[Flower logo of the Medieval History Course] Domesday Book (1086)

Simon Schama, A history of Britain [Dynasty 5026-5455, 4'00]
The Domesday Book (1086)

We tend to think of William as more or less permanently in the saddle. He grew up in a world, after all, where authority was usually delivered on the blade of a sword. So it's all the more impressive that he seems to have understood instinctively that information could also be power. William the conqueror was the first database king.

His immediate need was to raise a tax. But the compilation of the Domesday Book was more than just a glorified audit. It was a complete inventory of everything in the kingdom, shire by shire, pig by pig; who had owned what before the coming of the Normans and who owned what now. How much it had been worth then and how much now.

'The King sent his men all over England, into every shire, to find out how many hundred bides there were in each shire, what land and cattle the king himself had in the country. So very narrowly did he have it investigated, there was no single hide nor - shame to relate it, but it seemed no shame to him - was there one ox or one cow left out and not put down in record.'

While some of the information was taken verbally by William's scribes, some must have owed its existence to Saxon records. The most extraordinary paradox about the Domesday Book is that what we think of as a monument to the power and strength of the Normans owned itself to the advanced machinery of government left in place by the old Anglo-Saxon monarchy. And it was thanks to this that the data was collected at such lightning speed, less than six months.

The results were presented to William here at Old Sarum, an ancient Iron-Age fort inside which he'd built a spectacular royal palace. When he took hold of the Domesday Book, it was though William had been handed the keys to the kingdom all over again, as if he'd re-conquered England, but this time statistically, because its information was more impregnable than any castle. It was called the Domesday Book, after all, because it was said its decisions were as final as the Last Judgment.

The Church itself holds Wenlock. There were 20 hides, four of which are exempt from tax under King Canute. There were 15 slaves, two mills serve the monks, plus one fishery. Enough woodland to fatten 300 pigs, and two hedged enclosures, value now 12 pounds.'

Two ceremonies took place on Lammas Day, 1087, at Old Sarum. First, every noble in England gathered here to take an oath of loyalty to the king. Then came the handing over of the Book, the ultimate weapon to keep them in line. Nobody could hold back anything, and it was this book, the Domesday Book, that made the gathering at Old Sarum unique in the history of feudal monarchy in Europe. For the Book ultimately WAS England.

For centuries after, this was the secret of English government, a partnership between the power of the landed classes and the authority of the state, between the guardians of the green acres and the keeper of knowledge. In the right hand corner, the gentry: in the left hand corner, the civil service. In between them, the eternal umpire, the king.