Domesday, the earliest public record and perhaps the most famous book in English history, is to be lent to The British Library for a landmark exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons.

The National Archives announced on Friday that it was lending one of its most prized possessions, the great survey of England commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085, two decades after his Norman forces defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The book lists around 13,000 towns, villages and hamlets in the king’s possession, from Abberton in Essex to Zeals in Wiltshire, and the accompanying livestock, castles, vineyards, watermills, potteries, fisheries and more.

 

It was originally kept in the royal treasury at Winchester before being moved to Westminster in the early 13th century. From about 1600 it was kept in a large iron-clad chest with three different locks and keys given to different officials so that it could only be opened with the consent of all three.

 

It is the earliest English document preserved by the government that created it. That makes it England’s earliest bureaucratic instrument. But its importance extends well beyond the origins of English red tape. Domesday Book is the most complete survey of a pre-industrial society anywhere in the world. It enables us to reconstruct the politics, government, society and economy of 11th-century England with greater precision than is possible for almost any other pre-modern polity. Given the extent to which our knowledge of our past depends upon it, few would deny it is the single most important document in England’s history.

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