, in some air-conditioned vault at Kew, safe from dirt and fingerprints, damp, fire, explosion and radiation, bookworm, mildew, rats and molestation, for the first time in a millennium, and from potentially dangerous public access for the first time in a century and a half.

A no less important event of the year, and, no doubt, a more commonly used publication, as being cheaper by far and more immediately intelligible to layman and student alike, will be the translation and reprint of Abraham Farley’s 1783 edition of Domesday Book published by Phillimore under the general editorship of John Morris, as part of their ‘History from the Sources’ series. This was put in hand in 1969 and the first parts were published in 1975; the work was delayed by Dr Morris’s death in 1977. This now-completed edition, which includes a supplementary-volume Boldon Book, a 12th-century survey relating to Northumberland and Co. Durham, has been produced by the continuous effort of the late Morris’s friends and colleagues, who have tried to realise his intention of ‘a layman’s Domesday Book the scholar can use, and a scholar’s the layman can read’. It is the first which presents the text in parallel translation, in county parts, for the entire document. The text has only once before been set and printed complete, in Farley’s edition, the preparation of which had taken 16 years. The surviving copies of Farley’s edition have become expensive and relatively inaccessible to the general reader. Translations of various kinds and of differing accuracy have been published at several times and places for most individual counties, but many of these are out of print and others only available as part of large and costly volumes; and in many instances the technical terms used in Domesday Book are not translated. The Morris edition identifies the few errors detected in Farley’s Latin text. In addition to the parallel modern English translation (which is as uniform as possible), it provides an apparatus of maps, and historical, biographical and textual notes, glosses of technical terms and indexes of names of persons and places. The notes are addressed to the layman in plain English yet they are never less than expert. They often go beyond what is reported in the standard academic reference books in order to present new insights into the identity and significance of the people, places and things of Domesday Book England.

Of Domesday Book, Morris observed in his preface: ‘The Survey was unmatched in Europe for many centuries, but its unique assemblage of facts and figures has been hard to study because of the sheer difficulty of getting to the text and of reading and deciphering it. Investigation has therefore been chiefly confined to specialists. Many questions of interest to the wider reading public have been out of reach for lack of a cheap text and a reliable translation.’ The new edition has certainly solved that problem; and Phillimore’s have now, very comprehensively indeed, rounded out their already impressive list of publications on Domesday Book.

For the first time we now have a complete Domesday Book translated, researched and published without fanfare and parade, done county by county in a reliable and well-printed text, with explanations and introductions plainly addressed to layman and expert alike, in a handy functional format, at reasonable price. It is already much used by students and it is already prompting and informing, in universities as far apart as Hull and Santa Barbara, the computerised analysis which will be the basis of the next hundred years’ work. Thus, this edition will survive and complement the publication of the grander production which is in hand elsewhere.

The Domesday Book: England’s Heritage, and its pup Domesday Heritage, are very different from the Morris edition, but they both gratefully advertise and use it. They belong, like Domesday: 900 Years, to the coffee-table and tourist-guide categories, but they, too, contain some good material. Dr Elizabeth Hallam, Assistant Keeper at the Public Record Office, has written the attractive and knowledgeable introduction to Domesday Book which appears in both. More importantly, she has written Domesday Book through Nine Centuries, a gracefully informative book, for both the professional and the amateur historian: its plain narrative not impeded by apparatus, nonetheless thoroughly researched and precisely annotated; generously and relevantly illustrated; very nicely designed and produced. This work records the physical history, the unbroken custody and the travels of the manuscripts of Great and Little Domesday Book, an interesting cautionary, moral and antiquarian tale in itself. But the work is also very entertaining on the subject of Domesday Book as a working legal document. She observes that already in the 19th century its practical uses were eclipsed by its growing importance as a museum piece. In 1854, Domesday Book was reported by a curator as ‘seldom or never asked for as a book of record or reference or evidence but only looked on as a curiosity or relic ... and, as a relic, I would religiously preserve it even as they preserve the 13 (original) heads of John the Baptist ... for it would be equally efficacious in working miracles and can boast greater antiquity than most of them.’ Although it has been a working document of legal force through its 900 years, Domesday Book has been invested with a myth which will protect it even if it ever does attain complete legal redundancy. ‘The “Domesday myth” has ... endowed it with symbolic attributes of many different kinds and has given it the reputation for containing an apparently endless fund of information.’

Hallam gives a lucid account of the importance of Domesday Book as a key to the feudal and fiscal mysteries of Ancient Demesne, which could be read alongside Galbraith’s Domesday Book: Its Place in Administrative History (1974). In Medieval times, as Hallam tells us, tenants in Ancient Demesne of the crown of England did not have to attend the County or Hundred courts, serve on juries, pay taxes with the men of the county or contribute to the expenses of Members of Parliament (oh, for the good old days!); they were free from paying tolls and customs even though they could be taxed directly by the king at will. Villein sokemen of the Ancient Demesne were subject only to fixed and usually nominal labour services.

This is where the mythology arises. From the 13th century to about 1950, the year of publication of R.S. Hoyt’s The Royal Demesne in English Constitutional History 1066-1272, the privileged tenure held by the villeins of the Ancient Demesne was thought to be a survival from pre-Conquest times. They were regarded as descendants of the free Anglo-Saxons whom the Normans were supposed to have removed from their holdings but later readmitted as villeins. The origin of the Ancient Demesne rights was thought to have been in the protection offered by Anglo-Saxon kings to their free peasants. The powerful myth about the origin of Ancient Demesne which pleased the inventive Victorian romantic Germanist historians was extended and developed in the conception of a lost ‘Ancient Constitution’, jointly inspired by a 19th-century romantic view of the Anglo-Saxon world and by a contemporary pursuit of social and political reform. Thomas Evans, cited by Hallam, wrote in 1816: ‘Our divine institutions, our real constitution, established by our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, was destroyed by the tyranny of the Norman Conquest. If conquest gives right, and right is the best title to the possession of land, as our laws allow, and our lawyers contend, and the Domesday Book, made by William the Norman, is the most ancient and efficient record to which our courts refer, now is the time to cancel this record, to call upon these proprietors and possessors by conquest for a restoration’.

Behind the history and politics of Toulmin Smith, Stubbs and Freeman lay an idealising notion of this lost Anglo-Saxon constitution: it had preceded those surviving Medieval legal and political institutions which in modern times still impeded radical liberal reform. Here was an ancient constitution which might be recovered and reinstated in a reformed local government – eventually realised in the County Council, to say nothing of universal adult suffrage.

In 1986, even more than it already was in 1854, Domesday Book is an ancient monument, a hallowed relic, a totem, perhaps thereby more potent than in its old function as a documentary instrument of law and state. Dr Hallam’s book sympathetically traces the history of this evolution. Professor Sawyer’s is part of the history of the examination of the monument, and is more concentrated upon problems. Both works are successors and heirs to Galbraith’s ‘The Making of Domesday Book’ (English Historical Review 1942). Hallam entertains her public with tales about pleas of Ancient Demesne and about unsuitable storage in Westminster Chapter House. Professor Sawyer and his fellow contributors impress on professionals the need to keep on working at the meaning of the text.

John Blair and G.H. Martin scan the text for evidence of the state of Secular Minster Churches and Borough towns respectively. Howard Clarke, on the Domesday ‘satellites’, follows up Galbraith and presents a concise list of the MSS which contain the texts of the Domesday Book family of documents. Sally Harvey writes an essay on the term ‘ploughland’ which is an interesting study of the relationship between text, meaning and significance: carucatum means ‘ploughland, land for a plough’; this may signify a plough, a plough-team of eight oxen, enough leasowe and winter feed for eight oxen; and it also, or alternatively, signifies a fiscal valuation – a ploughland may be matched by a plough but it may not (some manors answer for more ploughs than ploughlands, some for more ploughlands than ploughs). John Percival discusses some possible Continental precursors of the Domesday Book. There is still nothing quite like it, but the Normans in England were heirs to a Norman tradition of administration and government as well as appropriators of an Anglo-Saxon one. Alex Rumble contributes a thorough inspection of the Domesday Book Manuscripts, as written texts, and indicates the direction that future research may take: there may be a lot of movement here when the current rebinding and photography have been assimilated into the apparatus of study. And John Palmer, who has made a cumulative index of the Phillimore edition, writes perhaps the most potential essay of them all, about Domesday Book and the computer. The electronic computer would have delighted the minds while it astonished the souls of the Domesday compilers and their Exchequer successors. Peter Sawyer reviews Domesday Book studies since 1886 and charts their progress from the era of Round and Freeman and Maitland, into the era after Galbraith and Domesday Re-Bound (PRO, 1954) represented by himself and his collaborators. He also contributes an essay on Tenure which the layman should read with Hallam’s chapter, and after Galbraith’s, on Ancient Demesne.

Domesday Book records those statistics which mattered in 1086, those of the royal demesne and the feudal lordships: it sees them against the substructure of customary revenues and obligations in a kingdom of England which extended from the English Channel to Furness, Cartmel and Kentdale in the North-West and the Tees in the North-East, and from the North Sea to the Welsh Marches. That was a matter for celebration in 1886, at the 800th anniversary, in the pride of, and at the heart of, an apparently powerful and prosperous empire, even though hardly anybody present then seems to have known for sure what Domesday Book was, and many of them differed profoundly about what it represented. The celebrations now going forward are not so hard to explain. We are celebrating in 1986, as we could not in 1886, the hope that we have found out what Domesday Book is, why it was done, how it was done, when it was done, almost certainly who did it, what it omits and ignores and what its documentary process was; and the fact that most of the scholars who study Domesday Book nowadays can read it and know how to (not the same thing at all), unlike their predecessors of a century ago. Peter Sawyer’s book illustrates the fast progress of Domesday studies in the last hundred years. Those studies may advance much faster with the aid of the computer. At this rate, the next ‘Domesday’ centenary celebration, and its accompanying electronic editions, may be both millennial and apocalyptic.

[*] 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.