Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The Domesday Survey was commissioned by King William I in 1086, two decades after the Battle of Hastings and the start of the Conquest. Today, the original Domesday Book is housed at Britain's National Archives in Kew, located about 15 km to the west of the heart of London (midway between the city and Heathrow airport).

Domesday has been wrongly described, at times, as a census. In fact, it was a nation-wide audit carried out for the assessment of taxes due to the king. The only human individuals whose names appeared in Domesday were noblemen and upper-class citizens who owned land. And, in the rigid class system that has always characterized England, ever since the Norman Conquest, these landholders formed a tiny minority of people.

You can examine the original Latin of the Domesday Book—filled with abbreviations and featuring all sorts of mysterious handwriting quirks—at the following fine website:

To understand what it's all about, I've just purchased the excellent English transcription of the Domesday Book published by Penguin, which arrived here in yesterday's mail.

I spent the entire evening studying the Leicestershire chapter, in the hope of receiving inspiration in my quest for the identity of the Skeffington patriarch.

From the outset, I've been obliged to discard a few false ideas:

— Back in those days, you couldn't become a landholder simply by saving up a few hundred quid (like my father did, out in Australia), and then waiting around for an attractive property to come up for sale. Things didn't work that way in ancient England. A prospective landholder had to be a distinguished individual (preferably a member of the nobility) with friends in very high places (preferably in the royal circle). Then, if you belonged to the Chosen Few, you might be granted land, like manna from heaven. Literally: a manor from above.

— The men, women and children who actually worked the land were all members of the vast category of peasants, whose nature and numbers varied considerably. But they had one thing in common: It was unthinkable that a peasant might rise in a spectacular fashion to the status of a landholder. Back in those days, there were no fairy-tales, and no inspiring stories of slaves breaking their bonds, or pioneers breaking their backs and providing demonstrations of what would be known later on (in the 19th century) as the Protestant Work Ethic.

— Prominent citizens such as the Skeffingtons of Skeffington (who appeared explicitly on the scene as early as 1164) didn't simply emerge from the mud, or crawl out of the woodwork of Skeffington Hall. It's possible that they were there all along, in Leicestershire, ever since the days of the Conqueror. If not, then we must accept the idea (less likely, to my mind) that they were distinguished Norman emigrants with powerful friends in high places in England.

— Last but not least, if the late Viscount Massereene, head of the Skeffington family, once told me that "the Skeffingtons came over with William I from Normandy and were granted land in Leicestershire at Skeffington", then maybe I should respect his words, instead of believing (as I have done for years) that he was simply talking snobbishly through his hat. If there seems to be no explicit evidence of future Skeffingtons accompanying the Conqueror, maybe this simply means that I haven't searched hard enough...

Last night, I made an effort to browse through the Leicestershire chapter in the Domesday Book like a Sherlock Holmes trying to dig up evidence. First, I pursued a perfectly simple and sound idea. In the centuries that followed the Conquest, we learn that the Skeffingtons possessed land, not only in the ancestral village of Skeffington, but in neighboring villages such as Billesdon and Rolleston (both of which lie a few kilometers from Skeffington). So, in looking for the elusive patriarch, we should investigate Doomsday landholders in such places. (Let me remind you that the unique landholder in the village of Skeffington, as indicated unequivocally in the Domesday Book, was King William I himself!)

Another approach is to use the familiar family-history trick that consists of following up given names that would appear to be traditional and popular in certain contexts. Inversely, whenever certain given names are totally absent within a family-history context that concerns us, then we can probably rule out possible ancestors who carried such names. Recently, this trick helped me greatly in the case of 17th-century Skevingtons and Skivingtons named George. In the context of Leicestershire after the Conquest, there were Norman families with given names such as Hugh, Roger, Bertram and Ralph. But I don't recall ever meeting up with these given names within a Skeffington family. So, I'm not inclined to imagine any genealogical links at this level.

Among the early Skeffingtons, there's no doubt that Geoffrey was a traditional and popular given name. Besides, as I said, later Skeffingtons inherited lands at Billesdon. Putting these two clues together, I was interested to find a section of Domesday that describes the land of Geoffrey Alselin in Leicestershire. The transcription reads:
Geoffrey Alselin holds of the king 6 carucates of land in Hallaton, and Norman [holds] of him.
The same Norman holds of Geoffrey 12 carucates of land in Billesdon.
Of this land, 3 knights hold 7.5 carucates...
The  same Norman holds of Geoffrey 10 carucates of land in Rolleston.
Taki held all this land with sake and soke.
Since a carucate was about 120 acres, this fellow named Norman, apparently a friend of Geoffrey Alselin, was in charge of a few big properties all around Skeffington. All this land was seized from a certain Saxon named Taki, the son of Auti. Maybe (I'm inclined to say certainly) Auti and his son Taki had been members of Sceaft's people, who gave their name to the future Norman village of Skeffington. What's more, Norman wasn't all alone as the new lord of the land. Alongside him, in Billesdon, there were three knights in charge of smaller properties. So, all of this sounds very much like a situation involving a nobleman who was a friend of the king (Geoffrey Alselin), his slightly less noble tenant named Norman, and several knights who probably fought for the Conqueror. And, in one way or another, from this community, there emerged a gentleman named Geoffrey de Sceftington who went down in our medieval family history, in 1164/5, as having fully paid an unidentified debt ("he is quit") of 15 shillings and 6 pence.

Incidentally, when Domesday says that Taki held all this land with sake and soke, it sounds a little as if Taki called upon the help of two mates, Sake and Soke. In fact, "with sake and soke" is a common but fuzzy medieval legal expression meaning vaguely that Taki had the right to act, within his domain, as a public prosecutor and judge. [Please correct me if I'm wrong, or if you can explain this expression more correctly and clearly.]

As a guess, I would conclude that one of Geoffrey Alselin's daughters (visiting or living in Billesdon, Rolleston or Hallaton) was probably impregnated by either Norman or one of the three anonymous knights. Later, with help from the girl's father, that new family acquired land in the neighboring village of Skeffington. Finally, Geoffrey de Sceftington would have been a descendant, born in the first quarter of the 12th century, whose given name was meant to recall the noble Alselin forebear. That sounds plausible, no? This is no doubt as close as I've ever come (and maybe as close as I shall ever come) to the possible identification of our Skeffington patriarch.

In any case, for the moment, I'll continue to use this charming little drawing of Norman knights as the cover illustration of my ongoing Skeffington One-Name Study.

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