As many people know, the famous Domesday Book of 1086 does not cover English lands north of the River Tees. For whatever reason – be it that the area had been ‘wasted’ by the Normans in previous years, or, more likely, that the region was considered ungovernable – the surveyors studiously avoided the present-day counties of Northumberland and Durham when the most famous manuscript in English history was compiled 900+ years ago.
King William I was happy to let the infamous Prince Bishops of Durham get on with it up here, it seems. And they were pretty powerful men in their day. Perhaps the most famous of them, Hugh de Pudsey, considered himself so important, in fact, that he commissioned a ‘Domesday Book’ of his own in 1183 – a work that came to be known as ‘The Boldon Book’.
Though it differs in both its function and scope from Domesday, it still provides an important snapshot of the region in the late twelfth century. Basically, it presents an assessment of the land’s worth, its annual returns and its customary tenures – and paints a picture of a settled system of Anglo-Saxon feudalism going back generations. Unlike its big brother, it presents a more colourful image of everyday life, with several amusing and seemingly mundane observations.
The Boldon Book does not cover all of Northumberland and Durham, but includes almost all of the latter, and large tracts of land of the former which were then the property of the Bishop of Durham (some areas on the southern bank of the Tweed and the area around Bedlington). The name ‘Boldon’ comes from the text’s tendency to refer back to the Boldon entry (one of the first in the manuscript) when a settlement’s tenurial set-up was similar to the aforementioned village (viz. ‘as of Boldon’). The book lists each settlement in turn, giving an account of tenants’ obligations – both individually and collectively.
The original text has long since been lost, but four copies survive – including one in Durham’s Chapter Library. Transcriptions and interpretations have appeared in the Surtees Society publications (vol.25), the Victorian County History, and one or two other places; but the most accessible by far is that published by Phillimore & Co. Ltd in 1982 – which can still be found in libraries and, occasionally, in second-hand bookshops or online.