At the Christmas council of 1085, William I (William the Conqueror) initiated a survey of his kingdom. The written record of this survey had acquired the nickname 'Domesday Book' within a century of its compilation.

Henry II's treasurer, Richard Fitz Nigel, wrote, in about 1179: "This book is called by the natives Domesday, that is, metaphorically speaking, the day of judgement. For as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any skilful subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to on those matters which it contains, its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity."

The information gathered by the 'Domesday' commissioners did not only relate to the contemporary state of land and asset ownership, but also to the conditions which prevailed "in the time of King Edward [the Confessor]", i.e. in 1066, and at the time when King William first apportioned property to his followers. The commissioners did not stray north of the Tees, but it is still remarkable that the work of collecting this mass of information would appear to have been completed by August 1086.

The 'Domesday Book' is actually two volumes. The first, 'Great Domesday' (so called from the size of its pages), contains entries for all the counties surveyed (notably, the cities of London and Winchester are not covered) excepting Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. The survey results for these three counties comprise the second volume, 'Little Domesday' (which actually has more leaves, though of smaller size, than 'Great Domesday'). Possibly William's death, in September 1087, interrupted the writing up process (probably at Winchester), forestalling their inclusion in the main volume. At any rate, the entries in 'Little Domesday' missed out on the abbreviation process, which the entries in 'Great Domesday' underwent, and show the minute detail which the survey produced. For instance:
"P [Peter de Valognes] holds Higham in demesne, which Halfdan, a free man, held TRE as a manor and as 5 hides. Then as now [there were] 2 ploughs in demesne and the men [had] 4 ploughs. [There were] then 8 villans; now 10. [There were] then 2 bordars; now 3. Then as now [there were] 4 slaves. [There is] woodland for 300 pigs. [There are] 18 acres of meadow. [There were] then 3 fisheries; now none. [There was] then 1 ox. Now [there are] 15 head of cattle and 1 horse and 37 pigs and 2 hives of bees. It was then worth 60s; now 4-10s. And when he received this manor, he did not find [there] more than 1 ox and 1 acre sown. And of these 5 hides, which I mentioned above, 2 free men held 1 TRE, which was added to this manor TRW, and was worth TRE 10s; now 20. And William holds this of Peter de Valognes."
Both 'Great Domesday' (now bound in two parts) and 'Little Domesday' (now bound in three parts) can be seen in the museum of The National Archives.

'Domesday Book: A Complete Translation', edited by Dr. Ann Williams and Prof. G.H. Martin, is available on Penguin Classics.