Two Great and three Little Domesday volumes

St Edmundsbury
and the
Little Domesday Book
Issues for consideration

Introduction to the Little Domesday Book
In 1986 the whole of the Domesday Book was conserved and rebound into five volumes. Little Domesday was made into three volumes comprising one volume for each of its three counties, Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex. Each page of Little Domesday measured 11 x 8 inches, rather smaller than Great Domesday's 15 x 11 inches. The smaller sized pages favoured a binding into thinner volumes than its larger brother.

In addition to the size difference, there is a difference in the level of detail recorded, and the format used by the different scribes involved. Little Domesday is much more irregular in its format, and much more detailed in its content. In many places it is difficult to reconcile the information recorded with the survey questions which were said to have been asked. Perhaps the most obvious example of this discrepancy lies in the entry for Bury St Edmunds, which appears later in this analysis.

Sorces of Information
The information for Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex is believed to belong to a single group of Commissioners, making up a Circuit, which modern scholars have named "Circuit 7". However, it would be incorrect to assume that all the information in Domesday was collected solely by the Commissioners. At least four sources are believed to have been involved. The most important source, and, perhaps, the most obvious source, was to examine the existing taxation or geld records held by the Crown.

The sources involved have been described as follows:

  • Existing Geld (taxation) records;
  • Existing Estate records;
  • Statements from the landholders themselves, als known as "Seigneurial Breves";
  • And finally, the oral testimony collected by the Commissioners from the Hundred and Shire Courts.
Scribes were thus able to summarise all the existing records held by the state before the Commissioners ever set forth upon their circuits. At the Shire and Hundred courts it would only have been necessary to obtain confirmation of the existing records, or to settle any questions where doubt had arisen.
Was Little Domesday really an unfinished work?
As was described in the previous section introducing the Domesday Book, it is generally believed that Great Domesday was completed first, and that work on the remaining three counties of Suffolk Norfolk and Essex was never finished. Therefore, under this belief these counties are represented by rough copies of returns from the shire and hundred courts, which have not been subjected to any oversight or corrections by the Domesday Scribe. This explains why each entry is so much longer than in Great Domesday, and why the format is so variable.

Another possibility first put forward by David Roffe is that, on the contrary, perhaps Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were completed first. These were the most prosperous areas, and therefore we may suppose that the king would have thought these areas the most important to survey. Perhaps the production of them as the first volume took so long, and cost so much to produce, that it was realised that quicker methods were needed in the rest of the country.

It had taken 450 folios to produce the three counties information contained within Little Domesday, on parchment produced from the best quality sheepskins available. The requirement for this quantity of sheepskins alone would have demonstrated to the scribes that production of the remaining counties of England at this level of detail would be completely impracticable. Therefore, the rest of the country was written up using a much more abbreviated and standardised form of enquiry, resulting in another 413 folios for the 32 odd remaining counties.

The Organisation of the Domesday Book
The records contained in the Domesday Books are organised in a complex mixture of geographic and tenurial factors. The purpose was to record who held what lands from the King. Nobody but King William "owned" the land. All the great Earls and Church endowments were legally considered to hold their lands at the King's pleasure. This was the feudal system, and the landholders had to provide services to the king in return for their holdings. These landholdings were also known as fiefs.

The standard Domesday layout for all this information was under the following headings:

  • The Shire or County
  • The Fiefdoms or Tenants in Chief, (TIC), listed in a standard order
  • The Hundreds listed in a standard order, in which the TIC had holdings
  • The vills within the Hundred in which the TIC had holdings
  • The manors in which the TIC had holdings
As we shall see below, the layout of the Suffolk volume of Domesday is rather different from the standard in the order of Landholders, giving undue precedence to certain nobles, and to the Abbot of St Edmunds'.

Suffolk Landowners in 1086
The Organisation of the List of Landholders (Tenants in Chief)
By long established convention in Anglo-Saxon government documents, there was a clear precedence of rank to be followed in any list of names. The king would always be at the head of any list, and the church hierarchy would follow, with the nobles listed next in their correct ranking order. The standardised order would be written as follows
  • The King
  • Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Other Archbishops
  • Bishops
  • The Abbots
  • Counts
  • Earls
  • Thegns
  • Seargeants
  • Freemen
  • Etc
  • Any Disputes
If you click on either of the illustrations of Suffolk landowners shown here, you will quickly see that this order of precedence is completely different to the norm. The King is rightly at the top, but he is followed by the secular Count of Mortain and the Count Alan, Earl Hugh, Count Eustace, Robert Malet, Roger Bigot and so on until the 14th name. At last the churchmen arrive in the list, but instead of the Archbishop of Canterbury at the head of the list, we see The Abbot of St Edmunds. The Archbishop Lanfranc is relegated to number 15, pointedly lower in precedence than Bury's abbot. The other Bishops should also be ranked above our Abbot, but are here listed below him. The list continues with other Bishops and Abbots mixed together.

Translated Suffolk Landowners
A few of the main St Edmundsbury Landholders
In Suffolk there were 77 different landholders. A few of those of most interest to us are listed below.

Number 1 was "Lands of the King, belonging to the realm".
Number 14 was recorded as the Land of St Edmund's.
Number 25 was Lands of Richard, Son of Count Gilbert.
Number 42 was Tihel of Helléan.
Number 43 was Lands of Ralph of Limésy.
Number 76 was a curious conglomeration called Annexations in the King's Despite. This refers to land judged to have been taken over unlawfully, without the King knowing about it.
Number 77 is headed "Concerning the Disputes between The Bishop of Bayeux and Robert Malet's Mother".

Further details of some of these great landholders are contained in another sub-page on the Domesday Book Homepage.

Order of Hundreds within the Lands of St Edmund
Under the section 14, Lands of St Edmund, we will see that the normal Suffolk order for the Hundreds is ignored. The normal order for most landholders in the West Suffolk area is as follows:
  • Thedwastrey
  • Thingoe
  • Lackford
  • Babergh (Two Hundreds)
  • Risbridge
  • Bradmere
  • Blackbourne
In the section where the lands of St Edmund are shown, the Hundred of Thingoe is listed first. Clearly Thingoe had an importance for the abbey, possibly because it was the Hundred within which the town of Beodricesworth, and now St Edmundsbury, was, or had been, located. However, it may have held another significance which is now lost to us. This may have been reflected in the charter document which is held to have granted the Liberty of West Suffolk to the abbey. This is Sawyer reference S1069, containing this clause:
" And I make it known to you that I will that the land at Mildenhall and the sokes of the eight and a half hundreds pertaining to Thingoe shall belong to St Edmund with sake and soke as fully and completely as it was in my mother's possession."
It appears that Thingoe had some unifying factor which applied to the Eight and a half Hundreds of the Liberty of St Edmund.
What about the Liberty of St Edmund?
The boundary of the area now known as the Liberty of St Edmund is completely ignored within Domesday. There is no mention of this Liberty, or of the Liberty of St Etheldreda, or of the Geldable parts of Suffolk. And yet, according to abbey sources, the Liberty of St Audrey / Etheldreda / 'Wicklaw', had been established since 970, and St Edmunds Liberty since 1044.

As the Domeday Book was supposedly written to provide the King with details of land holdings in order to manage his taxation regime, it seems very odd that these major tax concessions should be omitted. Were they to be ignored? Or was it the case that such concessions were not in place at this time?

It also seems odd that the taxation status of St Edmunds is described in Little Domesday as follows:
"When the Hundred pays £1 in tax, then 60d goes from here for the monks' supplies; but this is from the town as it was before 1066 and yet it is the same now."
This seems to be at odds with the taxation status of the Liberty, which had been thought to be that all taxes were paid to the abbot, and that he then owed a seperate feudal duty of 40 knights fees to the king. Perhaps we are not seeing the whole facts behind this arrangement, or perhaps the system changed over the years.

There is no mention of a market at Bury St Edmunds. Markets were a valuable source of income for the local landlord, and are usually mentioned in the Domesday Book. Sometimes the income is divided between landlords, so that a landlord is credited with half a market, for example. Bury must have had a market in 1086, but somehow it is carefully overlooked.

Similarly there is no mention of the farming activities which must have been kept within the banleuca boundary. There is no mention of the numbers of ploughs, oxen, sheep or other livestock which is commonly seen in other vill entries. There is no church mentioned, and no church endowment.

All in all, the entry for St Edmund's town looks more like an exercise in tax evasion, rather than a set of answers to a set of questions. The enquires are given a mass of detail which is irrelevant to their enquiries, while other taxable details are quietly ignored.

Prepared for the St Edmundsbury History Project
by David Addy, March 2010

Books consulted:
The Domesday Book - Facsimile with Translation, published by Phillimore Suffolk volume
Information on the Abbreviato is from the National Archives online from Kew

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