At the Christmas council of 1085, William I (William the Conqueror) initiated a survey of his kingdom.
“So very narrowly he caused it to be investigated, that there was not one single hide, nor one yard of land, nor even – it is shame to tell, though it seemed to him no shame to do – an ox, nor a cow, nor a pig, was left, that was not set down in his writ.”*
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ Manuscript E, s.a. 1085
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.”  ‘Dialogus de Scaccario’ (Dialogue of the Exchequer) I, 16.
The information gathered by the Domesday commissioners not only concerned contemporary landholdings and resources, but also the state of affairs before William became king, that is “in the time of King Edward”,* and at the time King William first granted the land. Though the commissioners did not stray north of the Tees, it is still remarkable that the work of collecting this mass of information would appear to have been completed by August 1086.
“And all the writings of all these things were brought back to the king. And the king ordered that all should be written in one volume, and that the volume should be placed in his treasury at Winchester and kept there.”
Anonymous, early-12th century, Worcester chronicle, s.a. 1086*
The Domesday Book actually comprises two volumes: Great Domesday and Little Domesday. Great Domesday contains entries for all the counties surveyed, excepting Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. These three counties make up Little Domesday. Great Domesday evidently represents a later stage in the writing-up process. It is mainly (not entirely) the work of one scribe, it is the more polished product, and generally its entries are pithier (i.e. fine detail has seemingly been discarded as unnecessary) than those in Little Domesday. For instance, an entry from the Hertfordshire section of Great Domesday:
“RALPH de Tosny holds FLAMSTEAD. It was assessed at 4 hides TRE; and now at 2. There is land for 12 ploughs. In demesne [are] 2 hides, and there are 2 ploughs; and 22 villans have 8 ploughs, and there can be 2 more. There are 7 cottars and 4 slaves, [and] woodland for 1,000 pigs. In all it is worth £11; when received, £9; TRE £12. Aki, a thegn of King Edward, held this manor.”  Glossary
Little Domesday was produced by about six scribes. A sample entry from the Essex section demonstrates the finer detail that it preserves:
“Peter [Peter de Valognes] holds Sheering in demesne which 3 free men held TRE as a manor and as 5 hides and 30 acres. Then as now [there were] 5 ploughs in demesne and the men [had] 1 plough and [there were] 3 villans. [There were] then 3 bordars; now 6. Then as now [there were] 8 slaves. [There is] woodland for 100 pigs. [There are] 32 acres of meadow. Then as now [there is] 1 mill. [There were] then 8 cows, 100 calves and 1 horse, 35 sheep, 16 pigs. [There are] now 2 horses and 1 mule and 1 ass, 84 sheep, 56 pigs, 3 hives of bees. Then and later it was worth 100s.; now £6.”
Quite why the contents of Little Domesday did not undergo further editing, and get incorporated into Great Domesday, is the subject of speculation. Both Great Domesday (now bound in two parts) and Little Domesday (now bound in three parts) are in the keeping of The National Archives.
‘Domesday Book: A Complete Translation’, edited by Ann Williams and G.H. Martin, Penguin Classics (2003)
1 hide = the, notional, area of land needed to support one household – used for tax assessment purposes. A “yard of land”, also called a ‘virgate’, was ¼ hide.
The reign of Harold Godwinesson (6th January – 14th October 1066) is not acknowledged. The conditions prevailing before William became king are “in the time of King Edward”. (King Edward, i.e. Edward the Confessor, died on 5th January 1066.)
Preserved in British Library MS Cotton Vitellius C viii (late-12th century). The entry s.a. 1086 is translated in ‘English Historical Documents’, Volume 2: 1042–1189, §202.