The Domesday Inquest of 1086 gives us a remarkable picture of Dorset soon after the Norman Conquest. It was not a census, being only concerned with the tax capacity of the country, and therefore it mentions only landowners and heads of peasant households. Priests and women are included only if they held land in their own right, and children and dependents are never mentioned. Consequently the number of 241 feudal tenants (some not living in the county), 163 burgesses, and 6785 unfree peasants represents a total population in Dorset of perhaps 50,000.
The Church — principally monasteries — held nearly two ﬁfths of the land in the county, and except for the grants to Norman abbeys and bishoprics this had been so before the Conquest. Land directly held by the King, either as royal demesne or estates ‘escheated’ for lack of heirs or misbehaviour, amounted to about one-sixth. Of the rest, the great major— ity was held by Norman barons. A few small English landowners survived, having given no excuse for conﬁscation by supporting Harold or the later rebellions, and they appear as ‘King’s Thegns’. ‘King’s Servants’ (or Sergeants) were minor officials of the royal Household, rewarded with land for their services as huntsmen or craftsmen.
Though farming was the business of nearly all-the population, other occupations are recorded. Saltworkers appear in Purbeck and near Lyme Regis, and a few ﬁshermen in the Lyme and Weymouth areas. Curiously, only one smith is mentioned — at Melbury Osmund — though there must have been many: possibly most of them were only part-time craftsmen, like the millers who ground corn in the 2.72 water—mills. The towns too must have contained traders and craftsmen, though we hear only of the moneyers (of whom there were three in Shaftesbury, two in Dorchester and Wareham, and one in Bridport). Most of the town population were still agricultural, and some described as burgesses held houses attached to outside manors and were probably villeins. Wimborne had some of these, though it was not properly a borough.
All the Dorset towns suffered in the upheaval following the Conquest. Of the 172 houses at Dorchester, only 88 remained habitable: Wareham lost 150 out of 285, Shaftesbury 80 out of 257, and Bridport 20 out of 120. At the ﬁrst two places many were destroyed to make way for castles inside the walls. At Bridport and Dorchester the King owned all the town, but nearly half the Wareham houses belonged to a Norman abbey or to other lords, and two—thirds of those at Shaftesbury t0 the Abbess. The principal tax was the ‘geld’, raised by the King at rates from two to six shillings on every ‘hide’. The hide was a tax-unit based on a rough assessment of value, rather than a measure, and apart from the boroughs Dorset contained about 2,600. Dorchester and Wareham were rated at ten hides, Shaftesbury at twenty, and Bridport at five, but in practice they paid one mark (13/4) per year for each ten hides in place of geld. Dor- Chester, Bridport, and Wareham had also to find each year the ‘One-day Farm’, which was the cost of maintaining the royal Household for one day or about £100 in cash. With the royal demesne, Dorset provided seven such ‘farms’ and was liable to support the Household for one week as it moved about the country.
Some places got off much more lightly: Puddletown, for example, which had belonged to Harold before the Conquest, paid only for half a hide, though it contained 15 ‘ploughlands’ of 12.0 acres. The entry, which follows the standard form, runs as follows: ‘The King holds Puddletown. In King Edward’s time it paid geld on half a hide. There is land for 15 ploughs. On the demesne are 4 ploughs and 12 serfs, and there are 14 villeins and 29 cottars with 10 ploughs. Here are 2 mills producing 32 shillings, and 126 acres of meadow. The grazing is 1 leagues long by I broad. There is a wood 2 furlongs square.’
Details like this make Domesday interesting to the local historian, but they need a book to themselves. In general, the record shows the revolution which the Canuest had brought to Dorset as to the rest of England. Of that half of the county held before 1066 by English lords (as distinct from the King and the Church), ﬁve-sixths is now in the hands of Norman barons, knights, or churchmen. The English aristocracy has vanished but for a few minor landowners, and the remaining free peasantry have been reduced to villeins.
The division of the shire into hundreds, for purposes of justice and government, is ﬁrst mentioned in Saxon laws when ~ the country had been reunited by Alfred’s successors. The shire and hundred system was then applied to the reconquered Danelaw, but in Wessex the hundred was probably much older. In the Mid- lands it often corresponded to a hundred hides; but in the South, if it had ever done so, it varied immensely by Norman times. Only three of the Dorset Hundreds — Beaminster, Culliford Tree, and Uggescombe – contained just over 100 hides, and four more — Cogdean, Hunsbury, Puddletown, and Whitchurch — over 90. The rest vary down to the 20 hides of Loders and the 7 of Redhove. The boroughs and much of the Royal Demesne stood out— side the hundred system, and in the Middle Ages as hundred courts fell into the hands of landowners the boundaries were changed and new ‘liberties’ outside the hundreds created. They were still marked on maps of the early nineteenth century, but by this time many new divisions had appeared and some old units, like Sexpena and Handley, had been joined. The names of the hundreds were generally those of the meeting-place of the monthly assembly, often a particular barrow or other ancient landmark. The moot (commemorated in Modbury and Motcombe) was supposed in Norman times to be attended by the priest, reeve, and four good men from each village, though it is unlikely that large hundreds regularly achieved a turn-out on this scale. In some cases the lord of the manor or his steward sufficed. They met in the open air, though the weather often drove them to shelter in a nearby church or hall. They decided local law-suits and arranged for the carrying out of royal taxation and orders. Twice yearly there was a specially full meeting, when the sheriff or his deputy attended to see that all male adults were enrolled in tithing groups responsible for each member’s behaviour.
The hundred was still an important unit at the time of Domesday, but the growth of feudal courts held by barons and manorial lords gradually reduced its importance.