The year is 1085 and life in England is changing. Invasions have come and gone for centuries. William the Conquerer has been ruling England for over 20 years, ruthlessly crushing rebellions throughout this time in the northern territories, becoming ever more fearful of Viking invasions from abroad. The flow of information at this time was very fragmented, often taking weeks and months to be exchanged and acted upon. As a result, there was little accountability and it was very difficult to measure the public purse. By having an accurate depiction of land/ property holdings and resources it would allow the King to gain a better understanding of the taxes he could raise that could pay for an army, as well as gain knowledge into the health of the economy at the time. This was the beginning of England’s first national census.
The logistics of collecting such information is fascinating. The Crown appointed commissioners who would travel to different locations to assess the wealth and assets of the King’s subjects. In total it contains records from 13,481 settlements with the information being consolidated in a single 483-page book. It was later named the ‘Doomsday Book’ in the 12th century due to its radical and extensive nature given that everything across England’s land was accounted for. As the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" declared, "not a rood of land, not a peasant's hut, not an ox, cow, pig, or even a hive of bees escaped”. ‘Doomsday’ in the bible refers to the last judgment when the deeds of Christians written in the Book of Life were to be placed before God for judgement - the Conqueror was making his own judgement.
The Doomsday Book offers a fascinating depiction of medieval life at that time. Whilst the report showed the wealth and economic resources of the country, it also showed the suffering the country had passed through as a result of the rebellions against William the Conqueror. Many towns had fallen into decay; the existing aristocracy almost disappeared with the majority being replaced by Norman Barons and Lords; and, much of the northern regions were written off as they had previously been laid waste to.
The Doomsday Book also allows us to delve deeper into the workings of Englands feudal society. Under the feudal system, the King stood at the top of the feudal ladder and all land was held by him, either directly or indirectly. The King granted parcels of land called fiefs to the tenants beneath him - his chief Barons, Bishops and Abbots. This was partly as a reward for helping him to conquer the kingdom, partly to keep their loyalty, and partly to ensure that land was being securely held for him. From the book we can ascertain that the King held about 1/7 of the total landed wealth, the Church held quarter and almost a quarter was held by 12 of the King’s leading Barons.
As the earliest and most complete account of life and politics in the 11th century, the book is arguably one of the most important in English history. Further to this, it sets out the importance of collecting and categorising societal information. Though King William very much used the census to his advantage alone, the ability to quantify information about the health and economic wellbeing of the population proves invaluable today. Without this vital information, how can tax be accurately calculated to ensure the continued wellbeing of us all? When disasters strike, how would rescuers otherwise know who and how many people need saving? And in times of crisis, like the present threat of COVID-19, to be able to predict the likely spread of the virus using population statistics will save lives.