Domesday: on the record and on the road

Domesday: on the record and on the road:

Although Domesday had a permanent home at Westminster, it did still travel occasionally. Medieval kings travelled a great deal around the kingdom, and there is evidence that, on occasion, Domesday (and other treasured documents) went with them. During the plague years in the reign of Elizabeth I, Domesday accompanied Exchequer officials who relocated temporarily to Hertford. And in September 1666 it was taken to Nonsuch to escape the Great Fire of London. Fire was again a menace in 1834, when much of the Palace of Westminster was engulfed in flames. The fire was caused by the burning of wooden tallies, notched pieces of wood that had been used in historical accounting procedures. Domesday was being kept in the Chapter House, and the keeper of the Chapter House, the historian and scholar Sir Francis Palgrave, asked the Dean of Westminster to be allowed to move Domesday and other historical records to the Abbey for safekeeping. Astonishingly, the Dean refused, saying that he first needed a warrant from the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. Fortunately the fire did not spread to the Chapter House and Domesday survived.

An accounting roll for the removal of the ‘Receipt of the Exchequer’ to Nonsuch because of the ‘late dreadful fire’ (AO 1/865/1).

This appalling fire was one of the factors used to promote the foundation of a new Public Record Office – an institution where government records could be brought together from the various places where they were stored, and kept safely and securely, with their conditions carefully monitored. This was certainly necessary for Domesday: a report to the Royal Commission on Public Records in the early 19th century states that Domesday had to be rebound as the wooden boards which protected it were being attacked by woodworm. The Public Record Office (PRO) was eventually founded in 1838, and Domesday moved in in 1859. (We can also note that the tallies which survived the Westminster conflagration were later also transferred to the new PRO where they could cause no further harm!)

Report on the rebinding of Domesday in 1819 due to danger from worms (PRO 36/7, p.237).

One might think that its arrival at the PRO would have put an end to Domesday’s peregrinations. But this was not quite the case. In the late 1850s the head of the Ordnance Survey Department, Sir Henry James, had developed a new photographic technique called photozincography and was determined to prove its worth by reproducing medieval documents. In 1861 he was able to convince the various officials with responsibility for Domesday, including the aforementioned Sir Francis Palgrave (by now Deputy Keeper of the PRO) to allow him to reproduce it using his new technique. This involved disbinding Domesday and taking it, a few counties at a time, to Southampton, where the folios were photozincographed in the open air on the South Downs. By 1863, the whole of Great and Little Domesday had been reproduced in this way. The whole enterprise was extremely expensive, and documents held at The National Archives include all sorts of wrangling about which government departments should pay for what. The project was supported throughout by the raising of subscriptions and by the sale of the bound volumes of the reproductions. Although taking this ancient record onto the South Downs for this escapade sounds rather reckless to us, the resulting photozincograph edition was a great achievement, and did much to bring Domesday to wider public attention. 4

Digital Human: Series 15, Ep 1 – Jigsaw