Counties of England, by Elaine Owen

Counties of England, by Elaine Owen

What do the counties of Hertfordshire, Derbyshire, Somerset and Kent all have in common? 

Not long ago I read about a quiz on American states that was given to somebody from England. The quiz asked, simply, “What do you know about this state?” I was pleasantly surprised when this person was able to give accurate information about almost every state. I know plenty of Americans who can’t do that!

That got me to thinking about England. England, of course, doesn’t have states; it has counties. True Janites recognize the names of Derbyshire and Hertfordshire, but what about other counties? What county is London in? How many English counties are there? As I delved into the subject I found that even a quick survey of the counties reveals fascinating facts and history, and it helped me understand regency England a little better.

Historic counties of England

Counties were put in place in England after the Norman conquest in the eleventh century, when the Normans needed to administer their new land in some kind of orderly way. But the Normans often used geographic areas that had been recognized much, much earlier- since the days of the Anglo Saxons, the Celts, and even the Romans. For example, the county of Kent (KEN on this map) dates all the way back to the fifth century, when it was a small, independent kingdom.

For centuries the counties were further divided into shires, and the sheriff of each shire was responsible for collecting taxes and carrying out other governmental functions. The largest town in each shire gave the shire its name, and sometimes those names were carried over to the corresponding county. That’s why so many counties have names ending in “shire.” (Hampshire (HAM), Lancastershire (LAN), Leicestershire (LAN), etc.) But over time cities have come and gone, borders have been redone, and some counties that you would think are named for their largest town are actually named for something quite different. 

Let’s look at Hampshire, the county of Jane Austen’s birth, as an example. After the Romans left Hampshire was occupied by Saxons and Jutes, and it was the heart of the ancient kingdom of Wessex. Its largest city was Winchester, so you would think that today the county would be called Winchestershire. But Wessex was absorbed into other kingdoms and the county was instead named for the town of Southampton. Since Southamptonshire would be quite a mouthful, it’s called Hampshire instead. 

Have you figured out yet what Hertfordshire (HRT), Derbyshire (DBY), Somerset (SOM) and Kent have in common? They all figure prominently in Jane Austen novels. Hertfordshire is the home of the Bennets, Darcy is from Derbyshire, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth the first time in Kent, and much of Persuasion takes place in Bath, which is in Somerset county.

.Some other facts about English counties:

  • In Jane Austen’s day there were thirty nine counties. Today there are forty eight. Or maybe twenty nine, depending on how you look at it. See *** below. 
  • The largest county used to be Yorkshire. To make it easier to manage it was divided into three smaller counties: North Yorkshire (NRY), West Yorkshire (WRY) and the East Riding of Yorkshire (ERY). Since then the largest county is still sometimes listed as  . . .  Yorkshire. Oh, and some maps show a South Yorkshire, too. Some don’t.. See *** below. 
  • “Riding” has absolutely nothing to do with riding a horse, and everything to do with the Danish word for “third.” 
  • Cumbria (CUL) county has the highest point in England, Scafell Point at 3,209 feet above sea level
  • Cambridgeshire (CAM) has the lowest point in England, Holme Fen, at nine feet below sea level
  • The smallest county is the City of London (LND), which is its own county. Or Rutland (R), depending on how you look at it. See ***below 
  • The most densely populated county, not surprisingly, is the City of London
  • The least populated county is Northumberland (NBL). 
  • The most visited county in England is the City of London
  • The least visited county in England? Possibly Bedfordshire (BDF)
  • The wealthiest county in England is- do we even have to say it?
  • The poorest county is the Isle of Wight. That’s the tiny island just under Hampshire.


***In recent times, historic counties were done over into administrative counties for government purposes. So England now has geographic counties, historic counties, and administrative counties.If you think that sounds confusing, you’re not the only one! 

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Mirta Ines Trupp
January 30, 2022 2:48 PM

Great information! Thanks for sharing!

Jean Stillman
Jean Stillman
January 30, 2022 10:50 AM

That was a very interesting article. THanks for sharing!

January 30, 2022 9:35 AM

My husband’s ancestors come from Yorkshire but not sure which one.

January 28, 2022 4:04 PM

So, what’s the tiny blue bit in the middle of the Yorkshires?

Elaine Owen
Elaine Owen
January 29, 2022 8:29 AM
Reply to  Ginna

Good eye! That’s the city of York, which on some maps is labeled as South York Riding. How can there be four ridings in York when riding means third, you ask? I have no idea!!!! But there it is.
Can you find Rutland?

January 30, 2022 11:07 AM
Reply to  Elaine Owen

Is it the green R below Leicestershire and Lincolnshire?

January 28, 2022 2:37 AM

Thank you for sharing! That is really interesting.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
January 27, 2022 3:29 PM

Interesting! I never knew there were so many counties and abbreviations for them in England! Whew!

J. W. Garrett
J. W. Garrett
January 27, 2022 10:11 AM

This was an interesting post. I didn’t realize there were three different ways to recognize the different locations in England. So… whether a story was medieval, Regency, or modern… the author had better have done their research. Or, as Regina said in the previous comment, they will send their character somewhere that didn’t exist. Thanks for sharing.

Regina Jeffers
January 27, 2022 6:12 AM

Some writers do not realize the names changes, and they send a character in a historical to a place which did not exist during that particular time period.

January 27, 2022 7:34 PM
Reply to  Regina Jeffers

Yes I have noticed this. There was one book that I read recently that sent the Darcys to Cumbria … the same Cumbria that was created by a 1974 administrative reorganization. In Jane Austen’s time it would have been Cumberland or Westmorland. You can look for county maps for certain years

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