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The Complete Guide to Britain's Historic Counties: An Introduction

Updated on May 24, 2019
A map of the historic counties of England- note that Yorkshire is divided into three ridings- West, North and East.
A map of the historic counties of England- note that Yorkshire is divided into three ridings- West, North and East.

The Emergence of the Counties in England

England's counties largely predate the Norman Conquest of 1066, making their longevity and survival into modern times all the more remarkable. Over the centuries they have become an integral part of our history, heritage, geography and culture.

England's counties can trace their origins back to the 5th Century AD, a time when the country was divided into several Anglo Saxon Kingdoms. The Kingdom of Wessex was the first to organise itself into counties that we still recognise today, such as Surrey, Kent and Essex. By the 10th Century AD, the county system had spread north to the Midlands with Wessex's conquest of Mercia.

By the time the Domesday Book was commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086, most of England’s present counties had been established. However, north of the Midlands, there were just the two counties- Cheshire and Yorkshire. However, within the space of just 100 years the Normans organised the North into areas that people still recognise today, such as Lancashire, Northumberland and Durham. Rutland was the last county to be formally established in 1159, however, references to it as a county appear in the Domesday Book.

A map showing the historical counties of Scotland first established in 1284.
A map showing the historical counties of Scotland first established in 1284.

The Emergence of the Counties in Scotland

The counties of Scotland can trace their origins back to the reign of Alexander I (1107-24) and were based almost exactly on the pattern set in England, and in accordance with the model set up by the Normans, each county had a Shire Reeve or Sheriff, who was responsible for maintaining order throughout a shire or county on behalf of the King. The infamous Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood was one such figure.

The pattern of Shires in Scotland remained largely the same from the Medieval period right up until the early modern period, when the Central and Western Highlands and Isles were absorbed into Shires, Caithness was formally assigned a Sheriff in 1503 and Orkney obtained one in 1540.

A map showing the historical or ancient counties of Wales.
A map showing the historical or ancient counties of Wales. | Source

The Emergence of the Counties in Wales

The origins of the counties of Wales can be traced to its conquest by English King Edward I in the late 11th Century. Edward established the original eight Welsh Counties in 1284, and at the same time formally created the Principality of Wales and placed control of it in the hands of his eldest son. Wales to this day remains under the control of the eldest son of the Monarch, with Prince Charles the current incumbent.

Four of the eight Welsh Counties were forged from the formerly powerful Northern Kingdom of Gwynedd. These included Anglesey, Merionethshire, Caernarfonshire and Flintshire. The present layout of the Counties was established in 1535 with the passing of the Laws of Wales Act. This Act abolished the old Marcher lordships in the South and created the counties of Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire, Brecknockshire and Monmouthshire.

A map showing the modern administrative areas of Warwickshire and the West Midlands- the boundaries of both are drastically different to the historic county of Warwickshire.
A map showing the modern administrative areas of Warwickshire and the West Midlands- the boundaries of both are drastically different to the historic county of Warwickshire.

Modern Local Government and Confusion

In 1888 the era of modern Local Government began with the Local Government Act. The Act created a whole new set of administrative areas or administrative counties, as they would come to be known. Initially these areas were virtually identical to the historic counties, but from the outset it was understood that they were entirely separate from them, and thus were subject to change based upon the whims of the government of the day. Indeed the General Register Office’s Census Report of 1891 made it clear that the ‘Ancient and Geographical’ counties and the ‘New Administrative’ counties were two distinct entities and should not be confused. No Local Government has ever tried to abolish or alter the traditional counties and their existence has been affirmed and reaffirmed by successive governments down the years.

What is true though, is that the historic counties are no longer used in any form of major public administration. Before the 1888 Act the Sheriffs were tied to their historic counties, however, afterwards their ties changed to the administrative counties. In 1917 Parliament redrew its constituency boundaries, and thus ended the era of historical and administrative counties existing as one. But, I must reiterate that the historical counties still do exist and remain an important part of our culture and heritage.

Perhaps the biggest change in the 130 years of administrative counties came between 1963 and 1974. In 1963 a new administrative area was created to cover the nation’s capital ’Greater London’. Nine years later, another Local Government Act radically amended local government in the rest of England and Wales, stating the following:

For the administration of local government on and after 1st April England (exclusive of Greater London and the Isles of Scilly) shall be divided into local government areas to be known as counties and in those counties there shall be local government areas to be known as districts.”

This is where the confusion has set in with the lack of clarification in terms of the use of the word ’county’. Many people believed that this Act permanently abolished the historic counties, but all it did was simply abolish the administrative counties set up in 1888 and replace them with new ones. This fact was reiterated by an official of the Department of the Environment, who quoted the following in an article in The Times on the 1st April 1974:

They are administrative areas and will not alter the traditional boundaries of counties, nor it is intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”

In the time that has passed since, Local Government has remained subject to continual and often radical change. There are very few authorities now that have an area that is akin to their historical county. However, they do continue to misuse historical county names which only adds to the confusion.

The continued existence of the historic counties was further reaffirmed in the run up to St George’s Day 2013 by the then Secretary of State Eric Pickles, who quoted the following:

Today, on St George’s Day, we commemorate our patron saint and formally acknowledge the continuing role of our traditional counties in England’s public and cultural life,”

So, in conclusion for those of us living in Cumberland, Westmorland, Huntingdonshire or Middlesex, have no fear, because your home county still exists and was never formally abolished.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 James Kenny

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    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      3 months ago from Chicago Area

      It is stunning how old the organization of these areas is! And I think people are more aware of them with the recent royal baby born to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Very informative! Thanks for sharing.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      3 months ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this excellent article. I love this kind of stuff - the story of how we got from there to here. It fascinates me to no end. Good read here. I enjoyed it.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      3 months ago from Birmingham, England

      I was born several years after the West Midlands County was created, but have always thought of the West Midlands as a region rather than a county. I will always consider my hometown to be a part of Warwickshire.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      I was born in Manchester. I tended to think of myself as being from Lancashire as I lived nearer to Bury and went to school in Bolton, but the whole Greater Manchester thing confused the issue for me.

    • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

      James Kenny 

      3 months ago from Birmingham, England

      Yes its amazing how the counties make us feel, I think they make us feel more English if that makes sense. I was born in Solihull, so my loyalties are very much with Warwickshire, even though in an administrative sense it has been part of the West Midlands since 1974.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      3 months ago from UK

      This is an interesting article. I have to confess that counties are something I have grown up with and not given much thought to where they came from. You have filled in some gaps in my knowledge. It's interesting how, even today and after many have moved away from their county of birth, county loyalties still run strong. I know a Yorkshire man who moved to Kent in the 1950s as a child. His loyalties still lie with Yorkshire over 65 years later.

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