Historic counties of England

Also known as:
English counties 1851 with ridings.svg
Counties of England in 1851 with major rivers, the ridings of Yorkshire, and the remaining exclaves shown
Found inKingdom
Created5th–11th century
Number39 (as of 1 April 1889)
Possible statusCounty palatine
Populationsc. 21,000—3.4 million (1881)[1]
Areasc. 94,000–3.8 million acres (15,000 km2) (1881)[1]
GovernmentShire court
Shire-reeve (until 1066)
Earl (from 1066)
Quarter sessions (16th century–1889)
County council (from 1 April 1889)
SubdivisionsDivision, riding, rape, lathe, parts
Hundred and equivalent

The historic counties of England are areas that were established for administration by the Normans, in many cases based on earlier kingdoms and shires created by the Anglo-Saxons and others. They are alternatively known as ancient counties,[2][3] traditional counties,[4] former counties[5][6] or simply as counties.[7] In the centuries that followed their establishment, as well as their administrative function, the counties also helped define local culture and identity.[8][9] This role continued even after the counties ceased to be used for administration after the creation of administrative counties in 1889,[10] which were themselves amended by further local government reforms in the years following.[11][12]

Unlike the partly self-governing boroughs that covered urban areas, the counties of medieval England existed primarily as a means of enforcing central government power, enabling monarchs to exercise control over local areas through their chosen representatives – originally sheriffs and later the Lord-Lieutenants – and their subordinate justices of the peace.[13] Counties were used initially for the administration of justice, collection of taxes and organisation of the military, and later for local government and electing parliamentary representation.[14][15] They continue to form the basis of modern local government in many parts of the country away from the main urban areas, although sometimes with considerably altered boundaries.[4][16][17]


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.[14] 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", the former Saxon kingdoms, are also in this category. 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.[14] 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.[14] The expected form would otherwise be "Durhamshire", but it was rarely used.

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, from the Norman-derived word for its county town Shrewsbury; "Oxon" for Oxfordshire, from Latin Oxonium (referring to both the county and the city of Oxford); "Hants" for Hampshire; and "Northants" for Northamptonshire.[14] 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.[18] There is still a Duke of Devonshire.

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