As the term “Domesday Book” has been frequently applied to the present  Return, it may not be out of place to refer briefly to the celebrated Survey of the Kingdom which was made by the Conqueror, in order to show the difference in character of the two undertakings, and the different means resorted to in their compilation.
In the year 1085 serious apprehensions appear to have been entertained of an invasion of the kingdom by the Danes, and the difficulty which the King then experienced in putting the country into a satisfactory state of defence led him to form the notion of having a general survey made of the whole Kingdom, so, as Sir Martin Wright observes, “to discover the quantity of every man’s fee, and to fix his homage,” or, in other words, to ascertain the quantity of land held by each person, and the quota of military aid which he was bound to furnish in proportion to the extent of his holding.
To secure accuracy of results, Commissioners or King’s Justiciares (Legati Regis) were appointed with ample powers to ascertain :-
“upon the oaths of the several Sheriffs, Lords of Manors, Presbyters, Reeves, Bailiffs, or Villans, according to the nature of the place, what was the name of the place, who held it in the time of the Confessor, who was the present holder, how many hides of land there were in the manor, how many carrucates in the desmesne, how many homagers, how many villans, how many cotarii, how many servi, what freemen, how many tenants in socage, what quantity of wood, how much meadow and pasture, what mills and fish-ponds, how much added or taken away, what was the gross value in King Edward’s time, what the present value, and how much each free-man or soc-man had or has.” All this was estimated –
1st as the estate was held in the time of the Confessor, 2nd ly, as it was bestowed by the King himself ; and 3rd ly, as its value stood at the time of the survey.
All these particulars were ascertained for each county, the Commissioners sending in Returns (breviates) for each county separately, and from these Returns, Domesday Book, or the General Register for the whole kingdom, was compiled.
It will be seen, therefore, that the object of the Conqueror’s survey was to ascertain the amount of military service and other assistance upon which he could depend ; and for this purpose he instituted an inquiry of a very searching and inquisitorial character into the nature and extent of the landed possessions of his subjects, sending special Commissioners into every locality, with power to summon the inhabitants and compel them to make a full disclosure of their property on oath.
Notwithstanding, however, these stringent measures for insuring accuracy, ther is no doubt that the Commissioners did not always obtain or furnish correct information, and that sometimes, as in the case of the present Return, the statements of what we should now designate as the “Gross Estimated Rental,” and the “Estimated Extent,”are not altogether reliable. Ingulph, the historian of Croyland, in referring to the survey of that abbey, expressly says, “Isti” (taxatores) “penes nostrum monasterium benevoli et amantes non ad verum pretium nec ad verum spatium nostrum monasterium librabant, misericorditer praecaventes in futurum exactionibus et aliis oneribus, piisima nobis benevolentia providentes.” – Oxford edition, p. 79
With respect to the result of this inquiry, so far as it discloses the number of landowners existing at that time, it must be observed that although the Domesday Book may be considered as a fair record of the number of persons having a direct interest in land, it is almost impossible, owing to the different designations under which they are classified, to distinguish those who may properly be considered as owners from those who were in the possession of land as mere occupiers only.
The following estimate, which is extracted from the work of Sir H. Ellis, may perhaps be taken as showing proximately the number of persons who can properly be regarded as having claim to be considered as holders of land upon some legally recognised tenure:-
Tenants in capite, or persons holding directly from the Crown 1,400
Subfeudatarii, or under-tenants holding their estates from some mesne Lord 7,871
Liberi homines, or free holders under the Lord of a manor, usually by military service 12,400
Sochemanni or Socmen, holding on some fixed or determined rent service 23,072
Homines, or feudatory tenants holding on homage 1,300
Cotarii, and Coscets, or cottagers holding small parcels of land 7,000
Presbyteri, or clergy 1,000
Radmanni, a species of tenants in socage 370
Milites, or persons holding under mesne Lords in respect of military service 140
Aloarii, or absolute hereditary owners 12
Other owners, viz. Angli andAnglici, Beures or Coliberti, Censarii or Censores, &c. 248
Total of Recorded Landowners 54,813
The Burgenses,or Burgesses, who were returned as 7,968, are not included in the above list, as it is impossible to distinguish those who held lands in their individual from those who held land in a corporate capacity, and many of them were evidently not owners in any sense of the term.
Moreover the Villeins, of whom there were 108,407, are omitted, because it is quite certain that, when they occupied small portions of land, they did so on sufferance only. In fact they were regarded as mere chattels, which could be bought or sold, and they were not allowed by law to aquire any property, either in land or goods.