Having conquered England in 1066, the Normans set about a massive change in land ownership, which in places amounted to a chaotic land grab where the strongest snatched what they could. At the same time, William bestowed the lands of his deceased enemies on his followers, who in turn parcelled out much of it to their foremost men. Even by 1085, almost twenty years after their famous victory, the Normans were struggling to come to terms with what they had acquired - what was needed was a reckoning, a survey of all of the land holdings across England. As the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records

at Gloucester at midwinter (..) the king had deep speech with his counsellors (..) and sent men all over England to each shire (..) to find out (..) what or how much each landholder held (..) in land and livestock, and what it was worth

Thus it was that William ordered the Domesday Survey to be undertaken. In every county, Commissioners were sent out to every Hundred to gather the information. The questions they were to ask had been clearly defined at the outset, and the record from Ely preserves the questions which were asked:

  • The name of the place. Who held it, before 1066, and now?
  • How many hides? How many ploughs, both those in lordship and the men's?
  • How many villagers, cottagers and slaves, how many free men and Sokemen?
  • How much woodland, meadow and pasture? How many mills and fishponds?
  • How much has been added and taken away? What the total value was and is?
  • How much each free man or Sokeman had or has? All threefold, before 1066, when King William gave it, and now; and if more can be had than at present?

[Translations taken from the Phillimore series - ISBN 0 85033 388 1 (1981, Cambridgeshire) and ISBN 0 85033 130 7 (1975, Huntingdonshire)]

Cambridgeshire is one of the pivotal counties reported in Domesday. Apart from the record of which questions were asked, two earlier records survive which show the process at work, and which can corroborate and if necessary fill in the gaps in Domesday. These were the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis (ICC - The Cambridgeshire Inquiry), and the Inquisitio Eliensis (IE - The Ely Inquiry). ICC was an early record of the findings of the Commissioners, recorded for each hundred, which provides a useful cross-check against Domesday as this was re-ordered into holdings by person. IE was a record of the holdings of the Abbey of Ely, which included lands in Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Suffolk as well as Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.

As an example of the detail in Domesday, the entry for Haddenham reads:

Seven Sokemen hold Haddenham under the Abbot; they could not and cannot withdraw. 3 hides. Land for 5 ploughs; they are there. 8 villagers, 1/2 virgate each; 4 smallholders, 5 acres each. 6 cottagers. Meadow for 5 ploughs; pasture for the village livestock. The value is and was £8; before 1066 £12.

Looking at each of the sections in detail, we have:

  1. Seven Sokemen hold Haddenham under the Abbot;
    Rather than having a manor and a lord controlling it, Haddenham has seven individuals who are all of a class which considers them to be Free Men - they are personally responsible for the tax liability, and have jurisdiction (soke) over their land. Haddenham is held by the Abbot of Ely, and is rented out to the seven as a group, rather than to each individual.

  2. they could not and cannot withdraw.
    Although the seven Sokemen are considered Free, they cannot sell their land or transfer their allegiance to anyone else

  3. 3 hides.
    The seven Sokemen have three hides (approx 360 acres) between them

  4. Land for 5 ploughs; they are there
    The land held by the Sokemen contains an arable portion which would require 5 plough teams to manage them, and five plough teams exist in the village

  5. 8 villagers, 1/2 virgate each; 4 smallholders, 5 acres each. 6 cottagers
    The rest of the land is held by minor landowners, with 8 villagers (villeins) who have small farms of around 15 acres each, and 4 smallholders (bordars) who have five acres each. In addition, there are six cottagers (cottars), who hold no land of their own (except perhaps a cottage garden), and who work on the land of the Sokemen.

  6. Meadow for 5 ploughs; pasture for the village livestock
    Only enough meadow land exists to support the 5 ploughs which are required and present. An unknown area is set aside as pasture land, which is probably seen as common land for grazing.

  7. The value is and was £8; before 1066 £12.
    When granted by William (re-affirming the ownership of the Abbot of Ely), it was worth £8, and has not increased in value over the intervening 20 years. Before 1066, it had been worth 50% more, and so it is tempting to suggest that it was damaged during the rebellion of Hereward and its aftermath.