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William the Conqueror and Domesday Book:
A Contemporary Description
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicler

Some scholars consider the end of the eleventh century to be the "age of the Normans." From their power base in northern France, these transplanted Vikings took over two kingdoms (England and southern Italy) and played a leading role in the First Crusade. Most famous to western students, Duke William "the Bastard" of Normandy successfully invaded the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England in 1066, thus gaining for himself the more elegant title, King William I "the Conqueror" (r. 1066-1086). William spent his reign tirelessly subjugating his new kingdom through a combination of military and administrative measures. An example of William's thoroughness is Domesday Book, the compilation in 1086 of his massive survey of England's resources. Nothing like it exists anywhere else from this period, and it gave William a tremendous advantage in determining what resources were available for taxation. We learn about Domesday Book and other aspects of William's reign from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, kept by English monks since the ninth century.

Questions to Consider
  • The impressions we gain from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle about William I and his reign are quite mixed. How does the chronicler describe William as a ruler? Does the description seem balanced (between positive and negative aspects)?

  • Do you think the fact that the chronicler comes from the losing side of this conquest has affected what he records?

At Midwinter the king was at Gloucester with his "witan," and there held his court five days; and afterwards the archbishop and clergy had a synod three days. There was Maurice chosen bishop of London, and William, of Norfolk, and Robert, of Cheshire. They were all the king's clerks. After this the king had a great council, and very deep speech with his "witan" about this land, how it was peopled, or by what men; then he sent his men over all England, into every shire, and caused to be ascertained how many hundred hides were in the shire, or what land the king himself had, and cattle within the land, or what dues he ought to have, in twelve months, from the shire. Also he caused to be written how much land his archbishops had, and his suffragan bishops, and his abbots, and his earls: and - though I may narrate somewhat prolixly - what or how much each man had who was a landholder in England, in land, or in cattle, and how much money it might be worth. So very narrowly he caused it to be traced out, that there was not one single hide, nor one yard of land, nor even - it is shame to tell, though it seemed to him no shame to do - an ox, nor a cow, nor a swine, left that was not set down in his writ.

King William, about whom we speak, was a very wise man, and very powerful, more dignified and strong than any of his predecessors were. He was mild to the good men who loved God, and beyond all measure severe to the men who gainsaid his will.... He was also very dignified; thrice every year he wore his crown, as oft as he was in England. At Easter he wore it in Winchester; at Pentecost, in Westminster; at Midwinter, in Gloucester. And then were with him all the great men over all England, archbishops and suffragan bishops, abbots and earls, thanes and knights.

So also was he a very rigid and cruel man, so that no one durst do anything against his will. He had earls in bonds who had acted against his will; bishops he cast from their bishoprics, and abbots from their abbacies, and thanes into prison; and at last he spared not his own brother, named Odo: he was a very rich bishop in Normandy; at Bayeux was his episcopal see; and he was the foremost man besides the king; and he had an earldom in England, and when the king was in Normandy, then was he the most powerful in this land: and him the king put in prison.

Among other good things is not to be forgotten the good peace that he made in this land; so that a man who had any confidence in himself might go over his realm, with his bosom full of gold, unhurt. Nor durst any man slay another man had he done ever so great evil to the other. He reigned over England, and by his sagacity so thoroughly surveyed it that there was not a hide of land within England that he knew not who had it, or what it was worth, and afterwards set it in his writ.

Brytland (Wales) was in his power, and therein he built castles, and completely ruled over that race of men. In like manner he also subjected Scotland to him by his great strength. The land of Normandy was naturally his, and over the country which is called Le Maine he reigned; and if he might yet have lived two years he would, by his valor, have won Ireland, and without any weapons.

Certainly in his time men had great hardship and very many injuries. Castles he caused to be made, and poor men to be greatly oppressed. The king was very rigid, and took from his subjects many a mark of gold, and more hundred pounds of silver, all which he took, by right and with great unright, from his people, for little need. He had fallen into covetousness, and altogether loved greediness.

He planted a great preserve for deer, and he laid down laws therewith, that whosoever should slay hart or hind should be blinded. He forbade the harts and also the boars to be killed. As greatly did he love the tall deer as if he were their father. He also ordained concerning the hares that they should go free. His great men bewailed it, and the poor men murmured thereat; but he was so obdurate that he recked not of the hatred of them all; but they must wholly follow the king's will if they would live, or have land, or property, or even his peace. Alas that any man should be so proud, so raise himself up, and account himself above all men! May the Almighty God show mercy to his soul, and grant him forgiveness of his sins!


Source: James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn, 1904), 1:229-231.