This year we are going to England and Ireland for vacation. I believe that it is not enough to just buy air tickets and pack bags when going on a trip. I believe that the biggest preparation before leaving on a trip is intellectual. For the trip is tragically incomplete if you do not know enough about the history, geography and culture of the place which you plan to visit before you go there. So as an intellectual preparation I and my wife are watching an excellent BBC series, “The History of Britain” on youtube. Here is the link to the first part( There are 15 episodes of 1 hour each):
One of the episodes describes a very interesting book, The Doomsday Book. In this VERITAS I will tell you about this book. But we cannot talk about the Doomsday book without first learning about William the Conquerer and the Norman conquest of England.
In 1066 the Anglo-Saxon king of England, Edward the Confessor died. He had no children so after his death there was a lot of speculation as to who would be the next king. There were three contenders: Harold Godwinson, the powerful Earl of Wessex; Harald Hardrada, the Viking King of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy. Each of these three had their own reasons for thinking of himself as the rightful successor to King Edward.
Harold Godwinson was the most powerful man in England after the King. When the king died, it was natural for him to think of himself as the successor. According to some historians, Edward held Harold’s hand just before dying, a sign of transferring the kingdom to him.
Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway, like the Viking kings before him had always been interested in England. In fact the Viking king, Harthacnut and his father Cnut had been the kings of England before Edward the confessor. After Edward’s death he received the support of Harold Godwinson’s brother who had fallen out with him and he staked the claim over the English throne.
Now let’s talk about William. He was also known by a not so flattering name: William the bastard. That is because he was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy( in France) . Since the duke had no other son, William became the Duke of Normandy in 1035. He was distantly related to King Edward. In fact he claimed that Edward had promised him the throne when William visited England in 1052. William also claimed that Harold Godwinson had, several years earlier promised to help him become the king after Edward.
So in 1066 when Edward the confessor died we had three very powerful people vying for the throne of England- each with their own reasons why he was the most suitable candidate. But such matters were not decided by discussion, argument or popularity contests. War decided who would be the king.
Harold Godwinson being within England had the opportunity to act first. He was crowned the king one day after Edward died. Fumed by Harold breaking his promise, William starting planning an attack on England. He started collecting troops and filled them in more than 700 warships- this was in January 1066. On the other side Harold collected a huge army and waited at the Isle of Wright. For 8 months both William and Harold waited. William waited for favourable winds and Harold waited for William. And then on 8th sept, Harold retreated thinking that William will not come.
On 20th September Harold got the surprise news that an invasion had happened. But it was not William. It was Harald Hardrada! Harald had invaded from the north. Harold had to immediately collect his army and head north. On 25th September the two armies met in what is known as the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The Vikings suffered a huge defeat. Harald Hardrada was killed during the battle. His army was decimated. The loss was so huge that it ended the age of Vikings. Some texts refer to Harald Hardrada as the last Viking.
Harold may have been pleased with the successful battle and having saved the crown but he was in for a huge shock. Willam finally found the favourable wind and landed in England on 27th September. Harold had to march his armies 386 kms to deal with the new threat. William and Harold’s armies met on 14th October in Hastings. After a ferocious battle, Harold’s armies were close to victory but then a arrow hit him in the eye killing him. After Harold’s death the English army was routed. Most of them just fled the battlefield. So Harold Godwinson lost because he had to fight two powerful enemies within two weeks. If Harald Hardrada had not invaded from the north, Harold would have been more prepared for William and would certainly have defeated him in battle. But history does not remember how or why a battle was won. It just remembers the winner.
So William the Bastard became William the Conquerer, the new King of England. Thus the Norman conquest of England happened in 1066.
After becoming he king he became curious about the financial status of people under him and how the system of taxes could be improved. He wanted information. He knew that information is power. So he sent his people all over England to record the details of every family, its livestock, its land and its wealth. William’s officers went to each village and town in England to collect information from every family. The records were collected in a massive book in 1086. The book contained the names of every family member, the amount of land they owned, a count of their livestock, their income – everything. So in a sense it was the first detailed census and land record in history.
An Englishman wrote: ” “so very thoroughly did William have the enquiry carried out, that there was not a single piece of land, not even an ox, cow or pig which escaped the notice of the survey.”
The book came to be known in England as the Doomsday book. This was because the records were so detailed and accurate that none could argue against it. And like doomsday, it spared no one. If the doomsday book judged that a person held a piece of land or a cow, there could be no dispute over it. It was thus the final authority- the last judgment. So the name Doomsday book was named after the Biblical Last judgment of Doomsday.
For historians this is a precious treasure because it contains a great record of the socio-economic condition of 11th century England. They can understand the finances, the family size, the social hierarchy, the taxation system using this book. For example the Doomsday book tells us that in 1086, 17% of the total land was directly owned by King and his family, 26% by bishops and abbots and 54% by tenants. It even gives us information regarding the food and drink consumed by people of those days. Beer was the most popular drink even in those days. It tells us that Monks were allowed up to 3 gallons of beer per day!
So the Doomsday book is a treasure house of historical knowledge. It is preserved in London’s National Archives.
For me the most interesting thing about the doomsday book was the fact that William was probably the first ruler to realize that power is not by swords, horses and soldiers alone. The real power is knowledge. The real power is to know what is yours and that gives you the ability to act in the most appropriate and decisive way. And what amazes me is that William was not content with getting the big picture information from the village/town heads. Nothing less than a comprehensive survey of every man, field, cow, pig and fishery would do. Perhaps he realized that for knowledge to be truly effective, it has to be deep and accurate.
Go wondrous creature, mount where science guides
go measure earth, weigh air, state the tides,
instruct the planets in what orbs to run
correct old time, regulate the sun