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Domesday Book is the name by which the detailed and elaborate description of the England of 1086 has been known ever since the twelfth century. It was prepared by order of William the Conqueror who wanted to ensure that all landowners and their tenants should be recorded for the assessment and collection of the 'geld' or land tax. The information, collected by commissioners through local juries giving evidence on oath, includes details of the property of all landowners, their lands, manors and men ­ whether they were freemen or slaves, farmers or cottagers ­ their ploughteams, horses and other stock, as well as the services and rents paid to or by them. The names of the previous landowners in the time of King Edward the Confessor, and the value of their lands then and in 1086, were included in the return. Somerset is fortunate in having two additional sources of information to supplement the details given in Domesday Book. One of these is the Exeter Domesday which contains a more detailed version of the original evidence from which the national or Exchequer copy of Domesday Book was compiled. The other is the Geld Inquest, a statement of the tax paid in 1085, just before the Domesday enquiry. From these three contemporary records it is possible to extract a great deal of information, but it must be remembered that all the entries are in Latin, often in an extremely abbreviated form which makes the identification of place-names and the interpretation of the entries still a subject of debate among historians.

First in the list came the lands of the King whose possessions in Somerset were of great extent and importance. He held the ancient demesne of the Crown, that is the land formerly owned by Edward the Confessor, as well as the forfeited possessions of Harold and his relatives, the estates of Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, and the lands of one of the Queen's thegne, Wulfward White. The ancient demesne included 12 manors-Carhampton, Williton, Cannington, North Petherton, South Petherton, Curry Rivel, Frome, Bruton, Somerton (with the borough of Langport), Cheddar (with Axbridge), Bedminster, and Milborne (with Ilchester). On all these manors there were special privileges of exemption from the payment of tax and of greater security of tenure for the villein tenants. Harold's lands included Crewkerne, Congresbury, Dulverton and several other small estates, while Queen Edith's were Bath, Chewton, Martock, Keynsham and Milverton. The total income from the King's lands was almost one quarter of the total valuation of the county.

The King, who owned all the land, had distributed it, as Domesday Book clearly shows, in estates or manors to his tenants-in-chief, principally those Normans who had helped him to conquer it. Though he claimed direct inheritance from Edward the Confessor, he depended on the support and allegiance of his Norman subjects. Under the feudal system which developed during his reign, everyone owed personal allegiance to the king, either directly as one of his tenants-in-chief, or indirectly as sub-tenants through their lord, All estates are described as being 'held', not owned; and in return for his land every tenant paid his lord in money or in services, sometimes by working for him on his land or by being ready to fight for him in war. Most estates were known as manors, most of which included settlements referred to as 'vills', which generally correspond to modern villages or hamlets, or sometimes to isolated farms. The identification of these settlements from the Domesday reference can provide an interesting exercise in local study.

The lands of the Church are entered next in order and importance to those of the King. For Somerset alone among all the counties of England is there record of a grant to St Peter's at Rome, which received the manor of Puriton as a reward for the Pope's encouragement of William's conquest, Other estates and churches were granted to Norman bishops and priests, including the Bishop of Coutances and the Bishop of Bayeux (King William's half-brother). These two bishops were rewarded for their personal services to the King, and their lands were not connected in any way with the English Church. Many manors formerly belonging to the Church had been granted to Norman lords, and in the Exeter Domesday they are marked specially with a cross in the margin. In spite of this the Church, as represented by the Bishop of Wells and the Abbeys of Glastonbury, Bath, Athelney and Muchelney, still held a considerable amount of land in various parts of the county. The largest single estate, the great manor of Taunton, which included more than ten villages around the town of Taunton, was held by the Bishop of Winchester. Somerset was originally part of the diocese of Winchester, and this estate had been given in early Saxon times as a source of income for the bishops. Now with the manors of Pitminster, Bleadon and Rimpton its annual value was over £220. The estates in Somerset of the Bishop of Wells were valued at £333, and those of the Abbey of Glastonbury at £460.

Most of the rest of Somerset was in the hands of laymen of whom the most important was the Count of Mortain, a tenant-in-chief in twenty counties, whose lands in Somerset have been calculated as equal in value to one tenth of the county's total assessment. His castle at Montacute was of especial interest to him, and around it he granted lands to his Norman sub­tenants, Alvred the Butler, Dru de Montacute and Bretel de St Clair, whose duties were no doubt connected with its security and defence. Next in importance to the Count came Roger de Corcelle with lands in almost every hundred in Somerset, Roger Arundel with lands in Castle Cary, and William de Moion (later anglicised as Mohun) with his castle and estates at Dunster which descended in his family for three centuries. Other Normans who held lands in Somerset were Walter de Dowai, William de Eu, Turstin Fitz Rou and Serb de Burci. Some Englishmen, eighteen in all, had been allowed to hold lands in place of their former estates, and of these the most important were Harding, son of Elnod, who held six manors including Marriott, and Alvric, son of Brictric, who held two. Last in the list of tenants came the King's sergeants, men who held their land in return for the special services associated with their names. Hugo the Interpreter held Babcary, Sandford Orcas, and an estate at Bathampton which included a house in Bath. John the Usher had six estates while Ansger the Cook, Ansger the Hearth-keeper and Anachitil the Parker all held small estates.

The amount of tax payable by each estate was assessed according to the number of hides it contained. The hide was never precisely defined, though it probably referred originally to the holding of a single peasant household. By 1086, though it could represent the land of a small manor, the hide was primarily a measure of accounting and a basis for taxation. The hide varied in size according to soil variation and the amount of land available, but an average approximation in Somerset is 120 acres. In the Domesday entries estates are said to pay geld for a stated number of hides. A part of this land is called the lord's demesne, the area he retained for his own use as a home-farm and which was cultivated by his tenants as part of their service to him or by his slaves. The area is usually expressed as a number of ploughlands or as land for so many ploughs, with the number of villeins, bordars and cottars and their ploughs. The farm of the villein, the tenant farmer on most manors, was one quarter of a hide or one virgate. This would normally be about 40 acres of arable in the common fields, to which was attached a share in the common meadow and pasture, and certain rights in the woodland. These rights were to gather firewood and to cut 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. The bordars were tenants of smaller farms of about 10 acres, with services and rights in proportion to their holding. Small holdings of about 5 acres were occupied by the cottars who probably spent much of their time working for their lord. Included among the bordars and cottars were the village craftsmen, the smiths, potters and fishermen, of whom only a few are specially mentioned in Somerset. Last of all came the servi, or slaves, who were fully occupied in cultivating the lord's demesne. On some estates there were porcarii who held farms on the Quantocks or on Exmoor and were specially concerned with breeding and raising pigs.

Manors varied greatly in size. The manor of Taunton had land for 100 ploughs, beside which there was demesne land for 10 ploughs. There were 80 villeins, 82 borders and 70 slaves. In contrast, there were tiny settlements in the hilly districts consisting of only one or two small isolated farms. Domesday entries for the Porlock area on the edge of Exmoor help to illustrate this variation. Lying in the fertile Vale of Porlock, the manor in 1086 could provide land for 12 ploughs. There were 6 villeins and 3 bordars who held 1 ½ hides. Another 1 ½ hides were the lord's demesne, and to cultivate it there were 6 slaves. The large area of 300 acres of woodland and 500 acres of pasture indicate the probability that stock-raising formed an important part of farming practice there, though no cattle, sheep or pigs are recorded, Not far away at Stoke Pero, about 1000 feet above sea level, only half a virgate of land was cultivated by 2 bordars and 1 slave, half for the lord's demesne and half for themselves, sharing a ploughteam, On the 50 acres of pasture and 60 acres of woodland they kept 7 pigs, 20 sheep and 20 goats which helped to provide more than a bare subsistence for the two, perhaps three, families living there,

The total number of settlements which have been identified by name is 600, and their distribution shows that on the Somerset Levels, on Exmoor and the Mendips, there were considerable areas without any settlements. The low-lying salt marshes were of little economic value, but some of the moors provided summer pasture as well as rushes and willow beds, The five villages on the Polden Hills, Cossington; Chilton, Edington, Catcott and Shapwick, all included part of the moor to the north of the hills and also some detached portions to the south, indicating that these were of some value, perhaps to supply peat for fuel. At Wedmore the moors returned no profit, though 2 fisheries paid 10 shillings. Part of the area without settlements was included in the five Royal forests of Exmoor, Mendip Selwood, Neroche and North Petherton, though, because they were not liable to taxation, no record of them was made. Forests were not necessarily woodland but were areas, under special laws, outside normal agricultural and pastoral life where the beasts of the forest ­ the red and fallow deer and the wild boar ­ were preserved for hunting.

Map of Domesday Somerset (Boroughs; markets; mints)
Map of Domesday Somerset (Mills; fisheries; population; landholdings)