Domesday Book (Not By Dan Brown) Digitised By National Archives

By Caroline Lewis | 03 August 2006
page from a yellowed book with the title Somerset in red ink and text in medieval script

Now that it's online, people should become more familiar with the Domesday Book. Courtesy National Archives © Alecta

Some people will be surprised to hear that the Domesday Book features not a plot by the bestselling author of the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, but a register of plots of land and real life characters, according to the results of a survey commissioned by The National Archives.

The survey, carried out in advance of the launch of a fully searchable, digitised online version of the medieval document, found that two per cent of those asked thought that it was a novel by Dan Brown, while another 13 per cent believed it to be a chapter in the Bible!

In fact, the Domesday Book was ordered by William the Conquerer in 1085, nearly 20 years after he took charge of England following the Battle of Hastings. The Norman king wanted to know more about his land, in particular what taxes were at his disposal that could be used to raise an army.

The research that went into the census over the coming years was very thorough – according to the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle ‘not one ox, or cow, nor one pig was left out’. Now, the oldest public record held by The National Archives can be searched online at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domesday, for the first time.

photo of a man in a suit wearing white gloves with his hands on a large book

Domesday expert Adrian Ailes. Courtesy National Archives

“It is a fantastic achievement for the National Archives to put Domesday Book online,” said Adrian Ailes, Domesday expert at The National Archives. “It is important that people of all ages should be able to read and use this national treasure. Everyone can now enter The National Archives website, discover how and why Domesday was made and read about its enormous importance in history.”

In 2005, Domesday was voted the nation’s favourite treasure, but the survey found that less that one per cent of the population has actually been to see it on display at the National Archives Museum in Kew. By putting it online, it is hoped that more people will discover the document and the snapshot of England in the late 11th century that it offers.

National Archives Press Officer Nicole Hambridge explained that more people have shown an interest in the Domesday Book in recent times: “It’s a very popular exhibit for people to look at, and we have facsimile copies for visitors to read.”

“As people have become more interested in community and family history it’s definitely grown in popularity, though it’s quite difficult to actually trace your family back to the Domesday Book,” she said. “However if you can find records of your family as far back as the 14th or 15th century, then it’s likely that’s where they were around the time of Domesday, given that people didn’t move around much then.”

The online service allows users to look up a place name index entry for free, while for £3.50 you can purchase a copy of the original page featuring the place and a translation of the entry into modern English. There are more than 13,000 entries, covering England as far north as the River Tees and part of Wales.

close-up of text in medieval script

The entry for Brighton mentions that it was held by someone called Ralph, and among the riches the little fishing town had to offer were 4,000 herrings. Courtesy National Archives © Alecta

The Domesday website includes resources for teachers and learners, as well as a game and quiz. “It’s very interesting for school children,” said Nicole. “It can make early history tangible and allows the current generation to learn in a very interactive way.”

Some of the other statistics thrown up by the survey included that just under 80 per cent had heard of the book, while 41 per cent could name William the Conquerer as the man behind it. Eight per cent thought it was commissioned by King Harold, three per cent said Richard the Lionheart, three per cent Henry VIII and one person thought it was Tony Blair’s idea. 65 per cent knew it was some sort of land survey or valuation.

Those surveyed were also none too sure where the iconic document is kept – only 13 per cent knew it was at The National Archives. 22 per cent thought it was at the British Museum and 10 per cent said the British Library.

Although 42 per cent of those asked had seen the Crown Jewels, less than one per cent had actually been to see the Domesday Book. That’s better than William the Conquerer did – he died in 1087 before Domesday was completed.

Visit www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domesday to have a look for yourself and find out more about Domesday.

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