How The English Counties came to be and what they mean to us today

The English counties as we know them have a very long and complex history.  They shape our sense of self-identity. From Northumberland to East Sussex, Cornwall to Norfolk and everywhere in between. Scratch beneath the surface of these individual geographical areas and you will discover their unique culture along with a plethora of customs, traditions, cuisines and even dialects.


the counties of england


But how did the English counties that we know and love today even come to be in the first place? We take a look at the fascinating history behind the geography and ask whether counties have a particular relevance to us today.

The concept of a traditional English county that we know today is ancient and an extremely interesting one. Take a deep dive back into English history and you will discover the fascinating way in how the generic term ‘county’ transitioned and eventually evolved to the way that we use the term today. 


county of england


During the Anglo-Saxon period ‘shires’ were established in England, these specific regions were created, mainly for the raising of taxes and were predominantly set around a centralised fortified town. Often the ‘shires’ were named after their shire town, for example Hertfordshire, however there were a few exceptions to this rule, such as Norfolk and Suffolk. 

Interestingly enough, it has been documented that some of our English counties even pre-date the unification of England by Alfred the Great. Ancient counties including Essex, Sussex and Kent were more like independent kingdoms. “One county, Kent, we know dates back to Julius Caesar and may well be older than that. Essex is at least 1,500 years old.” [1]


english countryside


The term ‘county’ was first used thereafter during the Norman period. Deriving from the Anglo Saxon words earl and earldom which were translated and taken as the equivalent to the continental terms of ‘count’ and ‘county’. The shires, although keeping their Saxon names slowly became known as ‘counties’. Administered by a Count or Lord, leaders of an English county held great significant power over its people, not only in the collection of taxes, but also within its administrative and ceremonial roles often in lieu of the country’s monarch.   

Aside from a slight shift during the medieval period where a number of important cities were granted the status of counties such as London, Bristol and Coventry. Amazingly, English county boundaries changed very little until 1974. It was at this time where the biggest and most significant changes were made into the modern English counties that we know and love today. 

During April 1974 there was a dramatic change in the reorganisation of local government across England and in Wales, where several historical counties completely disappeared and others emerged. All had significant boundary changes and new lieutenancies were created so that any of the new counties had the same ceremonial and administrative areas of old. At this time, we saw the introduction of a more uniform ‘two-tier’ structure abolishing the single tier county boroughs. 

Between 1995 and 1998 another gear change in local government where several of the more unpopular counties that had been born out of the previous changes in 1974 were abolished. From these changes, new unitary authorities were created meaning that each of the ceremonial or geographical English counties were either: two-tiered (Cornwall, Hertfordshire), a single unitary authority (Bristol, Isle of Wight), a number of unitary authorities (Berkshire, East Riding of Yorkshire), two-tiered with one or more unitary authorities (East Sussex, Lincolnshire), a metropolitan county (Greater Manchester, West Midlands) or Greater London.

With all of this historical background and of course relevance; what if anything, do the English counties mean to us today? Are they simply just a geographic region where we live, work or socialise or do they hold any social or ceremonial importance to us in these modern times? As like the history of the emergence of the ‘county’ itself, England has a complex rich tapestry of history and culture woven into the social fabric of each individual country.  


“I firmly believe that these counties are immensely important in giving people an identity - both a self-identity and a way of being known. You can say to anyone in 

England the names Devon or Lancashire or Yorkshire, and they will immediately have a picture of where you’re talking about”

Matthew Engel  [1]


white cliffs of dover


From Lands End to John O’Groats, there is evidence of fierce patriotism in some counties up and down the country. From displaying their own county flags, to sharing regional cuisines to the world, entire local communities partaking in ancient customs and traditions and even speaking in their own dialect.  One such example that springs to mind is Cornwall; with its famous Saint Piran’s black and white flag, Cornish pasties and Cream Teas with lashings of Cornish clotted cream, their variety of festivals such as the Midsummer Golowan and Anglo-Cornish language which is proudly spoken in some regions. 

Indeed it is true that “the tapestry of England’s historic counties is one of the bonds that draws our nation together”[2].  Our modern day English counties with all of their quirky charm, steeped in history and tradition “support the identity and cultures of many of our local communities, giving people a sense of belonging, pride and community spirit” [2]. 

What better way to celebrate this uniqueness during such a historical year for our nation - the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee than with a nod of recognition to each of our English counties with their very own County Day. Did you know that these annual days of celebration exist for each of our English County? For example, Cornwall celebrates on 5th March, Northumberland - 5th August, Live in Dorset? Then your County Day is 1st June. If you are in Kent it’s 26th May and finally residents of Somerset can raise a glass to its county on 11th May.

Our brand new series of county maps explores our rediscovered love of local. Starting the series off with the cCounty of Somerset, this traditional printed map combined with the modern art quality of our design gives this map a timeless quality. Printed on the highest quality FSC approved silk-coated paper and using a lithographic printing process. A plate is made for each colour and then laid down individually, creating a stunning print with maximum definition and impact. 





               1. Matthew Engel - History/Culture

               2. The Historic Counties of England