Our country’s division into counties goes back to mediaeval and feudal times.
The counties emerge in England
The division of England into shires began in Wessex in the mid-Saxon period. With the Wessex conquest of Mercia in the 9th and 10th centuries, the system was extended to central England. At the time of the Domesday book, northern England comprised Cheshire and Yorkshire. The remaining counties of the north were established in the 12th century. Rutland was first recorded as a county in 1159.
The counties emerge in Scotland
The Scottish counties have their origins in the ‘sheriffdoms’ first created in the reign of Alexander I (1107-24). The pattern of sheriffdoms that existed in the late medieval period is believed to be very close to that existing in the mid-nineteenth century. The central and western Highlands and the Isles were not assigned to shires until the early modern period, Caithness becoming a sheriffdom in 1503 and Orkney in 1540.
The counties emerge in Wales
The present day pattern of the historic counties of Wales was established by the Laws in Wales Act 1535. This Act established Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire, Brecknockshire and Monmouthshire from the areas of the former lordships. The other 8 counties had, by then, already been in existence since at least the 13th century. The historic counties are, however, based on much older traditional areas.
The counties emerge in Ireland
The division of Ireland into counties began during the reign of King John (1199-1216). The complete set of counties as they are today were laid down in 1584 (with their modern boundaries not finally settled until 1613. As in Wales the counties were generally based on earlier, traditional areas.
The advent of modern local government
When modern local government was first created, in 1888, the areas of its “administrative counties” were basd on the historic counties. Local government remained fairly closely based on the historic counties from 1888-1965. However, the cumulative effect of the numerous local government reforms since then mean that few local authorities now have an area anything like any historic county. However, the words “county” and “county council” are still used in local government terminology. Many local authorities also still use the unqualified name of an historic county, despite having a very different area to that historic county. The result is confusion. The public sometimes mistakenly believes that cherished historic counties have been altered or abolished by local government change, despite the Government repeatedly confirming that this is not the case.
The counties today and in future
The Association strongly asserts that local government needs to be given an identity totally distinct from that of the historic counties, to the benefit of both. We strongly champion the historic counties as the basis of our standard geography. Administrative areas are wholly unsuitable for this purpose. There are too many of them, and their names and areas change too often. Administrative areas were created to facility public service provision, not as a basis for geographical descriptions. A more detailed discussion concerning the identity of our counties can be found in The problem of “county confusion” – and how to resolve it.
Gazetteer of British Place Names - a comprehensive listing of the County of the cities, towns and villages of Britain.
Historic Counties Postal Directory - a directory of the Historic Counties indexed by post town.