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How Counties Came About

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Counties can be found throughout the old and modern world, in Europe the word county originated from the concept that it was an area under the jurisdiction of a count.

In Britain the origins are slightly different, in Celtic Britain and Ireland counts were called Earls, which came from the Old Norse word Jarl, and was introduced by the Vikings. However there is no identifiable tie up between earldoms and counties.  Instead the Anglo Saxon system involved an administrative area of an Anglo Saxon Kingdom, a Scir. When the Normans arrived in 1066 they simply called these areas counties, to line up with their understanding. The Scir or as we know it now 'shire' then became an area that was controlled on behalf of the sovereign by the  'Shire Reeve' or Sheriff.  The sheriff is still a ceremonial role in counties today.

This role of Reeve, dates from before earlier more democratic times. In England, a Reeve was an official elected annually by the Serfs to supervise lands for a Lord. The Reeve himself was a Serf. He had many duties such as making sure the Serfs started work on time and ensuring that no one was cheating the Lord out of money. The system was introduced by the Saxons, prior to the  7th century, and continued after the Norman conquest. The Shire Reeve is a derivative of this acting as a servant of his Lord, in this case the King, and be trusted to bring in the taxes and make sure all ran smoothly. After 1066, many were Norman followers of the King, who were also given titles and land.

The names in some cases originate from the earlier kingdoms (Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, Lindsey, Kent, York…..), as in the case of 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. Yorkshire is from the Viking kingdom of York. Lincolnshire from the old kingdom of Lindsey.  Other counties are named after the rivers or towns that were important to them. Devon, Dorset and Somerset, derived from 'tribal' names. Historians date the transformation of the kingdom of Wessex into the kingdom of England to 927, when King Alfred's grandson, Aethelstan, conquered Northumbria. By 954 the conquest of the Danelaw was complete. Thereafter, there was only one English kingdom on English soil, and the West Saxon royal dynasty had become the first royal dynasty of a united English kingdom. The ancient counties took their names from this period and was connected with its tax raising and military obligations.  Below counties you had Hundreds and this was divided into vill.

Some counties like Cumberland, Westmorland, Lancashire, County Durham and Northumberland were established in the 12th century, and over time some other changes have occurred, most notably, bits of land that for historical reasons were an island within another county, were rationalised to be in that county.  Over time some counties have dropped the shire ending, usually where no town of the same name exists.

Welsh counties likewise line up largely with welsh princedoms. The border of Wales was set in 1535, when the counties were formally defined, when it became a part of the country of England and Wales, the act is similar to a marriage document. Some of the border counties for example Monmouthshire was part of England and are now a part of Wales.

Each county has its unique history for example,

Wiltshire known as Wiltunscire from the 8th century, a region of the ancient kingdom of Wessex, the capital of which was Wilton, located where the river Wylye is joined by the river Naddar, which goes under the Palladian bridge in the grounds of Wilton House, on to join the Avon by a watermill, going, through what is now Salisbury, to the sea at Christchurch. Wilton was the crossing point over the river. Later when Sarum moved to New Sarum, later renamed Salisbury, this became a crossing point and Wilton become bypassed. Through this period of history church buildings occupied the location now occupied by Wilton House.



Further information






Old maps of counties



On collecting old maps


Ancient kingdoms before 1000AD

Counties of England at the time of the Doomsday Book (post 1066)

Ceremonial counties now
Notice how similar they are to the above old map.


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