The history of yeovil

domesday - Part one

The new Norman lords take control of England


In the wake of his successful conquest of England in 1066 William the Conqueror introduced a rigid social hierarchy known today as the feudal system. It was a system of landholding in which rather than being owned, as is the case today, land was held from a member of society higher up the social scale in return for service, usually military.

At the top of this hierarchical pyramid was King William who granted land to tenants-in-chief, who were usually lords or members of the Church, in return for their assistance in the Norman Conquest and the promise of continued military or other support.

The next tier down was comprised of under-tenants who held land from the tenants-in-chief and, in turn, owed their tenant-in-chief the promise of continued military or other support.

The system continued with the broad bottom of the pyramid being occupied by peasants - villeins, bordars and cottars - who earned their opportunity to hold a small amount of land by working on the land of the lordship.

The villein, or villager, was a tenant farmer usually with a holding of about a quarter of a hide, or one virgate. This would usually be about 40 acres of arable in the common fields, plus a share in the common meadow and pasture, and certain rights in the woodland such as gathering firewood and cutting timber to repair buildings, implements and fences, as well as to send in pigs in Autumn to feed on the beech-mast and acorns. The villein's rent involved working on the lord's demesne for one or more days a week, with extra work on special occasions such as ploughing and harvesting.

Bordars, or smallholders, were a middle class of peasant and were tenants of smaller farms of about ten acres, with services and rights in proportion to their holding. The cottar was the lowest and smallest class of peasant usually with a smallholding in the region of some five acres. Finally there were the servi, or slaves, who held no land and were fully occupied in cultivating the lord's demesne. They were not free and were unable to move home or work or change allegiance, or buy or to sell, without permission.

The result of this new system was that the upper tiers of the new aristocracy held almost half of the land in England. The King and his family owned about 17%, the Church owned 26% while 54% was held by 190 lay tenants-in-chief. Some of the holdings were huge, and a dozen or so leading barons together controlled about a quarter of England. While the vast majority of Domesday landholders came from northern France, there were still a few Anglo-Saxons and Danes and many formerly independent Anglo-Saxon and Danish thanes and their descendants appear in Domesday as the under-tenants of Norman lords.

During the last years of his reign King William's power was threatened, especially by the Danes under King Canute IV and the Norwegians under King Olav III. Consequently in the eleventh century part of the taxes raised went into a fund called the Danegeld, which was kept to buy off marauding Scandinavian armies. Although it is not known for sure, one of the most likely reasons for the Domesday Book to be commissioned was for William to see how much tax he was getting from the country, and therefore how much Danegeld was available.

For every settlement in England each record in Domesday included its monetary value and any customary dues owed to the Crown at the time of the survey, values recorded before Domesday, and values from before 1066. The Domesday Book was executed and brought to complete fruition in two years.

The basic unit of land used in the Domesday Book is the manor which could be larger or smaller than just one village, but all consisted of land and had jurisdiction over the tenants. These were part of larger administrative subdivisions of land called hundreds, which contained several manors and had their own assembly of notables and representatives from local villages. The manors were very diverse in size but generally habitations in most areas of late eleventh century England followed a very ancient pattern of isolated farms, hamlets and tiny villages interspersed with fields and scattered over most of the cultivatable land. Yeovil, being named before the Conquest, was already a small village. 

The total value of the land in Domesday has been estimated at about £73,000 a year. The most common form of land ownership was under-tenancies, whose holders owed military services to their lords, and subsequently to the King, as described above. Another form was leasing or renting land for money, often large amounts. The value of an area of land and its resources was calculated according to size with set values on each resource unit, calculated in hides, which roughly equated to about 120 acres, and virgates or a quarter of a hide. Originally the hide represented the amount of land which could be ploughed in a day by one plough team of eight oxen.

Domesday records that the 'yields of the soke' (that is, fines imposed under the jurisdiction of courts) of a hundred went to the holder of the manor. While the lord kept a third of the money, the king reserved two thirds of that made from justice in the manor. Therefore, the value of a manor was an estimate of the money its lord would receive annually from his peasants, including the annual dues paid by a mill, a proportion of the pigs kept, and so on.

The figure in the entries giving the actual number of ploughs is the best guide to the agricultural capacity of the manor. A plough team consisted of eight oxen and either belonged to the lord who had peasants working them for him or belonged to the peasants themselves. The arable land was used to grow wheat, barley, oats and beans. Domesday records over some 6,000 mills to cope with the heavy work of grinding the grain, with just one recorded in Yeovil. At this time all mills were water mills as windmills did not appear in England until the twelfth century. Pasture was land where animals grazed all year round while the much more valuable meadow was land bordering streams and rivers, which was used both to produce hay and for grazing.

The foregoing may give the impression that there were few, if any towns. In fact Somerset had several that were mentioned in the Domesday Book, it's just that Yeovil was too small at that time to be considered a town, it was not a borough by charter and didn't have a market. Those towns that are mentioned offer one or two surprises and the following are named in various places in the text as boroughs or as being manors with burgesses. The largest was Bath with 192 burgesses; Ilchester came next with 108, Milborne Port with 67, Taunton with 64, Langport with 39, Axbridge with 32 and Bruton with 17. Other places which can be regarded as towns, because they had markets, with an income from tolls and hence of value to their lords, were Crewkerne, worth £4, Frome, worth 46s 8d, Ilminster, worth 20s, and Milverton, worth 10s.