Horncastle in the Domesday Book

N COMMON WITH all other settlements in the kingdom, Horncastle was assessed in the grand ‘inventory’ of the nation for its new proprietor which was the Domesday Book. The term began to be used during the twelfth century because it was the final authority on all that it contained, much

as St Peter’s book at the gates of heaven was the final authority on all souls.
The book consists of lists — county by county — of all the barons, along with the names of all manors and details of properties attached to each; as well as information about freeman and villeins, forests, pasture land, meadows, mills, fisheries and so on. In fact, it listed everything that could be assessed and taxed. The box to the right gives the text of the opening paragraph setting out the way it was compiled. [It was, properly, a cataster.] The king Edward referred to is Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king,¤ whose death precipitated the crisis and ultimately Duke William’s invasion.

The text was, of course, written in Latin — it was to be some time before official records were written in the vernacular. Indeed, the first great instance of anything written in the vernacular§ was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for which he used a dialect of English from the East Midlands, — not from London as is commonly supposed.

The following is a translation into modern English of Horncastle’s entry:

In Hyrnecastre, Queen Editha, the Queen of Edward the confessor, had 3 carucates of land free of geld. This land is
now 4 ploughteams {or carucates}. here also the King
has two ploughteams of land as his manor, and 39 under-
tenants, consisting of 29 villeins and 10 bordars, who
among them have three ploughteams. There are two mills
with a rental of 26/- yearly, and 100 acres of meadow. In
the time of Edward the Confessor it was worth £20; now
(in 1086) it is worth £44.

The unfamiliar terms translate as follows:
A carucate was 120 acres, ie the amount of land which could be
ploughed by one plough and eight oxen [which was a ploughteam];
Geld was the Danegeld, a tax imposed by Ethelred the Unready
at 2/- per carucate;
A villein [also known as a serf] was a who lived entirely under
the power of his lord but worked the land; while a bordar was of even
lower status than a villein and supplied menial service;
for those unfamiliar with pre-decimal coinage in England, the values
marked thus 2/- indicates two shillings, twenty of which made £1

For a sense of the value of £1, click here to see the article which gives some indication of the value of a kingdom.

When Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem it was because a taxation census was being undertaken in the province. This was a part of the Roman way: their modes of tax-setting and tax-collection were both methodical and thorough.

In all, William the Conqueror took for himself some 1,450 manors spread throughout the country. Most of the Anglo-Saxons were, of course, dispossessed. [see Hereward the Wake]. some estimates give the total value assessed in Domesday Book as perhaps £75,000.

However, in every manor there was some land left for the use of everyone who had none of their own. These were ‘common lands’ used as common pasture land — hence the frequency with which one finds place names such as Clapham Common. Sometimes they were referred as Wong or The Wong, as is the case here in Horncastle where a piece as land near the town hall is so called.

¤ Strictly speaking Harold Godwineson was the last Anglo-Saxon king — except there was no time for a coronation. Edward was therefore, also, the last Anglo-Saxon king with his image on a king.

§ How people spoke in the past is possible to know about only through written texts, especially poetry since it has set rhythms which indicate the natural stresses of words, and rhymes which give an indication of sounds. A less formal source of early English can be found in the Paston Letters. These are an amazing collection of one family’s letters which is miraculously preserved in handwritten form from the late 14th and early 15th centuries.
[In them, also, one Sir John Folstolf is mentioned — whose name Shakespeare borrowed 150 years later.]