Shire and County

I don’t often teach lessons which require my students to know the difference between a county and a shire (let alone a farthing and a riding) but it’s going to come up today.

My colleagues will all know, of course, that county is a Norman denomination and shire an Anglo-Saxon one. A great many shires (or counties) have shire as a suffix (unstressed, which seems universally to confuse Americans, who don’t have shires as a rule, The Berkshires being an exception, but do have counties), but not all. Thus, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire, Warwickshire etc., (named, of course, for their County towns, each of which will have a shire hall as their administrative centre); but also Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, Essex, Cornwall etc. These last pre-date the Anglo-Saxons, being British kingdoms. And further north we have County Durham, Northumberland and Cumbria.


Image: XrysD

And there are a handful of counties in the west of England which swing both ways: Somerset, Dorset and Devon can also be known as Somersetshire, Dorsetshire and Devonshire. I’ve a feeling the same might be true of Rutland, but my knowledge of Rutland is not extensive.

We occasionally talk about ‘the shires’, but it is usually a more poetic denomination, referencing some notion or other of a Merrie England (hence Tolkien’s The Shire, where the hobbits live, and where windmills are an emblem of industrial blight). We tend to prefer county as a general denomination. And then of course there are the Home Counties, the appellation for the counties which surround London, only three of which are shires (Berkshire, Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire; the others are Sussex, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex, and Kent).

So there it is. English administrative organisation in a nutshell. Perhaps I’ll pass on to Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man (not to mention the Channel Isles and the Isles of Scilly) in future blogs.