The Domesday Book is one of the earliest surviving public records. It was commissioned in 1085. Domesday is a highly detailed survey and valuation of all the land held by the King and his chief tenants, along with all the resources that went with the land in late eleventh century England. The information in this book is still important to legal affairs, real estate transactions, historians, and genealogists. Even today, the book can be used in court for property disputes.
A recent survey revealed that fewer than 1% of England's population have actually been to see the original Domesday Book in The National Archives' museum. Starting this week, images of the entire book are available online for all to see.
This is a true milestone document. In 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the Anglo-Saxon King, Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings and became King of England. In 1085 England was again threatened with invasion, this time from Denmark. William had to pay for the mercenary army he hired to defend his kingdom. To do this, he needed to know what financial and military resources were available to him.
At Christmas 1085 William commissioned a survey to discover the resources and taxable values of all the boroughs and manors in England. He wanted to discover who owned what, how much it was worth and how much was owed to him as King in tax, rents, and military service. A reassessment of the tax known as the geld took place at about the same time as Domesday and still survives for the southwestern part of England.
Domesday is much more than just a tax record. It also records which manors belonged to which estates and gives the identities of the King's tenants-in-chief who owed him military service in the form of knights to fight in his army. The King was essentially interested in tracing, recording, and recovering his royal rights and revenues, which he wished to maximize. It was also in the interests of his chief barons to co-operate in the survey since it provided a permanent record of the tenurial gains they had made since 1066.
The nickname "Domesday" may refer to the Biblical Day of Judgment, or "doomsday" when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. Just as there will be no appeal on that day against his decisions, so the Domesday Book has the final word - there is no appeal beyond it as evidence of legal title to land. For many centuries Domesday was regarded as the authoritative register regarding rightful possession and was used mainly for that purpose. It was called Domesday by 1180. Before that, it was known as the Winchester Roll or King's Roll, and sometimes as the Book of the Treasury.
If you are successful at tracing English ancestry back to the eleventh century, it is likely that you will find your ancestors listed in this book. To be sure, it only lists the landed gentry. However, those are also the families that can sometimes be traced nearly one thousand years. Every person alive on earth today has millions of ancestors from the eleventh century, ignoring "pedigree collapse." If you have English ancestry, you probably have at least a few ancestors of that time listed in the Domesday Book. Your challenge is to find them and to document your lineage!
The U.K. National Archives are making online searches free, but downloads of data will cost £3.50 (approx $6.50 US). That price will purchase a copy of an original page, featuring a place name and the tenants and property of that place. It also includes a translation of the entry into modern English.
For more information or to view the Domesday Book online, go to http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domesday.