Domesday Book was commissioned by William the Conqueror (1066-1087) at Christmas 1085. It was designed to show who held every piece of land in the newly conquered Kingdom of England. It was known colloquially as the Domesday Book because it was seen as being as final as the Last Judgement and as difficult to conceal things from. The book does not cover the whole country - Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland, and Westmorland were omitted and London and Winchester likewise, along with some other towns. A separate book, called Little Domesday covered the counties of Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk and, despite its name, it is actually bigger and more detailed than the Great Domesday Book containing the other counties.
For a place as small as modern Chawston it has a surprisingly large number of entries in Domesday Book - four. The first of these was a holding, or manor, of Eudo Dapifer ("the Steward"), who had seventeen manors in the county as well as in other counties. He had no tenant in Chawston and his holding comprised one hide, one virgate with four villagers. In 1066 the land had been held by two of King Edward the Confessor's men and had been worth twenty shillings, though this had dropped to ten shillings by the time Eudo acquired it and remained so in 1086.
It is suggested by historians that the reason for the general lowering of the value of manors in the area is accounted for by William I's armies coming through Bedfordshire on their way to put down rebellions in the north. They would have lived off the land and no doubt have committed certain acts of vandalism in what was, to them, still alien, even enemy, territory.
The second manor in Chawston was held by Hugh de Beauchamp, who would later be made Baron of Bedford. His tenant was Rhiwallon, who also had manors in Roxton and Great Barford. The holding comprised four virgates and had two smallholders as well as woodland for sixty pigs. Again it had been held by two freemen in 1066 when it was worth twenty shillings. This value had sunk to fifteen shillings when Hugh acquired it and had declined still further to ten shillings by 1086.
The third and fourth manors were held by William Speke. The first of these was tenanted by William, son of Rainward and was large at seven hides, one virgate, having sixteen villagers, two smallholders and a slave. There was also a mill, worth 13 shillings and fourpence and a small piece of woodland for ten pigs. The mill would have been a watermill as windmills were then unknown in England; it presumably lay either on South Brook or on the River Great Ouse. In 1066 the manor had been held by twelve freemen and had been worth £9, a value which had decreased to £4 by the time Speke acquired it, though this had risen to £6 by 1086. The Domesday entry continues: "Of these 7 hides and 1 virgate William Speke's men claim 1½ acres of meadow from Eudo the Steward's men; the Hundred [Barford Hundred] testifies that his predecessor had them before 1066. William also claims another 7 acres of land against a man of Hugh de Beauchamp by whom he was dispossessed; but his predecessor was put in possession. Eudo the Steward claims 1 acre of the said land against Rhiwallon, Hugh de Beauchamp's man". It would be interesting to know whether the dispute was decided amicably, via litigation or by the sword.
Speke's second manor at Chawston was tenanted by William Gross and consisted of half a hide and two villagers. In 1066 it had been held by two freemen and had been worth ten shillings, when Speke acquired it the value had been halved and remained at five shillings in 1086.
It is interesting to note that the four Chawston manors together had twenty two villagers, four smallholders and a slave. These were the heads of household and to arrive at a total population one needs to multiply this figure be a factor of at least four to allow for wives and children, suggesting that Chawston had a total population in excess of a hundred, making it quite a substantial settlement for that time, more so, certainly, than today.