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Historic counties of England

County (England)
Also known as:
Counties of England in 1851 with major rivers, the ridings of Yorkshire, and the remaining exclaves shown
Category County
Location England
Found in Kingdom
Created 5th–11th century
Number 39 (as of 1 April 1889)
Possible status County palatine
Populations c. 21,000—3.4 million (1881)[1]
Areas c. 94,000–3.8 million acres (15,000 km2) (1881)[1]
Government Shire Court
Shire-reeve (until 1066)
Earl (from 1066)
Quarter sessions (16th century–1889)
County council (from 1 April 1889)
Subdivisions Division / Riding / Rape / Part
Hundred and equivalent

The historic counties of England were established for administration by the Normans, in most cases based on earlier kingdoms and shires established by the Anglo-Saxons and others. They ceased to be used for administration with the creation of the administrative counties in 1889.[2] They are alternatively known as ancient counties[3][4] or traditional counties.[5] Where they are not included among the modern counties of England they are also known as former counties.[6][7][8] Despite this name, several historic counties continue to be recognised as cultural regions and have their own county days, county flags and boundary signs, many of which were created or registered long after these counties were abandoned as units for administrative purposes.

Unlike the partly self-governing

  • The Historic Counties Trust

External links

  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ Vision of Britain — Type details for ancient county. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ a b c d e
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ a b
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^ The 1870s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales used "Devonshire", "Dorsetshire" and Somerset" as headwords, also mentioning the Somersetshire usage. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  15. ^ , 1995, pp. 84 et seqWessex in the Early Middle AgesBarbara Yorke,
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^ Vision of Britain — Census Geographies. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  18. ^ a b
  19. ^ The Independent: Winchcombeshire, England's lost county, to ring in its 1,000th year
  20. ^ Peter Hunter Blair and Simon Keynes, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England, 2003
  21. ^ Domesday Explorer — Early administrative units. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  22. ^ Stamford Visitor Information — Timeline. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  23. ^ Domesday Explorer — County definition. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  24. ^ a b Sylvester (1980). p. 14.
  25. ^ Morgan (1978). pp.269c–301c,d.
  26. ^ Harris and Thacker (1987). write on page 252:
  27. ^ Phillips and Phillips (2002). pp. 26–31.
  28. ^ Crosby, A. (1996). writes on page 31: "The Domesday Survey (1086) included south Lancashire with Cheshire for convenience, but the Mersey, the name of which means 'boundary river' is known to have divided the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia and there is no doubt that this was the real boundary."
  29. ^ This means that the map given in this article which depicts the counties at the time of the Domesday Book is misleading in this respect.
  30. ^
  31. ^ Domesday Book Online - Herefordshire. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  32. ^ Harris & Thacker (1987, pp. 340–341)
  33. ^ 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
  34. ^
  35. ^ Representation of the People Act 1918, c.64; Representation of the People Act 1948, c.65; Local Government Act 1933, c.51; Local Government Act 1972, c.70
  36. ^
  37. ^ a b
  38. ^ Text of Bristol Royal Charter of 1373
  39. ^ The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, p.86
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^ Local Government Act 1888, S.31
  44. ^
  45. ^ Local Government Act 1972 (1972 c.70), s. 216
  46. ^
  47. ^
  48. ^
  49. ^ Royal Mail, Address Management Guide, (2004)
  50. ^ Royal Mail, PAF Digest, (2003)
  51. ^ Postcomm Decision Document, May 2010
  52. ^ BBC Sport - Cricket: Counties.
  53. ^ ECB County Cricket Boards, List of
  54. ^ Local Government Commission for England. Final Recommendations on the Future Local Government of: Basildon & Thurrock, Blackburn & Blackpool, Broxtowe, Gedling & Rushcliffe, Dartford & Gravesham, Gillingham & Rochester upon Medway, Exeter, Gloucester, Halton & Warrington, Huntingdonshire & Peterborough, Northampton, Norwich, Spelthorne and the Wrekin. December 1995.
  55. ^ Lancastrians' pride in heritage, BBC News Online 27 November 2004. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  56. ^ White rose county has its day, BBC News Online 21 July 2003. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  57. ^
  58. ^
  59. ^
  60. ^ a b
  61. ^
  62. ^ e.g. Sussex Day and Sussex Police
  63. ^
  64. ^
  65. ^
  66. ^
  67. ^
  68. ^
  69. ^
  70. ^ Regulation of Forces Act 1871
  71. ^ Carl H. E. Zangerl (November 1971), "The Social Composition of the County Magistracy in England and Wales, 1831–1887", The Journal of British Studies 11(1):113–25.
  72. ^ An Act for the more easy assessing, collecting and levying of County Rates, (12 Geo.II c. 29)
  73. ^ Bridges Act 1803 (1803 c. 59) and Grand Jury Act 1833 (1833 c. 78)
  74. ^
  75. ^ W. L. Warren, The Myth of Norman Administrative Efficiency: The Prothero Lecture in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th Ser., Vol. 34. (1984), p. 125
  76. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
  77. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Royal Mail, PAF Digest Issue 6.0 PDF
  78. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj
  79. ^ Hampshire High Sheriff
  80. ^ Vision of Britain
  81. ^
  82. ^ David Fletcher, The Ordnance Survey's Nineteenth Century Boundary Survey: Context, Characteristics and Impact, Imago Mundi, Vol. 51. (1999), pp. 131-146.



See also

The vice counties, used for biological recording since 1852, are largely based on historic county boundaries. They ignore all exclaves and are modified by subdividing large counties and merging smaller areas into neighbouring counties; such as Rutland with Leicestershire and Furness with Westmorland. The static boundaries make longitudinal study of biodiversity easier. They also cover the rest of Great Britain and Ireland.

County Alternative names Abbreviation Additional status Area rank in 1891 Ceremonial status (2010)
Bedfordshire County of Bedford Beds[76][77][78] 36 extant
Berkshire County of Berks Berks[76][77][78] royal county 34 extant
Buckinghamshire County of Buckingham Bucks[76][77][78] 33 extant
Cambridgeshire County of Cambridge Cambs[76][77][78] 25 extant
Cheshire County of Chester Ches[76][78] county palatine 20 extant
Cornwall Corn[76][78] Duchy of Cornwall enjoyed some palatine powers 15 extant
Cumberland Cumb[76][78] 11 disestablished 1974
Derbyshire County of Derby Derbys [78] 19 extant
Devon Devonshire 3 extant
Dorset Dorsetshire Dor[78] 23 extant
Durham County of Durham, County Durham Co Dur[78] county palatine 21 extant
Essex 10 extant
Gloucestershire County of Gloucester Glos[76][77][78] 17 extant
Hampshire County of Southampton,[79] Southamptonshire[80] Hants[76][77][78] 8 extant
Herefordshire County of Hereford Here[78] 27 disestablished 1974, revived 1998
Hertfordshire County of Hertford Herts[76][77][78] 35 extant
Huntingdonshire County of Huntingdon Hunts[76][78] 37 disestablished 1965
Kent 9 extant
Lancashire County of Lancaster Lancs[76][77][78] county palatine 6 extant
Leicestershire County of Leicester Leics[76][77][78] 28 extant
Lincolnshire County of Lincoln Lincs[76][77][78] 2 extant
Middlesex Mx,[76] Middx,[77] Mddx[78] 38 disestablished 1965
Norfolk Norf[78] 4 extant
Northamptonshire County of Northampton Northants[76][77][78] 22 extant
Northumberland Northumb,[76][78] Northd[77][78] 5 extant
Nottinghamshire County of Nottingham Notts[76][77][78] 26 extant
Oxfordshire County of Oxford Oxon[76][77][78] 31 extant
Rutland Rutlandshire Rut [78] 39 disestablished 1974, revived 1997
Shropshire County of Salop Shrops, Salop[76] 16 extant
Somerset Somersetshire Som[76][78] 7 extant
Staffordshire County of Stafford Staffs[76][77] Staf[78] 18 extant
Suffolk Suff[78] 12 extant
Surrey Sy[78] 30 extant
Sussex Sx,[81] Ssx[78] 13 disestablished 1974
Warwickshire County of Warwick Warks,[77] War,[76] Warw[78] 24 extant
Westmorland Westm[78] 29 disestablished 1974
Wiltshire County of Wilts Wilts[76][77][78] 14 extant
Worcestershire County of Worcester Worcs[76][77][78] 32 disestablished 1974, revived 1998
Yorkshire County of York Yorks[76][78] 1 disestablished 1974

At the time of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England, the ancient counties continue to form, with considerably altered boundaries, many of the ceremonial and non-metropolitan counties in England. Some ancient counties have their names preserved in multiple contemporary counties, such as Yorkshire in North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire or now correspond to another type of subdivision, such as the Huntingdonshire district. In some areas ancient counties have been abandoned for local government use and then later revived. The ancient counties as they existed in the 19th century were as follows:

List of counties

hundred of Middlesex was further divided into four divisions, which replaced the functions of the hundred. The borough and parish were the principal providers of local services throughout England until the creation of ad-hoc boards and, later, local government districts. Ossulstone. In the 17th century the manors and townships (the only class of these divisions still used administratively), which in turn were divided into parishes and tithings in Sussex. Hundreds or their equivalents were divided into rapes in Kent and lathes Kent and Sussex had an intermediate level between their major subdivisions and their hundreds, known as [75] Most English counties were subdivided into smaller subdivisions called

Several counties had liberties or sokes within them that were administered separately. Cambridgeshire had the Isle of Ely, and Northamptonshire had the Soke of Peterborough. Such divisions were used by such entities as the Quarter Sessions courts and were inherited by the later administrative county areas under the control of county councils.

Some of the counties had major subdivisions. Of these, the most significant were the divisions of Yorkshire: the East Riding, West Riding, North Riding and the ainsty of York. Since Yorkshire is so big, its ridings became established as geographical terms quite apart from their original role as administrative divisions. The second largest county, Lincolnshire, was divided into three historic "parts": Parts of Lindsey, Holland and Kesteven. Other divisions include those of Sussex into East Sussex and West Sussex and Suffolk into East Suffolk and West Suffolk, and, more informally and hence more vaguely, of Kent into East Kent and West Kent.

Yorkshire had three major subdivisions known as the ridings of Yorkshire:


By the 1880s it was being suggested that it would be more efficient if a wider variety of functions were provided on a county-wide basis.[74]

From the 16th century onwards the county was increasingly used as a unit of local government as the justices of the peace took on various administrative functions known as "county business". This was transacted at the quarter sessions, summoned four times a year by the lord lieutenant. By the 19th century the county magistrates were exercising powers over the licensing of alehouses, the construction of bridges, prisons and asylums, the superintendence of main roads, public buildings and charitable institutions, and the regulation of weights and measures.[71] The justices were empowered to levy local taxes to support these activities, and in 1739 these were unified as a single "county rate", under the control of a county treasurer.[72] In order to build and maintain roads and bridges, a salaried county surveyor was to be appointed.[73]

Local government

Each English county sent two Knights of the Shire to the House of Commons (in addition to the burgesses sent by boroughs). Yorkshire gained two members in 1821 when Grampound was disenfranchised. The Great Reform Act of 1832 reapportioned members throughout the counties, many of which were also split into parliamentary divisions. Constituencies based on the ancient county boundaries remained in use until 1918.

Parliamentary representation

In the 1540s the office of militia in each county. The lieutenancies were subsequently given responsibility for the Volunteer Force. In 1871 the lieutenants lost their positions as heads of the militia, and their office became largely ceremonial.[70] The Cardwell and Childers Reforms of the British Army linked the recruiting areas of infantry regiments to the counties.


Until the 19th century law enforcement was mostly carried out at the parish level. With an increasingly mobile population, however, the system became outdated. Following the successful establishment of the Metropolitan Police in London, the County Police Act 1839 empowered justices of the peace to form county constabularies outside boroughs. The formation of county police forces was made compulsory by the County and Borough Police Act 1856.

The justices had responsibility for maintaining county gaols and houses of correction. During the 19th century penal reformers campaigned against the often primitive conditions in gaols, and under the Prison Act 1877 they came under Home Office control.[69]

(keeper of the rolls) for each county. Custos rotulorum and the High Sheriff were appointed in each county. At the head of the legal hierarchy were the [68] originating in Norman times as Knights of the Peace,Justices of the peace [12] The

Administration of justice and law enforcement

By the late Middle Ages the county was being used as the basis of a number of functions.[11]


The only political party with a manifesto commitment to restore the boundaries and political functions of all ancient counties, including Middlesex and Monmouthshire, is the English Democrats Party.[67]

A direct action group, CountyWatch, was formed in 2004 to remove what its members consider to be wrongly placed county boundary signs that do not mark the historic or traditional county boundaries of England and Wales. They have removed, resorted or erected a number of what they claim to be "wrongly sited" county boundary signs in various parts of England. For instance, in Lancashire 30 signs were removed.[64] CountyWatch has been criticised for such actions by the councils that erected the signs:[65] Lancashire County Council pointed out that the taxpayers would have to pay for the signs to be re-erected.[66]

county day in which the culture and history of the historic county is celebrated; many of these county days were created in the 21st century.

In 2013, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles formally recognised and acknowledged the continued existence of England's 39 historic counties.[57][58][59] On 23 April 2014 announced a new initiative to support the ‘tapestry’ of traditional English counties, including the removal of a restrictions preventing the names of traditional counties being displayed on street and road signs.[60] In August 2014, the first road sign was erected to mark the boundary of the historic county of Yorkshire.[61] The Government is also publishing a new online interactive map of England’s county boundaries.[60] The Government has previously changed rules to allow local and county flags to be flown without planning permission, and supported the Flag Institute in encouraging a new wave of county and community flags to be designed and flown by local communities. The flags of England's historic counties have been flown from Government offices in support of these identities.

The Association of British Counties, and its regional affiliates, such as the Friends of Real Lancashire and the Yorkshire Ridings Society,[55][56] are pressure groups that assert that, on the basis that they were not formally abolished, the counties continue to exist with their ancient boundaries. These groups seek to promote greater public awareness of what they term "traditional counties" and broadly wish to see counties realigned to the historic boundaries.

A review of the structure of local government in England by the Local Government Commission for England led to the restoration of the East Riding of Yorkshire, Herefordshire, Rutland and Worcestershire as administrative areas in the 1990s; the abolition of Avon, Cleveland and Humberside within 25 years of their creation; and the restoration of the traditional borders between Somerset and Gloucestershire, County Durham and Yorkshire (towards the mouth of the River Tees; not in Teesdale), and Yorkshire and Lincolnshire for ceremonial purposes in these areas. The case of Huntingdonshire was considered twice, but the Commission found that "there was no exceptional county allegiance to Huntingdonshire, as had been perceived in Rutland and Herefordshire".[54]

Restoration of historic county boundaries

The historic counties of England continue to be used as the basis for county cricket teams[52] and the governance of cricket in England through the ECB County Boards.[53] The exception with the county boards is Cumbria, which replaces Cumberland and Westmorland, though Cumberland has its own county team (which represents Cumberland, not Cumbria).

County cricket

During a public consultation in 2009 Postcomm found that many respondents objected to the use of counties in the alias file. In May 2010 Postcomm announced that it was encouraging Royal Mail to discontinue the use of counties in its alias file at the earliest opportunity. However because some existing software included the use of counties, Royal Mail was advised not to implement the change before 2013.[51]

In 1996, following further local government reform and the modernisation of its sorting equipment, the Royal Mail ceased to use counties at all in the direction of mail.[49] Instead it now uses the outward code (first half) of the postcode. The former postal counties were removed in 2000 from its Postcode Address File database and included in an "alias file",[50] which is used to cross-reference details that may be added by users but are no longer required, such as former street names or historic, administrative and former postal counties.

In a period of financial crisis,[48] the Post Office was able to alter many of its postal counties in accordance with the 1965 and 1974 reforms, but not all. The two major exceptions were Greater London and Greater Manchester. Greater London was not adopted in 1965, since, according to the Post Office at the time, it would have been too expensive to do so, while it gave as its reason for not adopting Greater Manchester the ambiguity of the name with the Manchester post town. Perhaps as a result of this, the ancient counties appear not to have fallen completely out of use for locating places in Greater Manchester, along with areas of Greater London that are not part of the London post town. It is common for people to speak of "Uxbridge, Middlesex", or "Bromley, Kent" (which are outside the London postal district), but much less so to speak of "Brixton, Surrey", "Greenwich, Kent", or "West Ham, Essex" (which are inside it).

Former postal counties of England from 1974 to 1996

Postal counties

The built-up areas of conurbations tend to cross historic county boundaries freely.[47] Examples here include BournemouthPooleChristchurch (Dorset and Hampshire) Greater Manchester (Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire), Merseyside (Cheshire and Lancashire), Teesside (Yorkshire and County Durham), South Yorkshire (Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire), Tyneside (County Durham and Northumberland) and West Midlands (Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire). Greater London itself straddles five ancient counties — Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey — and the London urban area sprawls into Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. The Local Government Act 1972 sought generally to unite conurbations within a single county, while retaining the historic county boundaries as far as was practicable.[5][13]

In 1974 a major local government reform took place under the Local Government Act 1972. The Act abolished administrative counties and county boroughs, and divided England (except Greater London and the Isles of Scilly) into counties. These were of two types: "metropolitan" and "non-metropolitan" counties.[5][44] Apart from local government, the new counties were "substituted for counties of any other description" for judicial, shrievalty, lieutenancy and other purposes.[45] Several counties, such as Cumberland, Herefordshire, Rutland, Westmorland and Worcestershire, vanished from the administrative map, while new entities such as Avon, Cleveland, Cumbria and Humberside appeared, in addition to the six new metropolitan counties.[5][46]

On 1 April 1965 a number of changes came into effect. The new administrative area of Greater London was created, resulting in the abolition of the administrative counties of London and Middlesex, at the same time taking in areas from surrounding counties. On the same date the new counties of Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely and of Huntingdon and Peterborough were formed by the merger of pairs of administrative counties. The new areas were also adopted for lieutenancy and shrievalty purposes.

The ancient county boundaries of Warwickshire covered a larger area than the county in 1974 (in green).

1965 and 1974

Several towns were historically divided between counties, including Banbury, Burton upon Trent, Newmarket, Peterborough, Royston, Stamford, Tamworth, Todmorden and Warrington. In Newmarket and Tamworth the county boundary ran right up the middle of the high street, and in Todmorden, the historically fractious border between Lancashire and Yorkshire (the river known as Walsden Water) had had Todmorden Town Hall built right on top of it on a culvert tunnel, dividing the hall down the middle between the two counties - a division reflected in its architecture. The 1888 Act ensured that every urban sanitary district would be considered to be part of a single county. This principle was maintained in the 20th century: when county boroughs such as Birmingham, Manchester, Reading, Sheffield and Stockport expanded into neighbouring counties, the area added became associated with another county.

When the first county councils were set up in 1889, they covered newly created entities known as administrative counties. Several historic subdivisions with separate county administrations were also created administrative counties, particularly the separate ridings of Yorkshire, the separate parts of Lincolnshire, and East and West Sussex.[41] The Local Government Act 1888 also contained wording to create both a new "administrative county" and "county" of London,[42] and to ensure that the county boroughs which were created at the same time continued for non-administrative purposes to be part of the county which they had previously formed part of.[43] These counties were to be used "for all purposes, whether sheriff, lieutenant, custos rotulorum, justices, militia, coroner, or other". The effect was that new county boroughs which were counties corporate retained their status as separate counties. In retrospect, these "statutory" counties can be identified as the predecessors of the ceremonial counties of England. The censuses of 1891, 1901 and 1911 provided figures for the "ancient counties".


Exclaves that the 1844 Act did not touch include the part of Derbyshire around Donisthorpe, locally in Leicestershire; and most of the larger exclaves of Worcestershire, including the town of Dudley, which remained surrounded by Staffordshire. Additionally, the Furness portion of Lancashire remained separated from the rest of Lancashire by a narrow strip of Westmorland — though it was accessible by way of the Morecambe Bay tidal flats.

Large exclaves affected by the 1844 Act included the County Durham exclaves of Islandshire, Bedlingtonshire and Norhamshire, which were incorporated into Northumberland; and the Halesowen exclave of Shropshire, which was incorporated into Worcestershire.

The ancient counties had many anomalies, and many small exclaves, where a parcel of land was politically part of one county despite not being physically connected to the rest of the county. The Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 modified the counties by abolishing the many enclaves of counties within others, which had already been done for Parliamentary purposes by the Great Reform Act.

This (rather inaccurate) 1814 map shows Dudley in a detached part of Worcestershire surrounded by Staffordshire. Note the detached portion of Shropshire (the parish of Halesowen), just to the south-east and part of Staffordshire (Broome and Clent) to the south-west as well.

Detached parts

Charters granting separate county status to the cities and boroughs of Chester (1238/9), York (1396), Newcastle upon Tyne (1400) and Kingston-upon-Hull (with the surrounding area of Hullshire) (1440). In 1551 Berwick upon Tweed, on the border with Scotland, was created a county corporate.

Charters were granted constituting the boroughs or cities of Lincoln (1409), Nottingham (1448), Lichfield (1556) and Worcester (1622) as counties. The County of the City of Coventry was separated from Warwickshire in 1451, and included an extensive area of countryside surrounding the city.[40]

[39] (1571).Poole (1537), and Exeter (1483), Gloucester (1471), Canterbury (1447), Southampton (1404), NorwichSimilar arrangements were later applied to
…that the said town of Bristol with its suburbs and their precinct, as the boundaries now exist, henceforward shall be separated and exempt in every way from the said counties of Gloucester and Somerset, on land and by water; that it shall be a county in itself and be called the county of Bristol for ever…[38]
decreed Edward III. In 1373 Somerset and Gloucestershire which formed the ancient boundary between River Avon developed as a major port in the medieval period, straddling both sides of the Bristol

During the Middle Ages a number of other large cities and towns were granted the status of self-governing counties separate from adjacent counties. Such a county became known as a county corporate or "county of itself". For most practical purposes this separate status was replaced in the late 19th century when county boroughs were introduced.

A charter of Henry I in about 1130 gave the City of London its own Sheriff.[36] The Sheriff of London also had jurisdiction over the county of Middlesex, so that "London and Middlesex were from that time regarded as one from an administrative point of view",[37] although they retained their separate identities. This relationship continued until the Local Government Act 1888 created a new office of High Sheriff of Middlesex appointed in the same manner as other English and Welsh counties, created the County of London with its own High Sheriff, and restricted the jurisdiction of the sheriffs of London to the City.[37]

Counties corporate

There was historic ambiguity as to the status of the county of Monmouthshire. It was created out of ‘the said Country or Dominion of Wales’ by the Laws in Wales Act of 1535 (though neither this Act nor any other specifically separates it from Wales and adds it to England) and later added to the Oxford circuit of the English Assizes. Laws since 1536 relating to Wales alone applied to "Wales and Monmouthshire"[33] and for most purposes it was regarded as part of Wales.[34] It was listed among the English counties for parliamentary purposes until 1950 and for local government until 1974, with the Local Government Act 1972 unambiguously including the area as part of Wales.[35]

At the time of the Domesday Book, some parts of what later became Wales were accounted as parts of English counties; Monmouth, for example, was included in Herefordshire.[31] Additionally, the Domesday book included as part of Cheshire, areas that later became part of Wales, including the two hundreds of Atiscross and Exestan, and the southern part of Duddestan Hundred (as it was known as the time), which later became known as Maelor Saesneg, and (later still) "Flintshire Detached" (see Flintshire (historic)),[32] Parts of the March of Wales, which after the Norman conquest had been administered by Marcher Lords largely independently of the English monarch, were incorporated into the English counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire in 1535.

Welsh border

Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, County Durham and Northumberland were established as counties in the 12th century. Lancashire can be firmly dated to 1182.[30] Part of the domain of the Bishops of Durham, Hexhamshire was split off and was considered an independent county until 1572, when it became part of Northumberland.

Much of Northumbria was also shired, the best known of these counties being Hallamshire and Cravenshire. The Normans did not use these divisions, and so they are not generally regarded as ancient counties. The huge county of Yorkshire was a successor to the Viking Kingdom of York, and at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 it was considered to include what was to become northern Lancashire, as well as parts of Cumberland, and Westmorland. Most of the later Cumberland and Westmorland were under Scottish rule until 1092. After the Norman Conquest in 1066 and the harrying of the North, much of the North of England was left depopulated and was included in the returns for Cheshire and Yorkshire in the Domesday Book.[23] However, there is some disagreement about the status of some of this land. The area in between the River Ribble and the River Mersey, referred to as "Inter Ripam et Mersam" in the Domesday Book,[24] was included in the returns for Cheshire.[25] Whether this meant that this land was actually part of Cheshire is however not clear.[24][26][27][28][29] The Northeast, or Northumbria, land that later became County Durham and Northumberland, was left unrecorded.

Northern England

In the east Midlands, it is thought that county boundaries may represent a 9th-century division of the Danelaw between units of the Danish army.[18] Rutland was an anomalous territory or soke, associated with Nottinghamshire, but it eventually became considered the smallest county. Lincolnshire was the successor to the Kingdom of Lindsey, and took on the territories of Kesteven and Holland when Stamford became the only Danelaw borough to fail to become a county town.[22]

When Wessex annexed Mercia in the 10th century, it subdivided the area into various shires of roughly equal size and tax-raising potential or hidage. These generally took the name of the main town (the county town) of the county, along with "-shire". Examples of these include Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. In some cases the original names have been worn down — for example, Cheshire was originally "Chestershire".[21]


In southern England the counties were mostly subdivisions of the Kingdom of Wessex, and in many areas represented annexed, previously independent, kingdoms or other tribal territories. Kent derives from the Kingdom of Kent, and Essex, Sussex and Middlesex come from the East Saxons, South Saxons and Middle Saxons. Norfolk and Suffolk were subdivisions representing the "North Folk" and "South Folk" of the Kingdom of East Anglia. Only one county on the south coast of England now usually takes the suffix "-shire", Hampshire, which is named after the former town of "Hamwic" (sic), the site of which is now a part of the city of Southampton. A "lost" Saxon county was Winchcombeshire which lasted from 1007 to 1017 before being incorporated into Gloucestershire.[19] Dorset and Somerset derive their names from the saete or inhabitants of the areas around the towns of Dorchester and Somerton respectively; the names were first used by the Saxons in the 9th century.[20] Devon and Cornwall were based on the pre-Saxon Celtic tribes known in Latin as the Dumnonii and Cornovii, in the latter case with the suffix wealas, meaning foreigners, added by the Saxons.

Southern England

Although all of England was divided into shires by the time of the Norman conquest, some counties were formed considerably later, up to the 16th century. Because of their differing origins the counties varied considerably in size. The county boundaries were fairly static between the 16th century Laws in Wales acts and the Local Government Act 1888.[17] Each shire was responsible for gathering taxes for the central government; for local defence; and for justice, through assize courts.[18]

Great Britain was first divided into administrative areas by the Romans, most likely following major geographical features such as rivers.[10] Before their arrival there were distinct tribal areas, but they were in a constant state of flux as territory was gained and lost. After the demise of Roman Britain around 410 these first divisions of land were generally abandoned, although traditional divisions taking the form of petty kingdoms such as Powys, Dumnonia and Elmet, remained in those areas which remained British, such as south west England. The areas that would later form the English counties started to take shape soon afterwards, with the Kingdom of Kent founded by settlers around 445. In southern England more widely, shires emerged from earlier sub-kingdoms as part of the administrative structure of Wessex, which then imposed its system of shires, boroughs (or burhs) and ealdormen on Mercia after it came under West Saxon control during the 9th century.[15] Once the Kingdom of England was united as a whole in 927 it became necessary to subdivide it for administrative convenience and to this end, earldoms were created out of the earlier kingdoms. The whole kingdom was divided into shires by the time of the Norman conquest. Robert of Gloucester accounts for thirty-five shires and William of Malmesbury thirty-two,[10] Henry of Huntingdon, thirty-seven.[16] In most cases the counties or shires in medieval times were administered by a sheriff (originally "shire-reeve") on behalf of the monarch. At the Norman conquest the sheriff was replaced and the shires became counties, or "areas under the control of a count".[10]


Map of the English and Welsh counties in 1824


There are customary abbreviations for many of the counties. In most cases these consist of simple truncation, usually with an "s" at the end signifying "shire", such as "Berks" for Berkshire or "Bucks" for Buckinghamshire. Some abbreviations are not obvious, such as "Salop" for Shropshire, "Oxon" for Oxfordshire, "Hants" for Hampshire and "Northants" for Northamptonshire.[10] Counties were often prefixed with "County of" in official contexts, such as "County of Kent". Those counties named after central towns lost the -"shire" suffix, for example Yorkshire would be known as "County of York". This usage was sometimes followed even where there was no town by that name, such as the "County of Berks". The "-shire" suffix was also appended for some counties, such as "Devonshire", "Dorsetshire" and "Somersetshire", despite their origin.[14] There is still a Duke of Devonshire.

The name of a county often gives a clue to how it was formed, either as a division that took its name from a centre of administration, an ancient kingdom, or an area occupied by an ethnic group.[10] The majority of English counties are in the first category, with the name formed by combining the central town with the suffix "-shire", for example Yorkshire. Former kingdoms, which became earldoms in the united England did not feature this formulation; so for Kent, the former kingdom of the Jutes, "Kentshire" was not used. Counties ending in the suffix "-sex" are also in this category and are former Saxon kingdoms. Many of these names are formed from compass directions. The third category includes counties such as Cornwall and Devon where the name corresponds to the tribes who inhabited the area.[10] County Durham is anomalous in terms of naming and origin, not falling into any of the three categories. Instead it was a diocese that was turned into the County Palatine of Durham, ruled by the Bishop of Durham.[10] The expected form would otherwise be "Durhamshire", but it has never been used.



  • Nomenclature 1
  • History 2
    • Origins 2.1
      • Southern England 2.1.1
      • Midlands 2.1.2
      • Northern England 2.1.3
    • Welsh border 2.2
    • Counties corporate 2.3
    • Detached parts 2.4
    • 1889 2.5
    • 1965 and 1974 2.6
    • Postal counties 2.7
    • County cricket 2.8
    • Restoration of historic county boundaries 2.9
  • Functions 3
    • Administration of justice and law enforcement 3.1
    • Defence 3.2
    • Parliamentary representation 3.3
    • Local government 3.4
    • Subdivisions 3.5
  • List of counties 4
  • See also 5
  • Footnotes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

[13][12][5] in many parts of the country away from the main urban areas, although sometimes with considerably altered boundaries.modern local government They continue to form the basis of [11][10]

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