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‘Efficient and ingenious.’ Why is that an accurate description of the Domesday Survey and Norman government?

This activity is one of a pair of resources to help students learn about Domesday Book at either KS3 or GCSE.  Its companion activity ‘What does Domesday Book reveal about the impact of 20 years of Norman rule?’ can be found HERE …. Both activities were created by Ruth Lingard and Helen Snelson who teach in York, together with Professor Stephen Baxter of St. Peter’s College, Oxford whose research on Domesday Book underpins the material and activities.

Both activities have been used by Ruth and Helen and also been trialled by other teachers. In terms of the amount of class time needed, Ruth explains: It's best to start with the ‘Efficient and ingenious’ activity on the compilation of the survey as this helps the students grasp the time frame of the Survey. You can do both activities in a lesson, for example if you are teaching this as part of a GCSE Norman Conquest unit and have just one lesson to cover the Domesday Survey. However, ideally I'd devote a whole lesson to the second activity on what Domesday reveals about the impact of the Conquest. This gives proper time for reflection.

What follows is Helen and Ruth’s description of this activity on what the Domesday documents reveals about the nature of the Survey and Norman government.


A WORD version of this activity and accompanying resources can be downloaded:

Why, When and What

Why use this activity?

There have been recent and significant advances in historians’ understanding of the whole Domesday Survey as a result of research using documents the various stages of the Survey, not just the final version that is contained in the document known as Domesday Book. It is more exciting than we might have imagined. It reveals much about Norman administrative and leadership skills.

When to use this activity?

The version of the activity provided here is best suited to GCSE students. It is a combination of teacher story-telling and an activity. It could be done in as little as 20 minutes if the purpose is to get across the idea of the complexity and ingenuity of the work of the scribes and so do not complete the full research task. However if students do complete the whole of the research task in role as scribes the activity one could take an hour. If used at KS3 one might have the luxury of enjoying some of the descriptions that went into Domesday Book’s final form.

What do students do?

Students listen to the exciting tale of the Domesday Survey and take on the role of some of the Domesday Survey’s administrators. By doing this they will learn:

• Respect for the sheer effort and ingenuity of the people of the time

• The complexity of the admin / organisation in Norman England

• The purpose of the Domesday Survey

What resources are provided?

• Teacher Activity Plan

• Domesday Story – a story to be told by the teacher. Read this through beforehand so that you can get the drama across to students

• Wapentakes information - eight sheets of information about northern wapentakes – photocopy these onto A3 sheets to spread out around the room

• Landholders questions - Ten character sheets to be copied onto small pieces of paper (parchment is precious!)

Note: the eight sheets of wapentake include information researched from Domesday Book. The information at this stage would have been more detailed, and to make these more real, historical imagination has been used. For example, information about animals, building materials etc is realistic, but was excluded in the final version of the Domesday Survey – Domesday Book.

The eight wapentakes

Pocklington, Warter, Ainsty, Howden, Barkston, Cave, York, Acklam

For each one: land held where – value 1066 – who got from – value 1086 – any claims.

Teacher Activity Plan


Do not be shy about telling a story to your class. The story of the Domesday Survey is dramatic. We have provided you with a version of it. It is the interpretation of Professor Stephen Baxter from the University of Oxford. He has recently (2017) been working on the Exon Domesday manuscript and the story is the results of his research. Exon Domesday is one of the documents that was used to write up Domesday Book. It has been taken apart, tested and analysed. The results are exciting. As you read, as dramatically as possible. Ask students to spot all the reasons why William wants the Domesday Survey.  According to Professor Baxter, the process reveals the purpose. In the first section you will find that William learnt:

• How much to tax each area of England

• Where there were disagreements about land-holding that he could agree to sort out, for a fee

• How much land each person held, so that he could tax and make demands of them

There is a break in the story, where you run the student activity. Before beginning the activity discuss with students what they have learned so far that would support or challenge the description of the Domesday Survey and Norman government as ‘Efficient and ingenious.’

The nature of the student activity

This activity puts students in the role of men in the northern Domesday circuit. They have to turn all the information from the wapentake areas into lists of land held by individuals. Their task is to work out how they can collect the information quickly and accurately. You are therefore setting them a puzzle – how would you as a group collect the information about each landholder that the king needs?

Here is what the scribes did – don’t tell your students this until they have tried to find their own solution! In the summer of 1086 the scribes had about 6 weeks to write out all the information collected by hundred area (wapentake in the North) into a format describing the land held by each land-owner. This was a huge task carried out in hot and sweaty rooms under pressure. The King wanted all the information presenting to him at Old Sarum (near Salisbury) on 1st August.

We know from analysis of the documents that the scribes, working on Exon Domesday in Exeter, came up with an ingenious and methodical matrix system to ensure speed and accuracy as follows:

1.  Each scribe would take a land-holder and read a hundred (wapentake) document looking for their land-holdings.

2. He would move on from wapentake to wapentake document, until they discovered that another scribe was working on the next document they needed.

3. At that point, he would stop work on his land-holder, place that land-holder’s document at the missing wapentake document tray and begin work to collect information on another land-holder. Complex? Yes!

There is no need for students to understand this precisely! The key point is to get across to them that, faced with a tricky problem, these scribes came up with ingenious solutions. Don’t tell them what was done. Instead, present them with the problem and see if they can solve it. There is no need for students to complete the task, just to get far enough into it so that they have to work out a system they would use. The point is not to learn lots of information about the wapentakes, the point is to learn about how skill and intelligence of the Domesday scribes.

Guidelines for the students’ task

What follows are suggestions for how carry out this task.

Teacher in role:

“Right, men! Now we’ve got all this information for our circuit. It’s all listed under areas of land called hundreds - or wapentakes for the northerners amongst us. So, we know what tax can be expected from each village / wapentake / shire and we intend to use that information well. But now we have orders to list everything by each landholder so the King knows what land each man holds. Big task!

On the desk in front of you is the information gathered from 8 wapentakes around the City of York, including York itself.

Now, men, we have 10 people here who hold land – but we don’t know where. You need to find out in which wapentakes they own their land. Paper is short and this is all we have.  (Spread out the ten characters on a desk.) You must find out for each landholder:

• where they hold land

• the value of it in 1066

• who they got it from

• the value of that land now (1086)

• and any claims/disputes that are connected with them.

How you do this is up to you, but you are under pressure. You have to work out how to collect the information quickly but accurately. The King is scary! You’ve got 3 minutes to make a plan!”

Give students about 3 minutes to make a plan.

“Ok, men, you have 5 minutes to collect the information – go!”

After about 3 minutes, intervene and tell students it’s being rumoured that the King is angry. Ask students how the process is going. Do they want to review it? Give them another few minutes.


Ask students how quickly and accurately they think they were working? How do you think the Domesday scribes did it? You can now share with them the information about how the Exon Domesday scribes worked out their matrix system at this point.


• What does trying to do this task tell us about the administrators in 1086? (effort, ingenuity, control, organisation - a month for their whole circuit! – these people are intelligent, motivated and organised.)

• What is their conclusion? Do they agree that the Domesday Survey and Norman government were ‘Efficient and ingenious’ and what is the best evidence to support or challenge this?

• When this Domesday Survey was completed, what could the King do: for each person how could they be used? (tax, dues, relationship to the King, claims…)       

Finish the story

Tell students that the scribes of all seven Domesday circuits completed their huge task. William was presented with all the information and now he could:

• Calculate tax for every area of England

• Make money from settling claims and disagreements about land-holding

• Know which land each person held, so that he could tax and make demands of them

In addition, the whole protest had made the Conquest very real. No one could doubt that the Norman King William and his Norman lords were in charge. The process of doing the Domesday Survey reveals its many purposes.

After the meeting at Old Sarum, William seems to have ordered that all the circuit information should be summarised further into one large document. Rather like a symbol, or a souvenir of the whole process. One scribe wrote it up over several months. It is known as Domesday Book and is one of England’s most precious historic documents.

Now students understand the Domesday Survey, you can move onto the linked activity about what Domesday Book reveals about the impact of 20 years of Norman rule.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Why, When & What

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