Exon Domesday contains unique information about politics, society, and the landscape of South-West Britain a thousand years ago. It is important simply as the first record of thousands of settlements. As the only surviving source for Great Domesday Book for anywhere in England, it also provides vital clues to help us understand the workings of that great campaign of pre-modern data collection.
Made possibly in a matter of months in 1086, exactly twenty years after the Norman Conquest, and almost certainly presented to William I in August of that year, Exon Domesday is a remarkable survival. Its geographical reach is much narrower than that of Great Domesday Book and, like Great Domesday Book, it is incomplete, but it records information not retained when Great Domesday Book was produced, e.g. tallies of livestock and labourers, lists, summaries, tax records, and other types of text.
The texts on its 532 parchment leaves describe only the five south-western counties of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire but even in its surviving incomplete form Exon is 149 folios longer than Great Domesday Book, which records thirty-one shires. The pages of Exon Domesday were smaller, but this basic comparison shows how detailed the original survey was and how much was edited out when Great Domesday was produced. Exon Domesday also preserves the work of two dozen scribes, most of them French-speaking to judge from their script and the manner in which they spell personal and place-names.
The 103 surviving booklets of Exon Domesday may have been brought to Exeter by an incoming Anglo-Norman bishop who had worked as a royal administrator, possibly William Warelwast (1107-37) or Osbern fitz Osbern (1072-1103).