Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England

[Image: Witness list of a royal diploma, S 497 (extract); Aelfwine]


Domesday Book

Domesday Book is a unique source which poses specific challenges to historians and prosopographers. This section explains the nature of those challenges and the way PASE has sought to address them. The following links provide access to the Pase Domesday materials and to a Domesday Help section which explains how to use them; references to the literature cited in this section can be found in Abbreviations.


Domesday Book records the results of a survey of England which was commissioned by William the Conqueror in Christmas 1085 and conducted in 1086. The information collected during the survey was written up in a fair copy, later known as Domesday Book, which in fact comprises two volumes: Little Domesday Book (LDB), which covers Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex; and Great Domesday Book (GDB), which covers the remaining shires in England south of the rivers Ribble and Tees. For a recent account of the making of Domesday Book, see Baxter 2010/11.

The commissioners responsible for the Domesday survey were instructed to collect various pieces of information about every parcel of property in the area covered by the survey. Among other things, they were required to establish who held each parcel of land in England in 1066 and 1086. Although there are some omissions, the Domesday commissioners were for the most part successful in collecting this information; and as a result, Domesday Book is an extraordinarily rich resource for historians and prosopographers. Various obstacles have, however, prevented scholars from analyzing this material systematically.

Obstacles preventing systematic prosopographical treatment of pre-Conquest landholders in Domesday Book

Three obstacles stand out. First, the way in which pre-Conquest landholders are recorded in Domesday Book makes it difficult to identify individuals. Domesday Book attributes about 27,000 parcels of property to people bearing about 1,200 different personal names. A small percentage of landholders are readily identifiable because the text supplies their titles: persons such as King Edward, Queen Edith, Earl Harold and Archbishop Stigand. Most landholders, however, are much more difficult to identify because the text supplies only their forenames and does not distinguish one person from another. The fact that the Domesday survey was a multi-lingual exercise involving the collection of information supplied orally and in writing in several vernaculars and written up in Latin further complicates the records of personal names in Domesday Book.

Second, the task of gathering and coordinating the Domesday evidence has proved prohibitively time-consuming: even using modern hard-copy indexes (including Dodgson and Palmer 1992, and the indices to GDB and LDB compiled by Ann Williams) it can take days or weeks to locate all the entries relating to a particular name and to assemble the information in a digestible form.

Third, in order to interpret the Domesday evidence more securely, it is essential to relate it to all the non-Domesday evidence such as chronicles and charters, and until now this has not been available in a readily accessible way. Research has therefore tended to proceed piecemeal, focusing on a limited number of mostly large landholders (see in particular the pioneering work of Williams 1981, 1989, 1991a, 1991b, 1997, and 2008; Clarke 1994 attempts to survey the upper nobility of England under Edward the Confessor, but has been criticized e.g. by Lewis 1997).


A paper by Chris Lewis (Lewis 1997) developed a methodology for identifying pre-Conquest landholders in Domesday Book. He showed that Domesday Book does contain sufficient evidence to make many more secure identifications than had been thought possible, provided the evidence is assembled and analyzed systematically. Lewis identifies various specific categories of information which can help to differentiate individuals from the mass of names with varying degrees of confidence. The most important of these are as follows:

  1. The commonness or rarity of personal names. Some personal names (e.g. Ælfric and Godwine) were common in late Anglo-Saxon England; others were much less so. Pre-Conquest landholders whose names were relatively unusual can naturally be identified with greater confidence than those whose names were common.
  2. Bynames, titles, and descriptions. Pre-Conquest landholders can be identified with greater confidence if Domesday Book assigns them a title (e.g. ‘king’, ‘queen’, ‘bishop’, ‘abbot’, ‘earl’, or ‘sheriff’), descriptions (e.g. ‘thegn’, ‘free man’, ‘sokeman’, or family connections such as ‘the son of Leofwine’), descriptive bynames (e.g. ‘swarthy’, or ‘the fair’) or toponymic bynames (e.g. ‘of Boscombe’). About 40% of the landholdings in the PASE database are attributed to persons who are assigned a title, description or byname.
  3. Lords. Pre-Conquest landholders whose lords are named in the text (e.g. Almær the man of Eadgifu the Fair) are more readily identified than those whose lords are not named. About 25% of the landholdings in the PASE Domesday dataset are attributed to persons whose lords are identified in Domesday Book.
  4. Divided or shared landholdings. About 8% of the landholdings in PASE Domesday dataset are attributed to more than one pre-Conquest landholder. Some of these divided or shared landholdings may have been the product of partible inheritance among members of the same family, and therefore offer clues as to the landholders’ identity. The significance of this kind of data is illustrated by Williams 1989.
  5. Landholders in 1086. One of the ways in which William the Conqueror rewarded his followers after 1066 was to grant them land in England which had been held by particular individuals in 1066. Contemporary documents use the term antecessor to refer to pre-Conquest landholders whose lands were thus redistributed, and modern historians use the term ‘antecessorial grants’ to refer to this process. The question as to what how much of England’s landed wealth was distributed in the form of antecessorial grants between 1066 and 1086 is debated (see Sawyer 1986, Roffe 1990, Fleming 1991); but there can no doubt that some antecessorial grants were made is of considerable prosopographical importance, for it follows that the patterns of landholding in 1086 can help to establish the identity of pre-Conquest landholders. Broadly speaking, if the land attributed to a particular personal name in 1066 passed to the same successor in 1086, this increases the likelihood that this land was held by the same individual in 1066.
  6. The geographical distribution of landholdings. Another way in which William the Conqueror rewarded his followers was to grant to them concentrated blocks of property in particular geographic areas (Fleming 1991). It follows that the geographic distribution of landholdings can help to differentiate one pre-Conquest landholder from another of the same name.
  7. The size of landholdings. The structure landowning society England in 1066 was highly diverse, ranging from peasants who held smallholdings of a few acres in a single vill to major lords who held a large number of big estates scattered across several shires. The size of individual landholdings helps to inform prosopographical judgment: broadly speaking, landholders who are known to have held at least one big estate are likely to have held other estates elsewhere, but landholders with small holdings tended to be more geographically concentrated in a particular location.
  8. Unusual entries. The Domesday survey was carried out by seven groups of commissioners, each responsible for a group of contiguous shires known to modern historians as ‘circuits’. Each group of commissioners developed their own standard formulaic way of describing the land they surveyed (Baxter 2001). However, a significant number of entries contain additional, non-standard material, often relating to disputes over land which surfaced during the Domesday survey. This evidence, which is usefully collected and analyzed by Fleming 1998, often supplies valuable information for the identification of pre-Conquest landholders.
  9. Evidence from other sources besides Domesday Book. The evidence contained in charters, chronicles and other sources – the essence of PASE − can naturally help to identify pre-Conquest landholders with greater precision.

This methodology has since been developed and refined by others working on the field (e.g. Baxter 2007, 2008 and Williams). It should be stressed, however, that even where evidence corresponding to one or more of these categories exists, it is not always possible to make positive identifications: some landholders can be identified with absolute certainty; others can be identified with a significant degree of confidence; but there will remain others who are difficult if not impossible to identify. Domesday prosopography will, therefore, always involve a measure of subjective judgment: the best one can do is to assemble the available evidence in an analytically convenient format in order to weigh the balance of probability. That is what PASE Domesday seeks to do.

The objectives and scope of PASE Domesday

PASE Domesday is intended to enable users to assemble the information they need to make prosopographical judgments about pre-Conquest landholders. The research was designed to achieve this in two ways.

First, Domesday data corresponding each of the nine categories listed above except the first and last has been assembled in a separate database linked to tabular browsing and mapping facilities which enable users to view and analyze the data in convenient formats. These resources are collectively known as PASE Domesday.

Second, evidence contained in sources other than Domesday Book − the last of the nine categories − has been entered into the main PASE Database. This makes it possible to identify and compare records relating to personal names in Domesday Book and other sources far more efficiently than has ever been possible before. The PASE Database also makes it possible to determine how rare or common a particular personal name was: the first of the nine categories listed above. For example, the PASE Database contains references to more than 170 persons called ‘Godwine’ but just one person ‘Styr’ in sources other than Domesday Book, so whereas the former appears to have been a common name, the latter appears to have been rare.

PASE Domesday research method

The following editions of Domesday Book were used for the research for PASE Domesday

  • The ‘Alecto’ edition: Great Domesday Book: Library Edition, ed. A. Williams and R. W. H. Erskine, Alecto Historical Editions (London, 1986–1992), abbreviated as GDB; and Little Domesday: Library Edition, ed. A. Williams, Alecto Historical Editions (London, 2000), abbreviated as LDB; both published on CD-ROM as The Digital Domesday Book: The Scholar’s Edition, Alecto Historical Editions (London, 2002).
  • The ‘Phillimore’ edition: Domesday Book, ed. J. Morris et al., Phillimore, 34 vols (Chichester, 1974–86).

The research proceeded shire by shire. One member of the PASE research team entered data relating a particular shire and another checked this data had been correctly before proceeding to the next. Data was entered into an Excel spreadsheet consisting of 80 columns. Each row of the spreadsheet represents a single piece of land held by one pre-Conquest landholder. The spreadsheet is designed to capture data as follows:

  1. Pre-Conquest landholders’ personal names. One column of the spreadsheet is used to record the personal name as recorded in the original text of Domesday Book, which is written in Latin. Researchers obtained this data from the Alecto edition facsimile. Another column of the spreadsheet is used to translate this personal name into a lemma or normalized name form. This is necessary because Domesday Book often supplies variant spelling of the same name; and also because, for a variety of reasons, the spelling of personal names in Domesday Book often differed from the way indigenous scribes would have rendered them in the vernacular. Although not flawless (see Lewis 1997), the best attempt to restore pre-Conquest personal name forms used in Domesday Book to their vernacular equivalents remains that of von Feilitzen 1937. The PASE research team therefore used this as the basis for translating Domesday personal names into a normalized form. The Alecto edition also follows von Feilitzen closely in this respect, so the personal name forms used in the Alecto translation and in PASE Domesday are often identical.
  2. Bynames, titles, and descriptions. One column of the spreadsheet captures the way the bynames of pre-Conquest landholders are recorded, and another supplies a modern English translation of this byname. Similarly, one column of the spreadsheet captures the any titles or descriptive words attributed to pre-Conquest landholders, and another column supplies a modern English translation of these terms. A further column identifies the name of any institution with which the pre-Conquest landholder was associated: this column is used principally to record the names of religious houses for which bishops and abbots were responsible. Since this information is not always stated explicitly in Domesday Book, much of the data entered in this column has been added editorially. The PASE researchers used Keynes 1997 to assist in the identification bishops and archbishops, and Knowles et al. 2001 for the identification of abbots and abbesses who held office in 1066 where this information is not supplied in the text of Domesday Book.
  3. Lords and lordship. The data which identifies the lords of pre-Conquest landholders is entered in a similar way, with columns used to record lords’ personal names as supplied by the original text; the normalized form of that name derived by von Feilitzen; any byname supplied in the original text together with a translation of this; and titles or descriptions of the lord supplied by the original text together with a translation of same. A complication here is that there was more than one form of lordship in pre-Conquest England: in particular, important distinctions existed between personal lordship or commendation, lordship over land, and soke − a form of lordship which entitled lords to customary dues and jurisdictional profits from dependants (see Baxter 2007, chapter 6). The PASE Domesday dataset does not attempt to distinguish between these forms of lordship, except that it does contain one column which captures information relating to power of alienation: this is valuable, since there are strong grounds for thinking that when Domesday Book records that a pre-Conquest landholder was bound to a lord but could not ‘sell’, ‘withdraw’ or otherwise alienate his land, that land was held from the lord in some form of dependent tenure (see further Baxter 2007, pp. 227−36).
  4. Divided or shared landholdings. Where Domesday Book records that the same parcel of land was held by more than one person before 1066, a separate row in the database has been created for each landholder, and the name of their co-owners or co-tenants has been entered in a separate column. The information relating to the size of the landholding (see below) has been editorially adjusted to reflect this. So, for example, if Domesday Book records that Ælfric and Godwine together held one hide worth 20 shillings in a particular place, the database would record this in two rows, one recording that Ælfric held half a hide worth 10 shillings with Godwine as a co-tenant, the other recording that Godwine held half a hide worth 10 shillings with Ælfric as a co-tenant.
  5. Landholders in 1086. The structure of Domesday Book assumes the existence of a hierarchy of landholding in 1086. It asserts that land was either held directly by the king; or by landholders with no other lord other than the king (known by modern scholars as tenants-in-chief); or sometimes from tenants-in-chief by landholders known to modern scholars as mesne tenants or subtenants; and occasionally from sub-tenants by sub-sub-tenants. The PASE database assigns seven columns to capture data relating to each of these levels of the tenurial hierarchy. The columns capture data relating to personal names, bynames, titles, descriptions and institutional affiliations in exactly the same way as data relating to pre-Conquest landholders is captured, with one significant difference: the columns which record the original text of personal names, bynames and descriptions is left blank for Norman and other incoming landholders, but is supplied for those whom the PASE research team identified as ‘English’ or indigenous landholders.
  6. The geographical distribution of landholdings. Separate columns are used to record the name of the vill and shire in which each landholding was situated: this data is entered using the modern name forms supplied by the Alecto edition, checked against the Phillimore edition. The name of the hundred and the 6-digit National Grid Reference number has been supplied from the Domesday Explorer ARHC Project data compiled by John Palmer, Frank and Caroline Thorn and Natasha Hodgson.
  7. The size of landholdings. Domesday Book supplies a variety of statistical data relating to each piece of land covered by the survey. The PASE Domesday dataset captures some of this data in order to give an indication of the size of each landholding. Two kinds of statistical data have been captured for this purpose:
    1. Fiscal assessment data. Most of the land in eleventh-century England was assessed for fiscal purposes: taxation and other burdens of royal government. The principal units of assessment were given different names in different parts of the kingdom. In some shires, the principal units were known as the hide and virgate, a virgate being one quarter of a hide; in other shires the principal units were the carucate and bovate, a bovate being one eighth of a carucate; in Kent the principal unit was the sulung and yoke, a yoke being one quarter of a sulung; and in some shires the acre was a common unit of assessment. The PASE Domesday database assigns one column to capture data relating to: hides, virgates, carucates, bovates, sulungs, and acres. It also contains a column which converts these separate units into a single number of hides or hide-equivalents. There are difficulties here: in particular, there was considerable variety in the number of acres which constituted a hide, carucate or sulung. However, this single number remains useful for comparative purposes and above all for mapping. This number is calculated by making the hide, carucate and sulung equal 1; the virgate equals 0.25; the bovate equals 0.125; and 1 acre equal 0.008333 (i.e. 120 acres are equivalent to 1 hide). So, for example, this column would compute a number of 1.75 for a holding assessed at 1 hide and 3 virgates.
    2. Value data. Most landholdings in Domesday Book are attributed one or more monetary values. The matter is controversial, but there are excellent reasons for thinking that these values represented the amount of cash income which particular landholdings might be expected to generate in an average year. Domesday Book supplies this information in the form of pounds, shillings and pence (there were 20 shillings to the pound, and 12 pence to the shilling). The Domesday commissioners were instructed to establish what the value of each landholding had been in 1066, and what is was in 1086. This instruction was partially followed: about 60% of entries in Domesday Book supply values in both 1066 and 1086. Accordingly, the PASE Domesday dataset contains a series of columns which capture the value of each landholding in pounds, shillings and pence for both 1066 and 1086. A further two columns compute these value for 1066 and 1086 as single number of pounds, since this can be useful for comparative purposes and for mapping. For example, these columns could compute a number of 1.5 for an estate attributed a value of 30 shillings in 1066 or 1086. The fact that about 40% of entries lack a value for 1066 means that it is easy to underestimate the total value of a pre-Conquest landholder’s holding. To compensate for this, a further column has been added to the database which generates a 1066 ‘proxy’ value as follows: if Domesday Book supplies a 1066 value, this number is automatically entered in the proxy value column, but if Domesday Book supplies only a 1086 value, this latter figure is entered in the proxy value column.


The PASE Domesday materials can be accessed in three ways.

  1. Through an online interface which allows users to see the data in summary form in tables and maps: see PASE Domesday, Search Online.
  2. As a dataset which can be analyzed in the form of maps and table using a freely-available Geographic Information System (GIS): see PASE Domesday, Search Offline.
  3. In addition, the PASE Domesday dataset has been fully integrated with the PASE Database.

Integrating the Domesday database with the PASE database

The PASE Domesday dataset was integrated with the PASE Database as follows. A small number of pre-Conquest landholders can be identified with absolute or near certainty because Domesday Book assigns them titles: they include people such as King Edward, Queen Edith, and most of the bishops, abbots and earls. Since almost of these people made an impression in charters, chronicles and other non-Domesday sources relating to the reign of Edward the Confessor, they have been assigned a number in the PASE Database: for example, King Edward is Edward 15 in PASE. A ‘flag’ column in the PASE Domesday dataset was used to enter such numbers to connect the two datasets, and once the dataset was complete, the matter it contained was uploaded into the appropriate parts of the PASE Database: for example, all of the landholdings attributed to persons called Edward with the number 15 in the ‘flag’ column were added to factoids associated with King Edward the Confessor or Edward 15 in PASE.

This added a large number of data and factoids concerning property, locations and relationships into PASE. However, only about 15% of the landholdings in PASE Domesday could be confidently attributed to persons in PASE at this stage. The remainder of the PASE Domesday dataset was integrated with the PASE Database as follows: landholdings attributed to other persons who cannot yet be identified with certainty, and which therefore lacked a number in the ‘flag’ column, were grouped together by name in the ‘Persons’ section of the PASE Database. So, for example, all the landholdings attributed to people called Leofric who could not be positively identified have been listed in the database as Leofric 79 ‘Persons called Leofric in Domesday Book’.

Further research in this field

PASE 2 did not aim to produce a definitive prosopography of Domesday landholders, but rather to create resources which are designed to inform and facilitate prosopophical judgment. The intention is that these resources will now be used to refine our understanding of the English nobility in 1066 and how it was affected by the Norman Conquest. This is the objective of a new research project, ‘Profile of a Doomed Elite: The Structure of English Landed Society in 1066’, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.