‘Domesday Book is England’s first – and arguably
most remarkable – public record. Although written more than nine
centuries ago it is still legally admissible evidence on title to land.
It is at once the foundation document of our national archival
heritage, a matchless historical source and an icon linking England’s
past with her present and future.’
Dr Elizabeth Hallam, Public Record Office
At Christmas in 1085 William the Conqueror commanded his civil servants to survey the 34 Counties that then constituted England. This included classifying and valuing mills, plough lands, ox teams, saltpans, fish ponds, vineyards, castles, agriculture and trade.
With a population of around one and a half million people, the king needed to know who his tenants were, what title they had to their land and what it was worth for taxation purposes. But the survey also covers local customs and disputes thereby providing a picture of life in nearly every village and town almost ten centuries ago. It has also been consulted for legal precedent and was last cited in 1982, a mere 896 years after it was first written!
Of the 13,418 places named, almost all are still occupied but not as they were. Birmingham, for example, was merely a village, and Hampstead was valued at 5 shillings. We can still relate to, and trace, not only the place names but also those of people. Contrary to myth, not all of the country was forested – indeed, as much was under cultivation as in the 19th Century.
So detailed was its coverage and so invasive was the process of the survey that the native English nicknamed it Domesday Book, after the Day of Judgement against which there could be no appeal. Within a century this name had officially superseded its original names, the Winchester Roll or the King’s Roll.
In 1984 the Public Record Office at Kew took the historic decision to unbind the original Domesday manuscripts and invited Alecto Historical Editions to undertake the publication of a facsimile. Reproducing this in various different formats (see below) as the first and only ‘brilliant forgery’ or ‘indecently exact facsimile’, to quote Professor Geoffrey Martin, the then Keeper of Public Records and custodian of the original Domesday, has taken many years. Not only was each double page carefully laid flat and photographed actual size using a plate camera the size of a modest family car, but it was then printed using a continuous-tone lithographic process, making so exact a copy of the original that the ‘hair’ side of the old sheepskin folios can be distinguished from the ‘flesh’ of the reverse. It is highly unlikely that Domesday will be reproduced again in the next few centuries, due to the near perfect facsimile copies achieved by Alecto.