William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book

England was entirely unprepared for the political, social, and economic upheaval that would accompany the Normans as they conquered the island during the late 11th century. Lands fell to the new owner of the crown as William the Conqueror made his way through the kingdom, claiming everything as his own by right.

After the death of Edward the Confessor in January of 1066, three heirs were left to vie for the throne of England. Harold Godwinson, a prominent Anglo-Saxon with familial ties to Cnut, the King of England from 1016-1035, and the brother-in-law to Edward. Harold Hardrata of Norway, who’s father King Magnus had made a deal with Harthacnut, the King of England before Edward, that they would name the others’ son as heir should they die childless. And William Duke of Normandy, an illegitimate son to Duke Robert I of Normandy, and the heir chosen by Edward in 1051 to rule England after his death.

With Harold Godwinson ascending to the throne as Harold II in January, crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury only a day after Edward’s death, both Hardrata and William decided to invade for their right to rule. Not only did both Hardrata and William believe in their divine right to rule England, there were also rumors spread by Edward’s wife Edith that claimed Edward had not chosen Harold as his true heir. Due to the hasty ascension to the throne after Edward’s death, much suspicion remains today about the true motivations of both Harold and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hardrata decided to align himself with Harold’s brother, Tostig, and invaded from the north in September. At the Battle of Stamford Bridge on September 25th, Harold II defeated Hardrata and Tostig, killing them both during battle. This outcome left William as the only heir remaining to challenge Harold II.

After receiving the papal banner from Pope Alexander II, William had the Pope’s approval for a military campaign and began his preparations for invasion. On September 28th, William landed in Pevensey Bay and started his campaign for the crown of England by moving toward Hastings.

Harold II rushed south after his victory at Stamford Bridge to stop William’s invasion at Hastings. It was here that the decisive Battle of Hastings decided the course history would take.

The Battle of Hastings began on October 14th, 1066 and has become one of the most well-known battles in England’s history. Due to the superiority of the Norman cavalry, and clever strategy on William’s part, the invading Normans won. During the battle, Harold II was struck by a random, high-arched arrow that landed behind England’s lines and killed him. The army fell apart quickly after the death of their king, and much of England’s aristocracy was killed in the following mayhem, as well as all of Harold’s brothers, leaving England without a clear line of succession.

William hoped the English people would surrender after the death of their King, but they resisted. It was not until nearly three months had passed in early December that William was able to reach and finally conquer London, after having had to conquer the lands on his way there. On Christmas day, 1066, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England after defeating the armies of the remaining lords.

A map of the Norman invasion of England

The years following the coronation were plagued with warfare between English lords and William’s invading Norman forces. Due to the fact that many Englishmen did not willingly submit to William’s rulership, William was forced to battle for every inch of English soil. Not only did this have a profound impact on the political atmosphere at the time, but also on the social hierarchy of England’s population.

During the conquest, William built many castles as he and his men moved through England, suppressing rebellions and ensuring loyalty to his new rule. Motte and bailey castles were most common, as they only took a few days to build. Larger, stone castles were built in cities to function as both bastions and symbols of Norman authority and power. As William put down rebellions, he confiscated much of England’s land and gave this land to his fellow Normans who came to England during the Conquest. Since William confiscated and redistributed land all across England, all the land was considered a fief, land held in return for service, of some kind. Therefore, William introduced feudalism on a scale unseen in Europe.

Arguably two of England's most famous castles, both Windsor Castle (left) and the Tower of London (right) as well as many other castles (some say as many as 700) were originally built by William the Conqueror in an effort to solidify his power and influence over the country he had just concurred.

Not only were these redistributed lands considered a fief, but the new ruling Norman aristocracy brought their style of rulership to England as well. Feudalism, a social system that describes the relationship between a lord and vassal that ranged widely and could include land tenure or military support or monetary exchanges that was popular in continental Europe at the time. This relationship and style of hierarchy was brought over by the Normans and replaced the English system which heavily relied on close-knit ties between lords, traders, and vassals.

Under the new feudal system, the King was at the top of society and all justice was meted out through him.This new feudal system created an interconnected web between the king, lords, vassals, and slaves. Not only did this completely change the social hierarchy, but it also created a way for the king to reap rewards from across the island as all people were his subjects and as the rightful ruler, he owned all that was on English soil.

In 1085, Danish forces threatened to invade England and in order to raise an army, William needed to know how much he was owed in taxes and which nobles would provide knights to him. Following the redistribution of land during the Norman conquest, a census was needed to ensure the king was paid what was owed.  

On Christmas, in 1085, William commissioned the creation of a census, which would later become known as the Domesday book. Although the book was not referred to as Domesday until the 12th century, the name was given due to the book’s similarity to the biblical “doomsday” or “day of judgement,” because both were considered unalterable. The true reason the book was considered unalterable was because it laid the foundations for English society and was utilized as a reference for many decades to come.

In 1086, agents of the crown traveled across the kingdom and took note of every borough and manor. The Domesday book, written in two parts called “Little Domesday” and “Domesday,” detailed out who owned what land, how much it was worth, and what was owed to the king in the form of taxes, rents, and military service. The extensive survey notes names, how many animals were owned, how many tenants lived on the land, and how many free and unfree peasants worked the land. The information contained in the Domesday book would determine taxes, military service, and land ownership for many years to come and would remain the main ledger used by future Kings of England.

The Domesday book

Although the true purpose of Domesday has never been officially recorded, there is speculation that it could have been intended as information for William to utilize during the Salisbury Oath. This Oath took place in August of 1086, the same month Domesday was finished. During the Oath, all tenants-in-chief, men who held land, swore allegiance to William. The survey informed William about all the land and holdings that belonged to him as King and solidified his knowledge of what was owed to him by those taking their oaths. During this oath taking, Normans who had been given lands by William also relied on Domesday as a way to lay official claim to their new titles. The political, social, and economic shifts that occurred during the Norman Conquest, were solidified by the creation of Domesday.

William died on September 9th, 1087, only 1 year after the completion of Domesday. While the impact of the book may not have been heavily utilized during his lifetime, it continued as the most detailed census ever created in England until the 18th century. The Norman Conquest not only brought the concept of feudalism to England, but it completely altered the course of history. William brought about political, social, and economic change by blending English and Norman culture. The lasting impact of King William is synonymous with the impact of England emerging as a powerful medieval empire.

About the author

Lindsey Peterson

Lindsey is a freelance writer, editor, and history buff based in the US.