COUNTY (through Norm. Fr. counté, cf. O. Fr. cunté, conté, Mod. Fr. comté, from Lat. comitatus, cf. Ital. comitato, Prov. comtat; see Count), in its most usual sense the name given to certain important administrative divisions in the United Kingdom, the British dominions beyond the seas, and the United States of America. The word was first introduced after the Norman Conquest as the equivalent of the old English "shire," which has survived as its synonym, though occasionally also applied to divisions smaller than counties, e.g. Norhamshire, Hexhamshire and Hallamshire. The word "county" is also sometimes used, alternatively with "countship," to translate foreign words, e.g. the French comté and the German Grafschaft, which connote the territorial jurisdiction of a count (q.v.). The present article is confined to a sketch of the origin and development of English counties, which have served in a greater or less degree as the model for the county organizations in the various countries of the English-speaking world which are described under their proper headings.
About one-third of the English counties represent ancient kingdoms, sub-kingdoms or tribal divisions, such as Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, Devon; but most of the remaining counties take their names from some important town within their respective boundaries. The counties to the south of the Thames (except Cornwall) already existed in the time of Alfred, but those of the midlands seem to have been created during the reign of Edward the Elder (901-925) and to have been artificially bounded areas lying around some stronghold which became a centre of civil and military administration. There is reason, however, for thinking that the counties of Bedford, Cambridge, Huntingdon and Northampton are of Danish origin. Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland were not recognized as English counties until some time after the Norman Conquest, the last two definitely appearing as fiscal areas in 1177. The origin of Rutland as a county is obscure, but it had its own sheriff in 1154.
In the period preceding the Norman Conquest two officers appear at the head of the county organization. These are the ealdorman or earl, and the scirgerefa or sheriff. The shires of Wessex appear each to have had an ealdorman, whose duties were to command its military forces, to preside over the county assembly (scirgemot), to carry out the laws and to execute justice. The name ealdorman gave way to that of earl, probably under Danish influence, in the first half of the 11th century, and it is probable that the office of sheriff came into existence in the reign of Canute (1017-1035), when the great earldoms were formed and it was no longer possible for the earl to perform his various administrative duties in person in a group of counties. After the Norman Conquest the earl was occasionally appointed sheriff of his county, but in general his only official connexion with it was to receive the third pennyof its pleas, and the earldom ceased to be an office and became merely a title. In the 12th century the office of coroner was created, two or more of them being chosen in the county court as vacancies occurred. In the same century verderers were first chosen in the same manner for the purpose of holding inquisitions on vert and venison in those counties which contained royal forests. It was the business of the sheriff (vicecomes) as the king's representative to serve and return all writs, to levy distresses on the king's behalf, to execute all royal precepts and to collect the king's revenue. In this work he was assisted by a large staff of clerks and bailiffs who were directly responsible to him and not to the king. The sheriff also commanded the armed forces of the crown within his county, and either in person or by deputy presided over the county court which was now held monthly in most counties. In 1300 it was enacted that the sheriffs might be chosen by the county, except in Worcestershire, Cornwall, Rutland, Westmorland and Lancashire, where there were then sheriffs in fee, that is, sheriffs who held their offices hereditarily by royal grant. The elective arrangement was of no long duration, and it was finally decided in 1340 that the sheriffs should be appointed by the chancellor, the treasurer and the chief baron of the exchequer, but should hold office for one year only. The county was from an early period regarded as a community, and approached the king as a corporate body, while in later times petitions were presented through the knights of the shire. It was also an organic whole for the purpose of the conservation of the peace. The assessment of taxation by commissioners appointed by the county court developed in the 13th century into the representation of the county by two knights of the shire elected by the county court to serve in parliament, and this representation continued unaltered save for a short period during the Protectorate, until 1832, when many of the counties received a much larger representation, which was still further increased by later acts.
The royal control over the county was strengthened from the 14th century onward by the appointment of justices of the peace. This system was further developed under the Tudors, while in the middle of the 16th century the military functions of the sheriff were handed over to a new officer, the lord-lieutenant, who is now more prominently associated with the headship of the county than is the sheriff. The lord-lieutenant now usually holds the older office of custos rotulorum, or keeper of the records of the county. The justices of the peace are appointed upon his nomination, and until lately he appointed the clerk of the peace. The latter appointment is now made by the joint committee of quarter sessions and county council.
The Tudor system of local government received little alteration until the establishment of county councils by the Local Government Act of 1888 handed over to an elected body many of the functions previously exercised by the nominated justices of the peace. For the purposes of this act the ridings of Yorkshire, the divisions of Lincolnshire, east and west Sussex, east and west Suffolk, the soke of Peterborough and the Isle of Ely are regarded as counties, so that there are now sixty administrative counties of England and Wales. Between 1373 and 1692 the crown granted to certain cities and boroughs the privilege of being counties of themselves. There were in 1835 eighteen of these counties corporate, Bristol, Chester, Coventry, Gloucester, Lincoln, Norwich, Nottingham, York and Carmarthen, each of which had two sheriffs, and Canterbury, Exeter, Hull, Lichfield, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Poole, Southampton, Worcester and Haverfordwest, each of which had one sheriff. All these boroughs, with the exception of Carmarthen, Lichfield, Poole and Haverfordwest, which remain counties of themselves, and forty-seven others, were created county boroughs by the Local Government Act 1888, and are entirely dissociated from the control of a county council. The City of London is also a county of itself, whose two sheriffs are also sheriffs of Middlesex, while for the purposes of the act of 1888 the house-covered district which extends for many miles round the City constitutes a county.
The county has always been the unit for the organization of the militia, and from about 1782 certain regiments of the regular army were associated with particular counties by territorial titles. The army scheme of 1907-1908 provided for the formation of county associations under the presidency of the lords-lieutenant for the organization of the new territorial army.
See Statutes of the Realm; W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (1874-1878); F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond (1897); Sir F. Pollock and F. W. Maitland, History of English Law (1895); H. M. Chadwick, Studies on Anglo-Saxon Institutions (1905), and The Victoria History of the Counties of England.
(G. J. T.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)