The Domesday Inquest was authorised by the Conqueror during a lengthy session of his Christmas court at Gloucester in 1085. It has been persuasively argued that the 'master-mind' behind the Inquest was William of St Calais, bishop of Durham. Groups of royal commissioners were made responsible for groups of counties organised into circuits. There were seven of these circuits, six - each of five counties - were subsequently digested in Great Domesday; the seventh (Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk) is recorded in the undigested return known as Little Domesday.
The procedure adopted by the Domesday Inquest has largely to be reconstructed from surviving satellite texts, with a little assistance from chronicle sources. In the past, there was a tendency to view each type of satellite as representing a separate phase of the Inquest; but Domesday scholars would now generally distinguish four principal stages:
the collection and analysis of pre-existing written material, probably in the form of geld lists routinely produced by the Anglo-Saxon administrative system. No certain surviving examples of these geld lists have been identified though Dr Sally Harvey has made a plausible case for their existence and for their use by the commissioners.
written Returns to the commissioners from landowners, perhaps from all tenants-in-chief. Although there are no surviving originals, such returns are referred to in several entries in Domesday Book and in a letter written by the archbishop of Canterbury during the course of the Inquest.
once digested, the material gathered during the first two stages would have been submitted to juries of the vill, Hundred and county in the county court, resulting in the drafting of documents resembling the Inquisitio Comitatus Cantabrigiensis.
Finally, the commissioners would have compiled their circuit return from these county drafts for despatch to Winchester, where the Domesday scribe digested and abbreviated the returns from the first six circuits to produce Great Domesday Book.
No two circuits need have followed the same procedures; but, in broad outline, they probably conformed to this or a similar pattern.
For more detail, see V.H. Galbraith, The making of Domesday Book (1961); and David Roffe, Domesday: the Inquest and the Book (2000).