After his successful conquest of England, William the Conqueror was faced with the threat of invasion by Danish and Norwegian enemies. In fact, a substantial portion of all taxes collected by the Crown during the eleventh century were assigned to an account known as the Danegeld, which was specifically intended to finance the repulsion of Danish invaders. Desiring to know exactly how much tax revenue could be extracted from his subjects, William commissioned an extremely ambitious project: the compilation of a book recording all the properties in England, along with their monetary value and a record of what amounts were owed to the Crown. This book became known as the "Domesday Book."
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William "sent his men all over England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides there were, or what land and cattle the king himself had, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months," and that "...there was no single hide nor a yard of land, nor indeed one ox nor one cow nor one pig which was there left out: and all these records were brought to him afterwards." Robert, Bishop of Hereford, wrote that "the land was troubled with many calamities arising from the gathering of the royal taxes," as William's agents scoured the land, venturing into even obscure counties.
Information gathered for the Domesday Book included the value of every estate along with a record of debts owed, and also included an impressive array of details, going as far as to record the number of ploughs in each manor, the number of mills and ponds, how much woodland, pastureland, or meadowland, and the number of different types of livestock kept in each household. The book also valued every estate with three separate entries: recording its worth before, during, and after the Norman invasion of England.
To prevent tax evasion, the Crown sent out a host of official inquirers charged with discovering and reporting anyone who appeared to be giving false information, an offense which was severely punished. Henry II's treasurer later wrote that the book was "...metaphorically called by the native English, Domesdai, the Day of Judgement. For as the sentence of that strict and terrible last account cannot be evaded by any subterfuge, so when this book is appealed to on those matters which it contains, its sentence cannot be quashed or set aside with impunity."
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 1085 (contemporary with the compilation of the book) claimed that "so very thoroughly did he have the inquiry carried out that there was not a single 'hide', not one virgate of land, not even - it is shameful to record it, but it did not seem shameful to him to do - not even one ox, nor one cow, nor one pig which escaped notice in his survey." The Chronicle was not fully accurate in this regard, as a number of areas were actually left out of the book. However, considering that the Domesday Book was compiled in only a few years, both the scope of the book and the level of detail it contained were remarkable.
The Domesday Book's authoritative judgment on financial and tax matters throughout England not only yielded huge sums for the Crown, it also made it prohibitively difficult for rebellious lords or nobles to finance private armies to overthrow the King. The Conqueror himself did not live long enough to reap the potential rewards of the Domesday Book, but his successors did.
Historically, the book provided a wealth of valuable information revealing the nature of English life in the eleventh century. Over 13,000 places in England were listed in the book, most of which still exist today. David Hume went as far as to declare the Domesday Book "the most valuable piece of antiquity possessed by any nation," and it's level of detail was arguably never surpassed until the introduction of the modern census in the 19th century. The main volume, "Great Domesday" was written on sheepskin parchment, and was evidently written in Latin by a single scribe. The book itself has been rebound five times, and was at one point divided into two volumes which are still available to view in London's Office of Public Records.