England’s Domesday Book

One of the most interesting examples of land surveying efforts from centuries past is William the Conqueror’s famous Domesday Book (pronounced “DOOMS-day”). Created in 1086 AD, this book took two years to compile and contains information on more than 14,000 settlements in England, including the names of all landowners, the amount of land owned and the resources on the land. Because the Domesday Book was originally produced as a method for William the Conqueror to procure tax funds for use against the Danish armies, the book also records land values and dues owed to the crown.

The Domesday Book has been seen as the first cadastral survey, a precursor to Napoleon’s cadastre survey of France undertaken in 1808. A cadastre, or cadastral survey, contains thorough information about ownership details, location (as precisely as possible, given the available technology), and as many details about land values and usage as possible.
By recording which manors rightfully belonged to which families, the Domesday Book ended years of confusion resulting from clashes between Anglo-Saxons and Normans over land ownership. Robert, Bishop of Hereford, wrote that the King’s Men “…made a survey of all England; of the lands in each of the counties; of the possessions of each of the magnates…of the services and payments due from each and every estate…after these investigators came others who were sent to unfamiliar counties to check the first description.” During preparations of the book, existing documentation was collected about lands and taxes—an important strategy that is still in use by today’s land surveyors when determining property boundaries.

Although this book contained an impressive amount of information, it actually lacked the technical details of earlier surveying methods found in ancient Egypt and Rome. The maps were somewhat inaccurate, and they were not drawn to scale. However, the level of detail recorded is quite impressive given the surveying methods in use at that time.

At the time the book was compiled, England was not a very politically stable place. Multiple political upheavals, including the Norman invasion, resulted in landowners trying to conquer one another’s land. The Domesday Book received its name because the judgment of the assessors was final: whatever the book said about ownership of a particular area of land became the law, and there was no appeal process. In some counties, the disputed lands (known as clamores) were treated separately from the rest of the land, in part because of the Domesday Book’s intended use as an arbiter of land title disagreements. William the Conqueror also intended this survey as a definitive reference point for the crown’s own property holdings so that it might be used as evidence in future disputes. The book was often used as evidence in courts of the Middle Ages; even today, occasional cases require its use.

Today, this early attempt at surveying is prized by historians and others seeking to understand Medieval life. For topographers, surveyors and genealogists, the Domesday Book represents the earliest survey of each township or manor in England. In many cases, the depth of information recorded there also provides key information for tracing land ownership back through the centuries.