Domesday, the earliest public record and perhaps the most famous book in English history, is to be lent to the British Library for a landmark exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons.
The National Archives announced on Friday that it was lending one of its most prized possessions, the great survey of England commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085, two decades after his Norman forces defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.
The book lists around 13,000 towns, villages and hamlets in the king’s possession, from Abberton in Essex to Zeals in Wiltshire, and the accompanying livestock, castles, vineyards, watermills, potteries, fisheries and more.
Claire Breay, the curator of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, said Domesday was “an amazing feat, an amazing production”.
“It is the most famous book in English history and with very good reason,” she said. “There is nothing else like it in contemporary Europe. The level of detail it contains is not replicated for centuries, not until you get the censuses in the 19th century. It is very exciting to have it in our exhibition.”
Domesday can be seen online and a translated Penguin edition is available, but there is something thrilling about seeing the real thing up close, said Jessica Nelson, the head of medieval and early modern collections at the National Archives.
“It is not just one bit of history,” she said. “It gives us a window on both the pre-conquest world and then the post-conquest world. You can see the enormous changes that have been wrought on English society and politics by the Norman conquest.”
The record was given its Domesday nickname in the late 12th century, a reflection of the “day of judgement” awe it was held in.
It was originally kept in the royal treasury at Winchester before being moved to Westminster in the early 13th century. From about 1600 it was kept in a large iron-clad chest with three different locks and keys given to different officials so that it could only be opened with the consent of all three.
Domesday entered the vaults of Public Record Office, now known as the National Archives in 1859, and moved to its new headquarters in Kew in 1977. Disappointingly for curators, Kew is not in Domesday.
The book is rarely lent out, but it formed part of an exhibition at Lincoln Castle last year, and in it was displayed at the Tower of London for the turn of the millennium.
The British Library hopes that Domesday will be one of a number of show-stoppers at its exhibition. It will compete for attention with the oldest complete Latin bible in existence, the Codex Amiatinus, one of the greatest of all Anglo-Saxon treasures which is returning to the UK for the first time in 1,302 years. It is being lent by the Laurentian library in Florence.
• Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019