After a recent lecture in California I was asked by one of the
participants what the difference is between a shire and a county. As I
explained that county was a French term, adopted under Norman rule as
equivalent in meaning to the earlier English word shire, I realized that
much of what the English take for granted in their history can be
puzzling to others. The word shire was used in the Old English period to
describe an administrative district, one ruled jointly by an `alderman'
and a sheriff, the officers who presided in the shire-moot, that is the
meeting or meeting-place for the shire. The title of sheriff, or
shire-reeve was given to the chief officer of the shire.
the shires became counties under the Normans, and those who travel
around England or work with old documents will at times encounter names
such as Hallamshire and Hexhamshire, which refer to former jurisdictions
smaller than a county. Although shire survives in many county names,
there are many others that do not have the suffix, ranging from Cornwall
in the extreme south-west to Kent and Essex in the east and
Northumberland and Cumberland in the far north.
entry (1086) for Yorkshire is Eurewicscire, but by the 1400s forms such
as le counte d'Everwyk were usual, reflecting the change described
above. However, in this largest of the English shires there is an
additional complication, for Yorkshire was formerly divided into three
'ridings' or `thirdings,' north, east, and west, whose boundaries
converged on the city of York. The Scandinavians frequently divided
large areas into three parts and `thirding' became riding when the
initial `th' or `t' was lost, having coalesced with the final consonant
of north, east, and west. Typical spellings that reflect this are
Nortrithing (1198) and Northrithing (1240). The former Anglo-Saxon
kingdom of Lindsey (Lincolnshire) was also subdivided into three parts
by the Scandinavians and had north, south and west ridings, and the
clear inference in both cases is that the divisions were made subsequent
to the Danish settlement of 876. There was actually a period early in
the history of New England when `riding' was used as a territorial name,
and it is perhaps to be regretted that it did not survive.
as a county covers a much smaller area than the old kingdom of
Northumbria, which formerly consisted of the land north of the river
Humber, the dividing line between Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, but the
county name has been in use since the early twelfth century. There are
two other northern counties with the suffix `land'--Westmorland, the
district of the people who lived west of the moors, i.e. the uplands of
the Northern Pennines, and Cumberland, the region of the `Cymry' or
Welsh. The `Welsh' in this case were those Celts who were not subdued by
the English of Northumbria until the seventh century. Other county
names that commemorate Celtic tribes are Devon, referring to the
`Dumnonii', and Cornwall, the place of the `Cornovii.' The suffix in
Cornwall can be compared with Wales, for both derive from the Old
English word for foreigners.
In this much fought-over corner of
the island there are two more distinctive `folk-names,' both with the
element `set,' which meant settlers or dwellers. Somerset was the area
of the settlers around Somerton, the `summer dwelling' and Dorset was
the area of the settlers around Dorn. This word is also a Celtic
survival, meaning a sports place, and it is found in Dorchester, the
On the eastern side of the country Celtic names are
understandably rare, for it was there that the invading Anglo-Saxons
landed. Nevertheless, there is the name Kent, `the land of the Cantii,'
thought to be the name of a Celtic tribe but with a much-disputed
meaning. East Anglia, where the Anglians first settled, is not a county
name but a region, subdivided into Norfolk, the `northern people' and
Suffolk, the `southern people,' whilst their contemporaries are
remembered in Essex, Middlesex, and Sussex, respectively the territories
of the East, Middle, and South Saxons. Wessex, the land of the West
Saxons, was revived as a name by eighteenth-century antiquarians, but it
has not survived as a county, despite its historical significance.
Surrey, `the southerly district,' though a much less important name,
identifies the land of the Saxons south of the Thames who were
sandwiched between east and west.
In fact many of the Anglo-Saxon
shires did not commemorate tribal divisions but were formed
artificially and took their name from an important town or estate.
Typical of these are the West Midland towns of Hereford, Stafford, and
Shrewsbury, the last of these eventually giving rise to Shropshire. On
the same pattern are the early Wessex foundations of Hampshire
(Southampton) and Wiltshire (Wilton) and also such East Midland names as
Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire. These last three all
lay within the Danelaw, and whereas the Anglo-Saxon shires were created
for defence, the Danish shires were created around their army
A few shire names have very distinctive histories.
County Durham, as it is usually called, was created out of lands
belonging to the Bishop of Durham, who effectively had sovereign powers.
His territories were referred to as a palatinate, which was temporarily
abolished during the Civil War and then revived after the Restoration,
surviving well into the nineteenth century. Rutland, the tiniest county
of all, probably came into being ca.1200, for it had that status in 1204
when it was granted by King John to Queen Isabella as dower. Before
that the southern part of the territory had been part of
Northamptonshire. Lancashire's distinction lies in the allusive quality
of the name itself, which is a shortened form of `Lancastershire.'
Lancaster means the `Roman fort on the river Lune,' and this is yet
another example of a river name that goes back at least to the Celts and
cannot be satisfactorily explained.
Much has been written
recently about the `homes' of English surnames and the regions into
which the country can still be divided. Genealogists can understand this
regionalism far better if they come to terms with the historic
divisions and differences that shaped Englishmen over the centuries. Not
surprisingly, many of those differences have survived the sweeping
boundary changes of the early 1970s.