Why does Britain have counties but no counts?

In Europe, a “county” originally was the fief of a count. But the rank of count has never existed in the British peerage – they use the Anglo-Saxon title of “earl.” (There are “countesses,” but only for lack of a feminine form of the Anglo-Saxon title.) So why does Britain call its local political-administrative units “counties”?

For whatever reason English nobles corresponding in rank to Continental counts are called Earls, which was the older Anglo Saxon term. Their wives however are called Countesses. (And so are countesses in their own right, if any).

It’s a holdover from the Norman invasion. The administrative subdivisions of England were originally called “shires” as the names of many of them still make clear. But after the Normans took over, they renamed them “counties” by analogy with counties in Normandy.

Scottish, Welsh and Irish counties were created later, along the same lines.

Two paragraphs from Wikipedia are enough to show that previous posters have pretty much given the answer:

Good luck understanding that! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/County
It had actually never occured to me that the words were related. And as Alive At Both Ends hints, ‘the shires’ is still a fairly common term, at least in political context, when meaning ‘rural areas of England’.

Could you expand a tad on ceremonial counties?

I wouldn’t have a clue, but again, Wikipedia is the best option. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ceremonial_counties

It’s worse than you think.

Before I moved up here to Rutland (about 16 years ago), it was the smallest county in England.
Then it became part of Leicestershire.
Then it went independent again.

So far so good.

However Rutland is not a county now. Instead it’s a ‘unitary authority’. :eek:

‘In addition in some English counties with small populations, such as Rutland, Herefordshire and the Isle of Wight, the entire county is a unitary authority.’


Thus the council is not a county council any more, just a district council.
However they want to keep their status.
So now I send my local taxes to Rutland County Council District Council. :confused:

And it’s believed the reason that they use the Anglo-Saxon term (since they were happy to use countess for the wife of an Earl) was due to issues with another old Anglo-Saxon word that is both very close to “count” and is, even today, very taboo.

Yes, the gentry is full of gents and the country is full of … counts.

So Shires had Sheriffs? :confused:

Yes - originally Shire Reeves.

Modern meaning of Sheriff in England & Wales and Scotland.

The Counties of Ontario, Canada, still have Reeves, though what they do in their official positions is something I don’t know.

Aren’t English counties considered large subdivisions, almost like provinces? In other words, it seems like most of the larger counties are quite a bit bigger than the domain of an Earl would have been in the past. Many counties seem to have ducal titles associated with them, like Bedfordshire (?), Lancaster, and Cornwall.

Lancaster is the city - Lancashire is the county. And Bedfordshire comes from the county town of Bedford.

The names of many counties have histories which reflect the local history. Cornwall is a very independent place, and the name has the same origins as the Cornish Kernow. Anglo-Saxon kingdoms provide the names of Essex, Northumberland, and Middlesex (which doesn’t exist any longer). Suffolk and Norfolk are also Anglo-Saxon names.

I’m pretty sure I’ve heard the term “earldom” used… Why wouldn’t this name be used in Britain, instead of “county”?

Canadian reeves are basically mayors except they are in charge of smaller cities.

Re. Earldoms:

Behold — East Anglia.

I’m curious. Was there ever a West Anglia? Or any other type of Anglia? Seems like you could ditch the “East” part now.

There were other tribes of Angles, but no distinct kingdom to compare with East Anglia, and they merged into Mercia.

An English county is older and more important politically than a typical U.S. or Canadian county. “Bigger” is an artifact of scale; I believe typical counties in each country are of nearly the same size, barring oddball situations that are exceptions to that principle.

Originally, shire and earl were in a one-on-one relationship, at least post Conquest. (I do not want to figure out what the Mercia that Leofric, Godwin, and Harold were Earls of was, in relation to the earlier kingdom and later counties in the area. The Earl held that county as a fief from the King, and in turn was the suzerain of his own retainers.

The title of Duke was first used in England (other than the claims of English monarchs to be Duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine in France) in 1337, as a special honor for members of the royal family; the first non-royal duke created was a favorite of Richard II in 1397.

So effectively there is a historical relationship (no longer with any special meaning) between an earldom and the county after which it is named. A shire that shares a name with a dukedom is simply the result of the earl or one of his ancestors having been “promoted,” or the later creation of a duchy “in abeyance” for an extra royal family member. (Note: as with all things British, there are two exceptions to this rule: the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall are a large number of specific non-contiguous parcels of land in London and elsewhere (including quite a bit of Cornish land but almost nothing in Lancashire) from which much of the income of the Queen and Prince Charles respectively are derived.)