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Administration and government in Anglo-Saxon England

Almost all of the shires of England were organised in a similar manner in the C10th, although some variation is evident between the measurements and names in the Danelaw and those in the rest of the country.

At the heart of the government system is the hide - a unit variously used to calculate military and civil service, taxation levels, and land values. The hide is something of an oddity, varying in physical size from 20 to 120 acres depending on the area of the country and the type of land being measured. In many ways, this makes perfect sense, as 120 acres of mainly scrub and moorland in one area of the country may support the same number of people, and generate the same wealth, as 20 acres of prime land in another.

The hide has been described as the minimum area of land necessary to support a single family, but as always it is never as clear cut as this - a hide can certainly support more than a few people, and indeed in the C10th a "family" as such should be thought of more as an extended farmstead, with perhaps three generations of a family living there, plus various workers and dependents, with potentially up to 50 people living from the output of the hide.

Above the hide is the hundred - literally one hundred hides. In addition to being an area defined for ease of tax collection and management, the hundred also provided the lowest level of legal framework for the county, with a hundred court where men could be tried before their peers. This court met each month, and took a proportion of all fines levied. In Cambridgeshire, there were seventeen hundreds at the time of Domesday, with the town of Cambridge being assessed as a hundred on its own, and the Isle of Ely assessed as a double hundred.

Credits: with thanks to Paul Murphy.


The online glossary at is useful in trying to understand the entries in Domesday. The basics are:


  • Berewic (OE berewica): derived from the Old English word for a corn farm, a berewic in Domesday refers to an outlying holding within a manor, ie a separate farm (often held by a tenant), but taxed as a part of that manor.
  • Bovate (Latin bovata): derived from the Latin word bo, meaning ox, a bovate was a measure of land which could be ploughed by one eighth of a plough, in other words equivalent to one eighth of a carucate. Like the carucate, it was a unit of land used in the Danelaw.
  • Carucate (Latin carucata): derived from the Latin word caruca, meaning plough, this is a measure of land used in the Danelaw as the equivalent to a hide. Sometimes translated as 'ploughland', it represented the amount of land which could be ploughed by one plough team.
  • Demesne: sometimes called the "inland", this was land farmed by the estate centre or manor, with the proceeds going directly to the lord (as opposed to being rented out to a tenant).
  • Furlong (Latin ferlinus, ferdinus, quarentina): an area or length of land for tax assessment. When used to mean an area, it was one sixteenth of a hide or one quarter of a virgate; as length it was about 220 yards.
  • Hide (OE hida): the main measurement of land in Anglo-Saxon England, and the basis of tax assessments used Approximately 120 acres, depending on local variations in the acre. Some areas used slightly different units - for example the Danelaw, where carucates were used.
  • Holding (Latin feudum, honor): also known as a fief, this was the collective term for a grouping of all the manors held by a single tenant-in-chief or under-tenant in the same county. In many cases a post-Conquest successor seems to have taken over the entire holding of one (or more) pre-Conquest antecessores.
  • Hundred (OE hundredum, Latin centenna): the hundred was one of the key administrative subdivisions of Anglo-Saxon England. Each shire was divided into hundreds, each usually consisting of 100 hides of land. The hundred had its own court, a monthly meeting whereby the more prominent landholders met to resolve disputes and see business done. There were many 'private hundreds', where a major lord (frequently the bishop or earl) owned all or most of the land, and had the right to a share in all profits of justice from the hundred court. The Domesday commissioners collected information by assembling the hundred courts. In the Danelaw the equivalent was the wapentake, while in Kent the term was leet.
  • Leet: the Kentish term for the hundred.
  • Manor (Latin manerium, mansio, villa): a single estate or holding, probably with its own hall, but not necessarily a manor house as we think of it. The manor was the basic unit of Domesday. Also called a vill.
  • Mill: a watermill (there were no windmills in England for another century). A lord had the right to require his tenants to use his mill, and he would charge them for doing so. Mills were therefore valuable commodities.
  • Rape: a subdivision of Sussex. In the pre-Conquest period there were five rapes, each corresponding to a valley (increased to six following the Conquest). Each rape had a lord and an estate held by the bishop of Selsey.
  • Sulung: a measurement of land in Kent used as an alternative to the hide. It was equivalent to 4 yokes, or the amount of land which could be ploughed by 4 ox-pairs (approximately 2 hides). Used in Domesday for tax purposes.
  • Vill (Latin villa): a single estate or holding, ie an alternative term for a manor.
  • Virgate (Latin virgata, virga): a quarter of a hide. Used in Domesday for tax purposes.
  • Wapentake (ON wapentac): the Danelaw term for the hundred.
  • Waste: land which was either unusable or uncultivated, and therefore not taxed. Many estates in Yorkshire are described as "waste", almost certainly as a result of the 'Harrying of the North' in 1070. However, "waste" could simply mean land not fit for agricultural use.
  • Yoke: a land measurement in Kent, equal to a quarter of a sulung. A yoke being a pair of ox, this represented the amount of land cultivated by an ox pair. Used in Domesday for tax purposes.


  • Furlong (Latin ferlinus, ferdinus, quarentina): an area or length of land for tax assessment. When used to mean an area, it was one sixteenth of a hide or one quarter of a virgate; as length it was about 220 yards.
  • League: a measurement of distance of twelve furlongs, or about 1½ miles.
  • Sester (Latin sextarium): a measure of volume, commonly used for honey, when it amounted to 32 ounces.


  • Bordar (Latin bordarius): a middle class of peasant, usually with more land than a cottar but less than a villein.
  • Burgess (Latin burgus): meaning 'townsman'. The Domesday Book lists numbers of burgesses in some settlements but not others. What constituted a burgess is unclear, as it is thought some of those 'townspeople' may have been rural labourers resident close to towns.
  • Cottar or Cottager (Latin cotarius): the lowest class of peasant farmer, likely to have a house with only a very small area of land around it.
  • Dreng: the equivalent of a 'sokeman', used mainly in Lancashire - ie a free man required to pay customs and provide services to the king in return for holding land.
  • Earl (OE eorl, ON jarl, Latin comes): one of the most important magnates, holding a major office from the king. The term "earl" first appears under Cnut - previously the term "ealdorman" was used. Eleventh-century earls had no fixed jurisdiction - Edward the Confessor regularly "reshuffled" his earls' areas of responsibility. Earls were members of the thegnly class who derived much of their wealth and power from the office they held from the king - and the estates which went with it. Given the frequency of changes in ealdordoms during the eleventh century, it seems clear that there were distinct 'comital' estates allocated to whoever held the office of earl in a shire.
  • "Go where he will": one of many ways in which Domesday describes a landholder who had freedom of jurisdiction over his land. A landholder who "could go where he will with it" could sell it, leave and find another lord, which meant a great deal of independence. Disputes over this right arose with the Normans after the Conquest as their system of landholding obliged tenants to hold land under a tenant-in-chief (whether a lord or institution).
  • Moneyer: a person licensed to strike coins, receiving the dies from the royal court, and keeping 6 silver pennies in the pound. Moneyers were very tightly regulated, and invariably found in towns, where their activities could be closely monitored. Moneyers were wealthy and important individuals, who included their name and town on the coins they struck as a means of quality control; studying their names suggests that moneying was often a family business.
  • Predecessor (Latin antecessor): the previous holder of an estate or an office. Using the term implied that the succession has been legally made, and the powers have passed rightfully to the present holder.
  • Reeve (OE refa, Latin praepositus, praefectus): the official or steward responsible for administering a manor or estate. The shire-reeve (sheriff) was a royal official responsible for overseeing the king's business in a shire.
  • Slave (Latin servus): a man or woman who had forfeited their freedom, whether voluntarily, as a result of legal penalties or (unlikely to be the case in Domesday) being enslaved through war. Slaves were considered to be the property of their owner - but also their responsibility, ie the owner was responsible for feeding, clothing and caring for them. Several pre-Conquest bishops' wills give instructions to free the penally-enslaved men on their estates, which suggests that the Church may have played a systematic role in looking after those who were unable to pay legal fines - or make wergeld payments - ensuring the individual would be properly looked after, both in body and soul.
  • Sokeman (Latin francus homo, OE socmannus, ON dreng): a class of free peasant possessing a relatively strong economic position and legal independence, found in substantial numbers in the Danelaw areas in Domesday. A sokeman could buy and sell their land, but owed service to their lord's soke, ie his court or jurisdiction - though sokemen were not required to perform manual labour in return for their lands (unlike other types of peasant). Francus homo refers to a French, particularly Norman settler, equivalent in status to a freeman.
  • Successor (Latin successor): the subsequent or current holder of an estate or an office. Using the term implied that the succession has been legally made, and the powers have passed rightfully to the present holder.
  • Tenant-in-Chief (Latin dominus): a lord or institution (usually a church) holding land directly from the king; also called the 'landholder'.
  • Thegn (OE thegnas, Latin minister): a member of the nobility, with at least five hides of land. The most important magnates (ealdormen and earls) were all part of the thegnly class, and derived much of their wealth and power from the office they held from the king - and the estates which went with it. The descendants of Ealdorman Byrhtnoth (killed at the battle of Maldon) appear in Domesday as modestly-off thegns.
  • Un-free: a peasant who owed personal service to another, and who was unable to move home or work or change allegiance, to buy or to sell land, without permission.
  • Villein (Latin villanus): a prominent member of the peasant class, holding more land than a bordar or cottar.

Rights and obligations

  • Customary due (Latin consuetudo): a payment owed to lord of a manor (or to the king) for rent, services, tax and duties.
  • Farm (OE feorm, Latin firma): food-rent, ie the provision which a manor traditionally owed the king or its lord. "The farm of one night" meant one night's upkeep for the king and his court. In Domesday this is often translated into a money equivalent, as cash replaced the barter economy.
  • Geld (OE): a tax levied on all estates, charged at a set rate per hide (or equivalent). Some estates could be assessed to pay geld for more hides than the estate actually contained (ie very wealthy or productive areas) or for fewer hides (a tax break). This was sometimes called "Danegeld" because the money was originally raised to buy off or fight Danish invaders during the reign of Aethelred. The tax remained in place through the eleventh century and well into the twelfth. Geld was generally levied at 2 shillings per hide, though in 1084 King William demanded a particularly heavy geld, at 6 shillings per hide.
  • Lease for three lives: the standard length of any pre-Conquest lease. This meant that the estate was leased out for the lifetime of the holder and his two immediate successors, generally other members of a family (perhaps his wife, son or grandson).
  • Lordship (Latin dominium): this can mean the land owned by a tenant-in-chief (a lord or institution). It also sometimes refers to the land owned by a tenant-in-chief and farmed directly by them, rather than by sub-tenants; Domesday often uses the phrase "is and always was in lordship" in this sense.
  • Mast, pannage (Latin pannequion): autumn feed for pigs, which were allowed to graze freely on the acorns and beechnuts on the woodland floor. The right to pannage is still part of some forest laws.
  • Presentations (Latin presentationes): a payment for fishing rights.
  • Relief (OE heriot): a payment, in money or kind, paid to a lord after a man's death by relatives in order for them to inherit. Traditionally heriot meant a thegn returning his wargear to his lord: into the eleventh century the wills of king's thegns and bishops order that the king should receive a sword, helmet, sometimes a mail shirt, and two spears, two shields and two horses (one saddled, one not), often also with an arm-ring. This corresponds to the wargear of a fully-equipped fighting man, either with spare equipment, or enough to kit out his servant/batman.
  • Soke (OE soc): a legal term connected ultimately with OE secan, "to seek"). At the time of the Domesday survey it seems to have meant "jurisdiction", but its vague usage makes it probably lack a single, precise definition. Royal charters generally granted authority using standard wording: "sac et soc, toll et team et infangthief", ie the equivalent of the authority of the reeve at the hundred court, including the right to slay a thief caught red-handed (infangentheof). Sokemen were free peasants who could buy and sell their land, but owed service to their lord's soke, ie court or jurisdiction.
  • Third Penny: the share of fines in shire or hundred courts owed to whoever owned the court (often the king, the earl or the bishop. The "third penny" from a court was often allocated afterwards to a particular manor or church as a regular income.

Pages in category ‘Landholding’

The following 2 pages are in this category, out of 2 total.