Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Domesday Book Definition:

An 1086 land census conducted in England.

Related Terms: Feudal System

A census of land ownership in England circa 1086 commissioned by the recent Norman conquerors,  and used to establish payors and rates of taxation to the crown.

As this was the de facto first ever formal legal record of land ownership in England,  we has been an essential piece of evidence in many subsequent disputes over land or where ownership of land might otherwise resolve a related dispute, such as titles and peerage.

The census was recorded in two volumes, a Great Domesday and a Little Domesday.

Bruce Paeerson wrote:

"In 1085, so the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles relate, the king met at Gloucester with his ministers. This meeting evidently included almost all the nobility of any note, as well as the clergy. From this council, which is said to have lasted five days, the king sent his commissioners into every corner of England. These men were to ascertain how many hundred hides in every shire, how much land the king held, and the numbers of cattle thereon. This information was to be compiled within a year and written returns were to be sent to the king at Winchester. These reports were in turn re-checked by a second set of commissioners, and from these raw materials came forth the Domesday Book itself.

"The information sought by William in the survey ran, with a few local variations, like this: how is each manor called; who held it at the time of Edward; who holds it now; how many hides; how many plow teams are in the demesne; how many belong to the tenants; how many villeins, cotarii, servi, free men, sokemen; how much wood, meadow, and pasture; how much has been added or taken away; how much all is worth together, and how much each free man had or has. Each question was answered as of three times at the time of King Edward, when King William gave it, and at the time of the survey.

"The Domesday Book itself has been variously named; in the record itself it is referred to as Liber de Wintonia; however, the term most probably referred to the great survey rather than to the compilation itself. The Dialogus de Scaccario states that it was so called by the people because it reminded them of the Day of Judgment, so terrible and searching was the inquiry.

"The survey is contained in two volumes, one of which deals with only three counties, the other with the remainder of England. Actually, not all of England was covered. Three counties in the north-Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland-were omitted, as was the County of Durham."

According to the 1980 edition of the Oxford Companion to Law:

"A record in two volumes, containing respectively 382 folios covering 30 counties (sometimes called Great Domesday) and 450 smaller folios covering East Anglia (called Little Domesday), the latter volume being possibly the earlier and giving more but less good information than the former.

"Not all counties in England are covered, some being included in other counties and the northern counties not being included at all.

"(The Domesday Book) was made in 1086 by seven or eight panels of royal commissioners sent round the country to collect information which they obtained from sworn inquests and making returns which were checked by a second set of commissioners. The results were summarized and put in order by royal clerks at Winchester. The main purpose oft he inquiry was to ascertain the extent and value of the lands of the King and his tenants in chief, and fiscal, to afford a basis for assessing Danegeld...."


  • Peterson, Bruce, The Danegeld and its Effects on the Development of Property Law, 66 Dick. L. Rev. 443 (1961-1962)
  • Walker, David, The Oxford Companion to Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), page 372.

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