Two Great and three Little Domesday volumes

Introduction to the
Great and Little
Domesday Books

What is the Domesday Book?
In 1086 King William the Conqueror initiated a great survey of the 37 counties of England and part of north Wales. This survey took only seven months which indicates the efficiency of the administrative and judicial processes in place at the time.

The survey was done county by county, and within each county the entries were by landlord. Each landlord could hold rights to land in several hundreds, all over the county, so individual settlements or villages may be referred to on many different pages.

An Anglo-Saxon scribe described the making of Domesday Book in Version E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 1085:

"Then at Christmas the king was at Gloucester with the council and held his court there for five days, and then the archbishop and clerics had a synod for three days. There Maurice was elected Bishop Of London, and William for Norfolk, and Robert for Cheshire: they were all clerics of the king. After this the king had much thought and very deep discussion [mycel geðeaht and swiðe deope spæce] with his council about this country — how it was occupied and with what sort of people. Then he sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were in the shire or what land and cattle the king himself in the country, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. Also he had a record made of how much land the archbishops had, and his bishops and his abbots and his earls — and though I relate it at too great length — what or how much everybody had who was occupying land in England, in land and cattle and how much money it was worth. So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor virgate of land, nor indeed (it is a shame to relate though it seemed to him no shame to do) one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out, and not put down in his record [on his gewrite]; and all these records were brought to him afterwards."

The scale of the survey was unprecedented in Europe at the time, and not repeated in Britain until the census in the 19th century. Although its exact purpose is unclear, the Domesday Book records people's rights to land and their duties to give tax and military service.

The administrative systems used were essentially those of the Saxon Kings from before 1066. This illustrates the highly developed nature of English government before the Conquest.

When the survey was completed, the task of evaluating all the reports and abridging them into a codified form was undertaken centrally. The resulting book was known as the Book of Winchester, or Liber de Wintonia, and was, of course, written by hand, and was in Latin. Writing up the Book of Winchester after the survey took up to four years.

Bishop Henry of Winchester, King William's grandson, wrote that "the natives called it Domesday Book, by analogy from the Day of Judgement".

The Domesday Book was first bound around 1100, in two volumes subsequently distinguished as Great and Little Domesday. Their names refer to the size of their parchment leaves rather than to their bulk. The folios of Great Domesday measure 15 x 11 inches, but those of Little Domesday, which was slightly the fatter volume, measures 11 x 8 inches.

Great Domesday covers most of England except for Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex, which make up the contents of Little Domeday. Great Domesday also excluded Northumbria, possibly because it had not been shired into Hundreds and therefore had no local government structure as such. Cumberland was also excluded because it was effectively part of Scotland at the time.

Great Domesday was also much more consistent and structured in its recording than Little Domesday, and was produced in much less detail and in a different page format. For these reasons, scholars have concentrated upon Great Domesday, and so the three counties of East Anglia have been somewhat neglected.

Modern editions of the Domesday Book
The original text to the Domesday Book has only once been set and printed, and that was in 1783. This text by Abraham Farley, called "Domesday Book, seu Liber Censualis Willelmi Primi Regis Angliae", was printed for Parliament in 1783 and published by the Records Commission in 1817. A special font exactly reproducing the Domesday script was produced to print this transcription. The project took 16 years to prepare and cost the government £38,000 at the time. Marginal notes and what was thought to be extraneous matter were deliberately left out.

This transcription by Farley was re-published in 1986 by Phillimore and Co together with an English translation from the original Latin. Individual County volumes have been available for several years now, and were for a long time, the only usable sources of Domesday information.

In 1984 a great new project was initiated when the Domesday Books were unbound in order to be photographed for the first facsimile edition to be produced. This project took several years and by 2000 the Alecto Millenium Edition of Great Domesday was published at a price out of reach of most people. Little Domesday was produced at a later date.

An English edition of the full text was taken from the Alecto edition and published as a Penguin Classic in 2002. Unforunately, this edition omits the marginal notes included in the Alecto edition. A further anomoly of this edition is that the index is rather weak. For example, you will not find Bury St Edmunds in its index, although it is to be found in the text, described as, "In the town where St Edmund the glorious King and Martyr lies buried......."

In the year 2000 the Domesday Explorer CD-Rom of Great Domesday was published by a team under the auspices of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Since 2007, if you have access to the internet, the full text of both Great and Little Domesday can be downloaded from the Domesday Explorer website at:

In 2002 the Alecto translations of both Great and Little Domesday were made available in the form of a CD-Rom, together with a free text search engine and images from both the original folios and the 1783 transcription.

Suffolk Landowners in 1086
Little Domesday - (Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex)
The Domesday reports fill 913 pages and describe over 13,000 places in England and parts of Wales. The handwriting shows that a single clerk wrote most of Great Domesday, with a second clerk checking the work and adding notes.

The task of writing up the Domesday Book from the Commissioners' reports was apparently not completed by the time of King William I's death in mid-1087.

The accepted wisdom is that the remaining reports for Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex therefore remained unabridged and were copied as they were, into a second volume, sometimes called the Little Domesday Book. Little Domesday is therefore a more detailed version for the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. It was the work of perhaps as many as 7 clerks.

The report for Suffolk thus contains more detailed information than in most other counties, but it is thought that it may suffer from mistakes that might otherwise have been found by the reviewers.

The survey for Suffolk closes with these words -
"This survey was made in the One thousand and eighty sixth year since the incarnation of the Lord, and in the twentieth of the reign of William, not only through these three counties but also through the others."

The Survey Questions
Just like any modern survey, there was a list of questions to be asked. The form and order of the questions help to explain the otherwise strange wording of many of the entries in Little Domesday. According to a scribe at Ely Abbey, these questions were:-
  1. The name of the place. Who held it, before 1066, and now?
  2. How many hides? (a hide is 120 acres, but within the Danelaw the same area was thought to be called a Carucate). How many ploughs, both those in lordship and the men's?
  3. How many villagers, cottagers and slaves, how many free men and Freemen?
  4. How much woodland, meadow and pasture?
  5. How many mills and fishponds?
  6. How much has been added or taken away?
  7. What the total value was and is?
  8. How much each free man or Freeman had or has?
  9. All threefold, before 1066, when King William gave it, and now, and if more can be had than at present.
Who gave Evidence?
The great survey could only be undertaken by using the existing system of Saxon administration. Seven circuits were set up and each circuit had four Commissioners. They called all the Shire Courts together for special meetings, and their juries had to give evidence to the Commissioners. There were village juries and Hundred juries as well as Shire juries.

The Commissioners' took evidence on oath from the sheriff, from all the barons and their Frenchmen, and from the whole hundred, the priests, reeves and six villagers from each village.

Old English society was under new management, but little else had changed. Villages were grouped into administrative districts, called Hundreds, which formed regions within Shires, or Counties. The local assemblies gave men a voice which the Commissioners heeded.

Abbreviato c.1241
What happened to the Survey afterwards? - The Abbreviato
This early image of a black man is found in a rare Abbreviatio (or abbreviation) of the Domesday Book that was probably created by monks of Westminster Abbey in the mid thirteenth century. The man holds on to a capital letter 'I' that decorates the beginning of a page.

The Abbreviatio was a working document for officials of the king's Exchequer. They used it to consult the original volumes of the Domesday Book. They added notes to it during the course of their work.

Exchequer officials relied on Domesday Book to collect income for the Crown, because it recorded people's duties to give tax. By the thirteenth century, it was also used to find proof of landholding, tenures, boundaries, legal rights and titles to settle disputes over land. Of course, this Abbreviatio grew increasingly out of date and the Crown later had to commission new surveys.

However, this shows that the Domesday survey was used for a variety of purposes for at least 200 years.

The Domesday Chest
Where is the Domesday Book found today?
The Domesday Books were originally so important, and so regularly used as part of government, that they were kept with the royal treasury at Winchester. From the early 13th century, when they were not travelling around with the King, the volumes were housed in Westminster at first in the palace and then in the abbey. (The Abbreviato was probably used for any day to day needs from this time.) From about 1600 the original volumes were kept in a large iron-clad chest which was reinforced with iron straps. The chest had three different locks, the keys to which were divided between three different officials, so that it could only be opened by consent of all three. In 1859 the Domesday volumes were removed to the new Public Record Office in Chancery Lane, London.

The two Domesday volumes have been rebound on at least five occasions before 1986. In 1986 they were rebound to mark the celebration of Domesday’s nine-hundredth anniversary. During those rebindings a number of leaves were added, though no alteration was made to the text. At the same time a programme of digitally photographing every page of Domesday was carried out by a company called Alecto. In 1986 both original volumes were carefully conserved, and it was decided, for their continued well-being and to facilitate reference to them, to divide Great Domesday into two parts and Little Domesday into three.

In 1996 the Domesday volumes were moved to The National Archives at Kew, where they now reside.

Prepared for the St Edmundsbury History Project
by David Addy, September 2004

Books consulted:
The Domesday Book - Facsimile with Translation, published by Phillimore Suffolk volume
Information on the Abbreviato is from the National Archives online from Kew

Go to Domesday Home Page Updated 17th November 2009 Go to Main Home Page