Herstmonceux in the Domesday Book

In 1085 King William I commissioned a huge survey of land and landholding which resulted in the iconic Domesday Book. Domesday is the most complete record of pre-industrial society to survive anywhere in the world, making it an exceptional document which offers us a unique window into the Middle Ages. For the majority of places recorded within its pages, Domesday provides the first documented description of their human and natural resources. More than ninety per cent of the towns and villages in Domesday still exist today, including Herstmonceux.  

While the castle that we can see today was not in existence at the time of the Norman Conquest, its predecessor existed in the form of a manor. A medieval manor was essentially an agricultural estate with a manor house (inhabited by the lord), tracts of agricultural land and a village whose inhabitants usually worked that land.  

The Domesday survey was ordered by William at Christmas 1085 and was probably started in mid-January 1086. All of England (except for the far north which was yet to come under Norman control) was divided into circuits and to each of these circuits were assigned three or four royal commissioners. These commissioners were to collect information regarding the value of the land, who owned it and the resources available. When all the information had been collected, the commissioners visited special sittings of the county courts to test the accuracy of the information they had been given. For each property information was gathered regarding who had owned the property and how much it was worth at the time of Edward the Confessor (r. 1042-1066), who William had given the land to and how much it was worth after 1066, and then finally who owned it and how much it was worth in 1086.1  

William was so thorough in this information gathering exercise that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remarked: 

So very narrowly did he have it investigated that there was no single hide or virgate of land nor indeed […] one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out and not put down in his record […]2 

The Domesday Book survives in two volumes – Little Domesday and Great Domesday. Little Domesday covers the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk and was initially meant to be a draft of that particular circuit. However, because the information in Little Domesday was never entered into Great Domesday, it was kept as the final record for East Anglia. Great Domesday covers the remaining counties of England with some notable exceptions. It does not include the cities of London, Winchester, Bristol or Tamworth, and the counties of Durham and Northumberland are completely omitted. The coverage for Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire is limited and nowhere near as detailed as entries for other counties.  

An Domesday Book entry (for Bedfordshire). Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

Despite these omissions, we can learn a great deal about England under Norman rule using the Domesday Book. Domesday gives us information about 13,400 individual places, forty-eight castles, more than sixty major religious houses, over 300 parish churches, 6,000 mills, forty-five vineyards and numerous woodlands, markets and fisheries.3  

Luckily, Sussex is well represented in Domesday and records survive for Herstmonceux which was located within the historic Foxearle Hundred. Herstmonceux had a recorded population of forty-two households in 1086, putting it in the largest twenty per cent of settlements recorded in Domesday.4  Of Herstmonceux’s forty-two households, thirty belonged to villagers and twelve to cottagers. Villagers and freemen (villani, socmani and franci homines) represent approximately forty per cent of the households recorded in Domesday; they were small-scale householders who owned, on average, thirty acres of land and who usually had a couple of oxen of their own for ploughing. Cottagers and smallholders (bordarii and cotarii) usually owned about five acres of land and might have a share in a village plough team. In the entry for Herstmonceux there is no mention of slaves (servi) who are seen in approximately ten per cent of Domesday entries. Servi were individuals who had no land of their own, belonged to a lord as his property and who were often used as ploughmen. It is important to note that Domesday only records the heads of families, so the total population represented in its pages is likely to have been around five times larger giving us an approximate population of 210 individuals for Herstmonceux in 1086.5  

In terms of Herstmonceux’s land and resources we can see that in 1086 the manor had twelve ploughlands, three lord’s plough teams and sixteen men’s ploughteams. A ploughland (terra carucis or carucate) was the area that could be ploughed by eight oxen in a year; while this was usually 120 acres it could vary depending on the quality of the land. Ploughteams were groups of eight oxen which could belong to either the lord or the inhabitants of the manor.6  Other important resources include seven acres of meadow, which would have been used as pasture for animals including sheep, woodland, and a parish church.7  

All Saints Parish Church, Herstmonceux. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

The annual value of Herstmonceux in 1086 is given as £10 in Domesday and it is noted that in 1066 the manor was worth £6. We can also see the manor has changed hands since the Norman Conquest. In 1086 the tenant-in-chief was Robert, Count of Eu. All land in England was ultimately held by the Crown but tenants-in-chief, such as Robert, held their land directly from King William himself offering military resources or taxes in return. Robert is associated with a total of eighty-two places in Domesday after the Conquest; he is tenant-in-chief for numerous estates across Sussex including Bexhill, Wartling and Eastbourne. The lord for Herstmonceux in 1086 is listed simply as ‘Wilbert’. Wilbert was the immediate lord over the peasants and other inhabitants of the manor, and he would have been granted the lordship of Herstmonceux by Robert in exchange for a tax.8 This structure of land ownership is an example of the much contested ‘feudal system’ in medieval society.9  

Prior to the Norman Conquest Herstmonceux was held by Edmur the Priest, who also held nearby Pevensey. This change from Anglo-Saxon to Norman ownership in the decades following the Battle of Hastings was not unusual. By 1086 about a seventh of the landed wealth of England was in William’s hands and about a quarter belonged to the Church (under its new Norman leadership).10 There were a dozen or so Norman barons who controlled almost a quarter of England’s landed wealth and only four remaining Anglo-Saxon tenants-in-chief – Edward of Salisbury, Gospatrick son of Arnkell, Thorkhill of Warwick and Coleswain of Lincoln.11 The Domesday Book reveals the full extent of the changes to England’s power structures and landscape in the twenty years following the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings.  

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing the death of King Harold. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

Throughout its 900-year history, Domesday has remained an important tool for successive rulers in England. In the centuries after its completion, it was primarily used for administrative purposes, particularly when proof of landholding, tenures or boundaries was needed. From the late sixteenth century onwards, it was used as a historical source and today, it remains an essential starting point for the study of local and national history. Here at Herstmonceux Castle the Domesday Book represents one of the earliest pieces of surviving documentary evidence we have for life at the manor.  

Dr Claire Kennan, History Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the BISC. 

[1] David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066-1284 (London: Penguin, 2004). Pp. 103-5. 

[2] ASC, pp. 161-2. 

[3] The National Archives, ‘Discover Domesday’ https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domesday/discover-domesday/ [last accessed 17/11/21]. 

[4] Open Domesday https://opendomesday.org/place/TQ6410/herstmonceux/ [last accessed 16/11/21]. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] About 15% of England was forested in 1086. 

[8] Open Domesday https://opendomesday.org/place/TQ6410/herstmonceux/ [last accessed 16/11/21].[9] R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From Constantine to St Louis, 3rd ed. (London: Pearson, 2006), pp. 325-6; Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery, pp. 84-6; Susan Reynolds, Fiefs and Vassals: The Medieval Evidence Reinterpreted, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); Susan Reynolds, The Middle Ages without Feudalism: Essays in Criticism and Comparison on the Medieval West (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012). 

[10] Carpenter, Struggle for Mastery, pp. 81-2.

[11]Ibid, pp. 79-80. 

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