Golding begins with a ten page survey of the major sources: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other English writings, contemporary Norman writers such as William of Jumieges and William of Poitier, the much argued over Carmen de Hastingae Proelio and Bayeux Tapestry, and later Norman historians such as Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury.
He then considers two notable issues in the prelude to the conquest. The first is the nature of the Norman presence in England before 1066: he argues that this was informal and personal, that there was no organised Norman "faction" at Edward's court. The second is the alleged offer of the crown to William by Edward and the swearing of an oath to him by Harold. What actually happened is hard to discern through the biased Norman evidence: William's claim to the throne was as good as Harold's and "the possibility of a Norman succession was almost certainly discussed ... but that it was given formal reality must remain unproven".
The battle of Hastings and the campaigns of 1066 need no introduction and are dealt with fairly briskly. The five years immediately following saw a range of threats: a rising in Kent, invasions from Ireland by Harold's sons, and rebellion in the north, with some Danish support. Perhaps the biggest threat was the revolt of 1075, which united discontented Normans and English. Norman expansion into Wales started early but was a piecemeal affair driven by individual barons, with setbacks: "by 1100 the Norman presence in Wales had been reduced to little more than the command of a few, well-fortified strongholds and their immediate hinterland, which provided a framework for future expansion".
Norman settlement and colonisation, and ongoing royal acquisition and redistribution of land, had drastic effects on patterns of landholding: it "concentrated the landed wealth of England as never before or since". Not only was the native ruling class effectively disinherited, but there was also (contrary to 'companions of the Conqueror' aristocratic founding myths) high turnover among the early colonisers: Odo of Bayeux fell from power in 1082; William fitzOsbern's son Roger de Breteuil had his lands confiscated after the 1075 revolt; and so forth. And we get glimpses of colonisation at lower levels: the settlement of humbler followers, landholders enfeoffing their own vassals, and Norman merchants and traders in the towns.
After a glance at pre-1066 government, Golding explores kingship, its ideology and iconography ("unchanged by conquest"), the delegation of royal authority, and the financial and judicial roles of the royal household. "It was [a] desire for stability that underlies the government of the early Norman kings. That stability could only be achieved through a high degree of continuity in administrative practice." Other topics covered include forest laws, sheriffs and local government, royal writs, money and mints, and honorial courts and baronial households.
Golding touches briefly on pre-Conquest military organisation, in both England and Normandy, and on Norman naval forces, castles, and strategic imperatives. The most debated questions concern the maintenance of the army: the extent of explicit military service quotas, the meaning of terms such as milites, and the proportion of mounted troops. During William I's reign "military obligations were defined more rigidly, and probably increased", but changes were gradual and knight quotas must have been introduced piecemeal. The resulting army was heterogeneous, its key "the revenues for the maintenance of a cash-based force, centred on the household".
Relations with the papacy and the issue of Canterbury's primacy were intimately tied up with political concerns, as was the replacement of bishops and abbots and the strategic relocation of diocesan seats. At lower levels, the period saw the persistence of English priests and the beginnings of a new ecclesiastical structure based on parishes. And though monastic communities sometimes saw Norman abbots pitted against English monks, there was continuity in the cults of native saints, in historiography, and in liturgical practice, and Norman lords became patrons of English houses. Overall, "by 1100 the English church was truly an amalgamation of English and Norman culture".
The final chapter of Conquest and Colonisation looks at the links between Britain and Normandy and the extent to which there was a unified Anglo-Norman state, perhaps even a "Norman empire". Exploring the dual status of William as duke of Normandy and king of England, Golding finds "a unity that was predicated on personal rule not institutional assimilation, that was de facto and not de iure". This chapter also considers aspects of longer-term social change: acculturation and integration, intermarriage, language change, and architecture.
The real meat of Conquest and Colonisation is, however, in the details behind all of that, which reveal something of the complex patterns of continuity and discontinuity across the Conquest.