The shire was originally a West Saxon territorial unit used as basis for the assessment of taxation and the computation of military service that developed within the kingdom of Wessex during the eighth century, and was thereafter gradually applied to the rest of the country in line with the growth of the authority of the rulers of Wessex.
The formation of the English shires is therefore a process that took centuries and it is generally speaking, impossible to give a precise date for the creation of any particular shire.
The early shires of Wessex
The Old English word 'scir' probably originally denoted a sphere of responsibility but later came to mean the specific territory over which that responsibility was exercised. According to the West Saxon scheme of things, each shire had an ealdorman, who it seems was responsible for organising the collection of taxes, overseeing the court system and the organisation of the military levies within the shire.
Sometime in early history of Wessex the kingdom was divided into six shires; Devonshire and Dorsetshire that were named after the Celtic tribes whose territories they roughly represented (the Dumnonii and Durotriges respectively), Berkshire which was originally 'Berrocscire' or 'Berrocshire' and named after 'Berroc Wood' (from the Brythonic 'Barro'for 'summit'), whilst Somersetshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire were named after the royal vills from which they were administered, that is Somerton, Wilton and Hampton (now better known as Southampton).
(Of course, although originally known as Devonshire, Somersetshire and Dorsetshire, particularly in the latter two cases the 'shire' suffix is now generally dispensed with.)
The earliest reference to any shire is to Hampshire in the eighth century with the remaining shires first cropping up in the ninth. It is however, impossible to say from this when the shires first appeared or indeed whether they were all created at the same time, but it appears most likely that they all appeared by the end of the eighth century.
The shiring of the south-east
As a consequence of the battle of Ellandun in 825, the political authority of Wessex was spread across south-east England, which is to say that Wessex acquired dominion over the former kingdoms of Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex and Essex. Of course, these kingdoms had previously been Mercian dependencies and therefore had little autonomy and there was simply a change of masters.
Initially the kings of Wessex followed the practice of appointing the heir to the throne as a sub-king of Kent beginning with Aethelwulf in 824 with the apparent intention of governing the south-eastern kingdoms as some kind of appanage to Wessex proper. But after 860 the notion of sub-kings was dispensed with, at which it must be presumed the south-eastern kingdoms were simply absorbed into Wessex and accorded the same status as the existing six shires of the kingdom.
These kingdoms of the south-east were already fairly compact geographical units with defined borders and therefore did not require any further sub-division or re-alignment to fit into the West Saxon administrative scheme. And because they were former kingdoms, acquired entire by conquest, they were never referred to as 'shires', if only because the fact that they already had a name meant there was never any reason to concoct a new name; thus, for example, kingdom of Kent became the county of Kent and there never was any 'Kentshire'.
The shiring of Mercia and East Anglia
During the later half of the ninth century the Danish Vikings overwhelmed three out of the four surviving independent Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and established themselves as rulers in Jorvik (formerly southern Northumbria or Deira), East Anglia, and the territory later known as the Five Boroughs and otherwise known as eastern Mercia. Wessex under Alfred succeeded in avoiding the fate of his fellow Anglo-Saxon kings and managed to survive the Viking assault and during the tenth century Wessex was thus able to subsume western Mercia and acquire by conquest the former Danish kingdoms of England, known collectively as the Danelaw.
The West Saxon strategy for the conquest of England south of the Humber, as adopted by Edward the Elder (with the assistance of his sister Aethelflaed, the 'Lady of the Mercians') was straightforward; march in with an army, build a fort or 'burh', garrison it and organise the surrounding countryside to provide the necessary manpower to maintain the fortifications. Sometimes this burh was based on an existing settlement, such as Worcester, sometimes an entirely new location was fortified, such as Nottingham, where a settlement was later established. The end result was however the same; a fortified town that became the county town of the shire that surrounded it, and whose resources supported its defences. The shire became naturally enough, named after its principal town. Hence there was created Nottingham-Nottinghamshire, Leicester-Leicestershire, Huntingdon-Huntingdonshire etc etc.
As far as Mercia was concerned, it is clear that their kings had a similar system of dividing the kingdom into provinces; there were the provinces of the Hwicce, Magonset the Tomsaet etc. However it does not appear that Wessex paid that much heed to these 'ancient' divisions and simply replaced the old Mercian provinces with their new shires, and appear to have entirely disregarded such important centres of Mercian royal authority such as Tamworth and Lichfield which would have been the obvious places to serve as 'local capitals'.
East Anglia was it would appear, already divided into the provinces of Norfolk and Suffolk and these were simply co-opted into the shire system as Wessex. Whereas Wessex seemed to be keen to obliterate, or at least obscure, all reminders of Mercian authority, they appeared to have less concerns about East Anglian traditions. As Norfolk and Suffolk, the territories of the Northern and Southern folk respectively, where both pre-existing tribal designations, there was no need to rename these lands.
Similarly Cornwall in the south-west, the last vestige of West Wales, finally gave up the last remnants of its independence, probably during the reign of Athelstan and again as a former kingdom it was not necessary to recreate it as a 'shire'.
Exactly when all these shires were created is difficult to say; the process probably began during the reign of Edward the Elder (although some may date back to the time of Alfred) and was likely completed during the time of Aethelred. It is certainly during the reign of the famous 'Ethelred the Unready' in the 980s, that we see the first appearance of the office of the shire-reeve or sheriff.
The shortage of any contemporary documentation makes it difficult to put precise dates on the process. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle makes various references to the existence of particular shires; Shrewsburyshire/Shropshire is mentioned in 1006 as the place where Aethelred spent the winter, and many other shires are referred to when describing the peregrinations of the armies of Swein Forkbeard and his son Cnut, but it is clear from the context that the Chronicle was describing pre-existing entities that may have been around for a generation or two.
The Shiring of Northumbria
The kingdom of Northumbria was of course destroyed by the Viking 'Great Army' in 866, York became the centre of the Danish kingdom of Jorvik, and northern Northumbria drifted off as a semi-independent English enclave known as the Lordship of Bamburgh. Once the kings of Wessex acquired control over the southern Danelaw in the early tenth century, they naturally turned their attentions north of the Humber.
In 923 the 'land between the Mersey and the Ribble' was detached from Jorvik and incorporated in Mercia where it was included within Chestershire/Cheshire, but the remainder of Jorvik proved more stubborn, and their were various attempts to re-establish the Danish kingdom of Jorvik during the late tenth century. It was not until the final assassination of Eirikr Bloodaxe at Stainmore in 954 that Jorvik was firmly placed within the jurisdiction of Wessex and simply renamed as Yorkshire.
In fact, in pre-conquest England, Yorkshire was the most northern shire, as the effective authority of the West Saxon and Danish kings of England stopped at the Tees and the Ribble; beyond that ruled the Lords of Bamburgh and the Bishops of Durham and the Kings of the Scots, all of whom might have well have recognised the authority of the West Saxon kings of Winchester.
England before the Conquest
The consequence of this organisation of the land into various shires was that England, or at least that part of England under the direct control of these West Saxon kings adopted a comparatively uniform administrative system. The shire system represented a method by which royal authority could be imposed at a local level, through the shire and hundred courts where the king's law was upheld and land transactions and ownership disputes settled.
Most importantly it constituted an efficient tax raising system that was able to raise quite significant sums of money. These new kings of England were therefore comparatively wealthy compared to their continental cousins and were able, as in Aethelred's case, of raising large amounts of cash should the need arise. It also made England an attractive prospect for any would be conqueror. Which partially explains why both the Danish Cnut in 1016 and the Norman William the Bastard in 1066 were so keen on taking over.
Not all of these tenth century West Saxon creations survived; there was certainly a Winchcombshire that was abolished and absorbed into Gloucestershire in 1016 and by rights there should also have been a Stamfordshire in the Five Boroughs. As it happens the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does make a reference in the year 1016 to Cnut's army moving "to Northamptonshire along the fens to Stamford and then into
Lincolnshire. Which certainly implies that the area around the borough of Stamford had an existence separate from Lincolnshire at the time.
When the Domesday book was compiled in 1086, survey process was essentially conducted using the pre-existing administrative system; therefore where the shire system existed the Normans were able to detail every manor, where it was absent, that is north of the Ribble and the Tees, the surveys were less complete and some cases non-existent.
As it happens the Norman kings of England faced the same problems as regards the north as did their West Saxon and Danish predecessors; namely defining the exact relationship between themselves and the Kings of Scotland as well as the exact definition of the boundaries that lay between their respective spheres of influence. They made sporadic efforts to extend their authority in the north, but other distractions on the continent, not to mention internal revolts and disputes, provided the opportunity for various rulers of Scotland to pursue their ambitions in the south.
During this time the Normans adopted a number of practical interim solutions; in the north-east the Bishop of Durham was allowed to exercise secular authority over what has been termed St. Cuthbert's Land, the territory between the Tees and the Tyne . In the north-west the previously 'uncharted' area north of the Ribble was placed in the hands of Roger the Poitevin and termed the Honour of Lancaster. He built a castle at Lancaster and was essentially left to his own devices.
It was during the reign of Henry II and the signing of the Treaty of Durham in 1157 that something like an agreed Scotland-England border came into being, which enabled Henry to indulge in his own reorganisation of local government. In 1168 Lancashire was created from the 'land between the Mersey and the Ribble' that was previously part of Cheshire, the honour of Lancaster and a small chunk of what had once been southern Strathclyde. In 1177 the rest of southern Strathclyde was divided into Westmorland and Cumberland.
It was also during the reign of Henry II that we find, in the year 1159, the first reference to that curious anomaly of Rutland, a previously detached piece of Nottinghamshire that was now granted its own county status.
Durham and Northumberland
Over the years the Bishops of Durham had accumulated gradually more authority until by the thirteenth century until it operated as a virtually independent state. To the north of Durham lay Northumberland, where we find the first reference to its existence as a county in 1131, but as it happens Northumberland was not so much county as a hotch-potch of separate jurisdictions.
For one thing the Bishops of Durham controlled not only St. Cuthbert's Land itself or modern County Durham but also some substantial parts of what were to be considered as Northumberland. These included the district of Norham (where the Bishops were obliged to garrison a fortress against the Scots), known as Norhamshire, and Holy Island itself or Islandshire, collectively known as North Durham as well as the area known as Bedlingtonshire to the south.
For a second thing Northumberland was riddled with various other liberties and peculiars, particularly those of Redesdale and Tynedale (which belonged to the King of Scots and was technically part of Scotland for a long time.) as well as references to other 'shires' such as Hexhamshire and Tynemouthsire. As it happens, the Bishops of Durham didn't control everything within old St. Cuthbert's Land either, so there existed the independent jurisdictions of Heighingtonshire, Staindropshire and the wapentake of Sadberge within Durham.
It does not seem as if any of these entities were ever 'official' counties, although to all practical intents and purposes some may well have been. The Tudors made efforts to tidy up this mess and attempted to turn Northumberland and Durham into proper southern shires by abolishing many of these northern peculiarities; Hexhamshire for example was abolished by Act of Parliament in 1571 and formally incorporated into Northumberland, although the name continues in use to today to describe the district of Hexham.
It is therefore only during the late sixteenth century that Northumberland and Durham were really formed into counties and when in particular the County Palatine of Durham was created, but the outlying shires of Norhamshire, Bedlingtonshire and Islandshire remained part of the County Palatine, surviving its abolishment in 1836 and where only finally incorporated into Northumberland in 1844.
In summary therefore, as far as the thirty-three pre-Conquest shires of England are concerned we have,
- the original six shires of Wessex; Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Somersetshire, Wiltshire and Hampshire which were probably created in the eighth century,
- the former Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the south-east; Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex and Essex which became 'shires' of Wessex during the ninth century
- the former Brythonic kingdom of Cornwall acquired during the tenth century
- the shires formed out of the 're-conquest' of the southern Danelaw; the East Anglian provinces of Norfolk and Suffolk and the shires of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire created out of Mercia again sometime during the tenth century,
- and then there is Yorkshire representing the remnant of Jorvik.
In terms of the six post-conquest creations there are,
Finally there are County Durham and Northumberland which were not really integrated into the shire system until the sixteenth century and whose territorial boundaries were not finally set until 1844.
In addition to these thirty-nine historic counties of England we have the forgotten Anglo-Saxon shires of Winchcombshire and possibly Stamfordshire as well, not to mention the later northern 'peculiars' of Norhamshire, Bedlingtonshire, Islandshire, Hexhamshire Tynemouthshire Heighingtonshire and Staindropshire.
Much of the above, as it relates to England before the Norman Conquest, is drawn from information contained in Kingship and Government in Pre-Conquest England by Ann Williams (Macmillna, 1999) together with an entry for Early Administrative Units at http://www.domesdaybook.net/hs885.htm .
For the period after the conquest reference was made to the various county entries in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica at http://www.1911encyclopedia.org . Some information on Lancashire was taken from The Friends of Real Lancashire website at http://www.forl.co.uk/002/history.html and on early Berkshire from http://www.gwp.enta.net/berkarticle.htm and from the the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for Durham at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05211a.htm.