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November 8, 2022

Where did England’s counties get their names?

There are 39 historic counties in England. Of those counties, 37 them split neatly into one of three groups.

By Jonn Elledge

England counties
Welcome to Essex sign, UK. (Photo by pxl.store/Shutterstock)

1. The shires

Nearly half the counties – 19 of them – are very clearly named after their county town, or at least, a town that used to be. Those are (deep breath) Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and – we got there in the end – Yorkshire.

All of these are basically obvious. “Shire” is just the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the old French word “county”, so Yorkshire, for example, means “County of York”. A couple of them you have to manipulate a bit, presumably because Lancastershire and Chestershire were a bit of a mouthful; but it’s still fairly obvious where the name came from. (Yorkshire was so vast that for much of its history it was split into east, west and north “ridings”, which basically just means “thirds”.)

Hampshire is more complicated, but only a little. In Anglo-Saxon times, when the shires were first created, what is now Southampton was known (among other names) as Hamtun, and the county was named accordingly; occasional attempts since to rebrand the county as Southamptonshire have failed miserably. At any rate – the “Hamp” in “Hampshire” is the one from the middle of “Southampton”.

There are three other shires where the origin of the first bit of the name is, at least to modern eyes, a bit mysterious. Wiltshire is only confusing because the town it’s named for, Wilton, has descended into obscurity. It’s still there – but with a population of under 4,000, and no railway stations, it’s been almost completely over-shadowed by its near neighbour Salisbury, which is 10 times the size.

Berkshire plays silly buggers by not being named after a town at all (there’s no Berkton, not even an obscure one). Instead, it takes its name from a large forest, known as Bearrock’s Wood, which may, in turn, take its name from the Brythonic (that is, ancient Celtic) for “hilly place”. So Berkshire basically means “the county of the forest on the hill”.

[Read more: Why do so many of England’s cities straddle traditional county boundaries?]

Lastly, there’s Shropshire, the country which kicked off this mess. As it turns out, while there’s no place called Shrop, there was once a Scrobbesburh, and the county surrounding it was known as Scrobbesbyrigscīr. For reasons that seem to have been lost in time, the two words evolved in different directions – the latter into Shropshire, the former into Shrewsbury. So the answer was right in front of me all along.

Incidentally, the name evolved in a third direction, too, into Salop – an alternative name for both county and town. Why Shropshire couldn’t follow the example of neighbours like Worcestershire and Staffordshire and keep all its shit together, I have no idea.

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(Okay, 23 down, 16 to go.)

2. The ancient kingdoms

Then there are those whose names relate to which Germanic tribe settled them in about the 6th century, and to its location relative to all the other places those same settlers went.

The easy ones are EssexMiddlesex and Sussex: the eastern, middle and southern areas settled by the Saxons. Surrey means “southern district”, presumably of the Middle Saxon tribes living to its north. (Middlesex, incidentally, never seems to have been a kingdom in its own right, but was for many years a part of Essex. London was once in Essex, too.)

Why is there no county of Wessex, you may ask? There was the Kingdom of Wessex, which covered a substantial chunk of south-central Britain. That, though, was so big that, when its kings inherited the whole of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, they broke their original kingdom up into several counties, and it didn’t get its name on any of them. Sad.

Then there’s Norfolk and Suffolk. These came out of the Kingdom of East Anglia – the eastern chunk of where the Angles settled – and refer to the “north folk” and “south folk” within that kingdom.

Kent, too, was an Anglo-Saxon kingdom (a Jute one, to be specific), but its name actually goes back even further. Julius Caeser described the area of Cantium – home of the Cantiaci – in 51BCE. The name of that tribe seems to come from “Cantus”, the Brythonic (Celtic British again) word for “border”.

[Read more: Where are the largest cities in Britain?]

So the name Kent means, in effect, “the bit at the edge”. The “Cant-” spelling is preserved in Canterbury.

At the other end of the country, there’s Northumberland, which is a modernised version of the name of the Kingdom of Northumbria: literally, the people north of the Humber.

Northumberland was significantly smaller than the Kingdom of Northumbria, which also included Yorkshire, Durham, and parts of Lancashire and lowland Scotland: the traditional country would more accurately have been known as Northtyneland, in fact. 

(That’s 31, just eight left.)

3. Far-flung tribes

Most of the rest are named, in some way or another, after the people who lived in them, even if they never got to be kingdoms. Most of these hold-outs are at the more marginal parts of the country, to the north and west, which reflects their relatively late inclusion in the Anglo-Saxon county system.

Two, however, were included in that system all along, but still refused to play by the rules. Somerset and Dorset are old English names, meaning “people of Somerton” and “people of Dorchester” respectively. So the structure of the names is not a million miles away from the “shire”/”county of” construction, except named after the tribe rather than the land. Perhaps this is one reason why the archaic Somersetshire and Dorsetshire never really stuck: “the county of the people of Somerton” is a stupid thing to call an area. 

Further west, you find the land of the Celtic tribe, the Dumnonii (“valley dwellers”), a name which got mangled into Defenas and finally Devon. This one also sometimes used to get a -shire, probably dating back to the early Middle Ages when the Latin Dumnonia became the Old English Defenascir. In modern usage, we’ve largely dropped it, although it survives in the names of assorted military regiments and cream teas.

Then at the tip of the land, there’s Cornwall, which also takes the first part of its name from a local tribe, the Cornovii. (The Roman name for the area was Cornubia.) That’s the Corn- taken care of; the -wall bit has the same root as “Wales”, the Old English “wealas”, meaning “foreigners”. Incidentally, Cornwall was known by the Anglo-Saxons as Westwealas, to distinguish it from the other foreign/Welsh people across the Bristol Channel.

Cumberland is another tribal name with links to the Welsh. It takes its name from the Cymry, the name of the Celtic inhabitants of a region that – like Cornwall, and Wales – was never really a part of the Anglo-Saxon world. Cumberland just means “Land of the Cumbrians”. (Cymry shares roots with Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales.)

The modern country of Cumbria, created in 1974, includes Cumberland, as well as Westmorland and parts of Lancashire. The use of the Latinised version of the name was presumably intended to communicate the fact this wasn’t just Cumberland, but something bigger.

Finally, there’s tiny Rutland – literally the land of some bloke called Rota. Rutland started out life as a detached part of Nottinghamshire (known as a “soke”), but during the course of the Middle Ages gradually became a county in its own right, however ludicrously small it was.

4. The awkward ones

If you’ve been keeping count, which you haven’t, you’ll know there are still two left. That’s because they don’t fit into any of these categories. 

One is Westmorland, which I already mentioned, briefly: that means (this’ll shock you) “land west of the moors”. 

The other is County Durham. Its name is obviously taken from its principal city, so the mystery here is why it’s the only English county to use “county” as a prefix (something much more common in Ireland), rather than just being Durhamshire. The reason seems to be that it started life as a county palatine – that is, an area whose rulers get a certain autonomy that most counties don’t – run by the Bishops of Durham. In other words, while it was a county, it wasn’t a shire in the traditional sense, so the name is a bit weird.

Is that it?

Because some of these counties don’t exist anymore. Several times the map has been comprehensively re-organised, to create or abolish metropolitan counties or tinker with boundaries.

Some of those counties are no longer with us (Hereford & WorcesterHumberside). Some had their governments abolished, but remained for other purposes (MerseysideTyne & Wear).

The source of the names of most of those modern counties is pretty obvious. They were named after cities (Greater London, Greater Manchester, latterly Bristol), rivers (Avon, plus several of the above), or bits of counties (South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire, East Riding of Yorkshire), and in one case a vague geographic region just to get out of using any name that might annoy the locals (West Midlands). There’s also the Isle of Wight, at one time a part of Hampshire, but today a proud and independent county whose name reflects the fact that it’s the Isle of Wight.

The only modern county whose name requires any explanation at all, I think, is Cleveland, the Yorkshire/Durham border country containing the Middlesbrough/Hartlepool area. That’s an ancient name for a part of Yorkshire that got swallowed by the new county, which literally means “cliff-land”. Cleveland was abolished in 1996; but in another form, it’s on its way back, as the Tees Valley Combined Authority, which gets its own metro mayor this May.

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