Hides and Hundreds: Decoding the Domesday Book 

Offering an unrivalled window into the medieval era, the famed Domesday Book is an incredibly valuable historical resource. The manuscript details the people and places of eleventh century England and outlines the wealth, land and other assets held by individuals and communities. 

Under the rule of William the Conqueror, men were sent across the British countryside to compile information regarding the population and its wealth.

Domesday book
A page of from the Domesday Book for Warwickshire

Their aim was to uncover and record who owned land, how much that land was worth, who lived on the land and what buildings and assets were owned. This gave King William an accurate representation of wealth and population in his country that he could leverage to raise funds if necessary. 

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The book divided land into different sections and areas, including hides, hundreds and shires. These divisions went on to form the basis for many of the counties recognisable across England today. 


Completed in 1086 on the orders of William the Conqueror, the Domesday Book is a record of landowners and the value of land across England. The overall book is composed of two manuscripts, known as Little Domesday and Great Domesday.

Little Domesday covers information regarding land, landowners and property value in the areas of modern day Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Great Domesday details the land and value across the rest of England, with the exception of some northern counties and areas along the Welsh border. 

An English hide, measurement of land
The name ‘hide’ can still be found in place names, an example being the village of Piddletrenthide, Dorset. Recorded in the Domesday Book as thirty hides.

Information was gathered for the Domesday Book through the Domesday Survey, an investigation which assessed the value of assets and wealth that the people of England held. Implementation of the survey was sparked, in part, by the fact that William needed to raise money to pay for a bigger army. He planned to do this though increasing taxes. 

While Little Domesday covers a smaller geographical area, it is more detailed than its larger counterpart. It includes for example the exact numbers of livestock held on lords’ home farms and other specific detailed information. Little Domesday was also completed before Great Domesday.

Comparing the two shows how the process of the Domesday Survey developed from its early stages. 

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The Domesday Book provided an invaluable tool for William the Conqueror in ruling the country. Concerned with the prospect of another Viking invasion, he wanted a comprehensive record of wealth, assets and land.

By compiling this record, William had at hand an accurate estimate of whom he could tax and how much money he could raise through taxes to fund an army sufficient to repel invaders. 

Why is it Called the Domesday Book? 

Domesday is, quite literally, a medieval spelling of the word doomsday. The name may seem rather foreboding, however it was rooted in the deeply religious atmosphere of historic Britain.

The word doom, or dome, was used differently than in modern times. For people today the term doom conjures up apocalyptic imaginings.

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In medieval Britain, it was more closely associated with ideas of law and judgement. As such, for those that held the manuscript in high esteem, the term Domesday was a reference to the Last Judgement. It depicted the definitiveness of the records held in the book.

Interestingly the Domesday Book was not known by this moniker when it was created. It wasn’t until the 1200s that the manuscript became recognisably referred to as the Domesday Book in official documentation. 

What is a Hide? 

Completed in Medieval times, land referenced in the Domesday book was not referred to in acres or square miles, but rather in hides. A hide was a unit of land measurement that represented a sufficient amount of land needed to support an average household. 

The area of a hide was often around 120 acres (or 40 hectares), however this was not always the case. Some mystery surrounds what the exact formula for determining a hide was.

Hides, land recorded in the Domesday Book
Domesday Book is a record of landowners and the value of land across England.

There are instances in which different properties measuring roughly the same area are listed as a different amount of hides. Discrepancies like this prompt the idea that the decision of what constituted a hide was due to more than simply how big a parcel of land was. 

After the Norman Conquest, and at the time of the creation of the Domesday Book, it was common practice to measure a hide of land according to how productive it was. A rule of thumb might be that an area of land producing £1 of income per annum counted as one hide.

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However, there was still a somewhat fluid nature as to what exactly constituted a hide. Some examples were seemingly based on neither land size nor land production value. As such, there is much debate on what a hide referred to at various historical periods. 

Hides Before the Domesday Book 

Hides were not a unit of measurement exclusive to the Domesday Book. The term hide was used as early as 807 by the Holy Roman Empire. It was used to determine tax levies, as well as recording the availability warriors.

These men would be required to report for service in times of war. As an example, a vassal in a region west of the Seine holding four to five hides was required to report for duty if war was declared.

However, three men who held one hide each could band together. In this case, they agreed which one man would represent them in combat. The other two took on the responsibility of supporting their chosen warrior and maintaining his land should war be declared. 

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In Anglo-Saxon England, the assessment of hides also incorporated more administrative purposes. Numbers of hides were used to determine the food rent an estate or village owed, as well as its responsibility to maintain infrastructure such as bridges.


This was as well as the number of men that were required to report for defence purposes. Defence purposes involved tasks like manning watch towers or forming part of the ‘fyrd’, a medieval militia army.

At one point in Anglo-Saxon England, one fully armed soldier was expected to be provided for the king’s service for every five hides that were owned. Similarly, one man from every hide could be called to do garrison duty and assist with the upkeep of the garrison for the burhs.

Hides formed the basis on which early taxes were assessed, a method that continued when the Domesday Book was created. 

The Geld, later known as Danegeld, was first levied in 990. Each individual had to pay taxes according to an amount determined by the assessment of hides. Anglo Saxon kings used the Danegeld to pay off invading Vikings to stop raids and attacks. 

From Hides to Hundreds 

A hundred, larger than a hide, is another significant geographical and population area. Hundreds were effectively like small sub-counties. They were subdivisions within the county that had administrative responsibilities.

These responsibilities might include playing a role in financial, military, judicial, or political issues within the region. Members of a hundred were often expected to meet once a month to solve small legal disputes. 

map of county shires
A hundred, larger than a hide

The exact meaning behind the terminology of a ‘hundred’ is still unclear. Scholars and historians have speculated that it may originally have referenced a hundred hides.

Other ideas are that it was an area where a hundred people had settled, or an area that was responsible for providing a hundred men of fighting age. While the term’s origin may remain a mystery, the term is generally believed to have been in use prior to the creation of the Domesday Book. 

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Areas in the East of England that had been part of Danelaw used a different word to describe a hundred. In these lands, hundreds were known as ‘wapentakes’. Introduced during Viking rule, word translates as the taking of weapons. However, despite the variation in terminology, wapentakes served the same purpose as hundreds. 

From Hundreds to Shires 

The next largest division from a hundred, and perhaps the one still most recognisable today, are shires. 

Again, although these are significant divisions listed in the Domesday Book, shires predate the Norman Conquest. As such, they also predate the creation of the Domesday manuscript.

As early as the rule of Alfred the Great, shires were in place in some parts of the country. By the time the Domesday Book was created, shires were a relatively standard breakdown of social, political and geographical power.

A shire-reeve, or sheriff, headed each shire. The reeve collected taxes and enforced the law in the name of the king. Shires formed many of the county names common today such as Cheshire and Hertfordshire. 

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In total, thirty-one shires are listed in the Domesday Book, and three referred to in Little Domesday. 

Shires, now largely comparable to modern counties, were important political and social structures throughout the history of Britain. They provided a point of contact between the levels of upper government and the crown, and the people of Britain.

The shire-reeve was responsible for maintaining order and civility in a region. As head of the local government system, the reeve acted on behalf of the best interests of people who lived in the shire. 

Why Should We Care About the Domesday Book? 

The Domesday Book provides historians with a wealth of information that would be otherwise near impossible to ascertain. It is a detailed snapshot of the social, geographical and political makeup of Medieval Britain.

A survey of such scale would not be attempted again until the Return of Owners of Land in 1873. The manuscript is often considered to be Britain’s earliest public record and offers a rare glimpse into the medieval era. It is thought to be the most comprehensive record of society in pre-industrial times, not just in Britain, but in the wider world as well. 

A Peek into History 

Created under the rule of William the Conqueror, the Domesday Book provided a valuable political tool in Medieval England. It outlined the social and geographical breakdown of a community as well as the assets and wealth held across England.

The most comprehensive assessment of its time, the Domesday Manuscript now provides an incredible resource for historians.

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While some of the exact metrics for determining hides, hundreds and shires may still be up for debate, this historical document is like a time capsule. It offers a view into the world of medieval England and showcases just how the country was structured in this historic era.