The Anglo-Saxon origins of the English counties
At Christmas 1085, William the Conqueror commissioned a great survey of the land and property in England. The information gathered during that survey is recorded in three manuscripts, Great Domesday, Exon Domesday and Little Domesday, which together list the information county by county. This was possible because many English counties have their roots in the very early days of Anglo-Saxon history.
Some English counties owe their names to the earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th and 6th centuries. These settlers formed small socio-political units that slowly grew into powerful kingdoms able to claim dominance over smaller kingdoms.
East engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena, and west sexena in the Tribal Hidage: British Library Harley MS 3271 f. 6v
The Tribal Hidage provides an insight into the kingdoms south of the River Humber between the 7th and 9th centuries. This document lists 35 tribes and the number of ‘hides’ assigned to each territory. A ‘hide’ may have been a unit of tribute that each territory was required to pay to an overlord. The final five groups in the Tribal Hidage may sound rather familiar; east engle, east sexena, cantwarena, suth sexena and west sexena. In their modern form, these places are East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The names of Essex, Kent and Sussex are preserved as modern counties. East Anglia and Wessex may no longer be English counties, but they were important Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and retain strong regional identities to this day.
The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum BEP 1939,1010.1
East Anglia was a powerful kingdom in the 7th century. An East Anglian king was perhaps buried in the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Norfolk and Suffolk now occupy most of the land that was once the kingdom of East Anglia, and their names have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon period. The Old English root of Norfolk is Nordfolc, which can be broken down into two elements, north and folc. These translate to ‘the (territory of) the northern people (of the East Angles)’. Similarly, the old English root of Suffolk translates as ‘the (territory of) the southern people (of the East Angles).
Items from the Staffordshire Hoard: Birmingham City Council and Stoke-on-Trent City Council
Many English counties now feature the suffix –shire, which derives from the old English scir. A shire refers to a division of land governed by a government official who became known as a ‘shire reeve’ or ‘sheriff’. Shires were often based around a prominent town or city.
The county of Staffordshire is located in what was once the heartlands of the kingdom of Mercia. Key centres of Mercian power include the ‘burgh’ at Tamworth and the bishopric of Lichfield. It was near to these centres of power, in the village of Hammerwich, that the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in 2009.
Entry for 913 in the Mercian Register: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius B IV, f. 46r
In the Mercian Register of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the entry for 913 states that Æthelflæd ‘went with all the Mercians to Tamworth and built a ‘burgh’ at Stafford.
Entry for 1016 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius IV, f. 66v
In 1016, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded King Cnut’s conquest of England. When the chronicler described Cnut’s progression northward, the army moved through ‘Staffordshire, Shropshire and into Chester’. By the 11th century, the land surrounding the burgh at Stafford had become known as Staffordshire.
The first mention of Eboracum (York) in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 8v
The city of York gave its name to England’s largest county, Yorkshire. York is first referred to in the written sources as Eboracum, which was the Latinised version of a British name meaning ‘yew-tree estate’. When Bede recounted the history of York in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he referred to the city as Eboracum. This Latin name gradually became the Old English Eoforwic, combining the Eofor- from the old name with the suffix –wic. When the Danes conquered the city in the 9th century, the Old English Eoferwic became Jórvík, which has gradually evolved to York.
Bede’s account of the Battle of Chester. Legacæstir is written at the end of the second line: British Library Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 39v
The city of Chester, from which Cheshire derives its name, was once known as Legacæstir. In the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede described a great battle in 606 between Æthelfrith, king of Northumbria, and an army from the Welsh kingdoms of Powys and Rhôs. Bede explained that the battle happened near ‘the city of the legions which is called Legacæstir by the English and more correctly Cærlegion (Chester) by the Britons’.
Entry for 980 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius B I, f. 143v
Chester’s association with its Roman history persisted into the 10th century. The entry for 980 in the C-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that ‘Legeceasterscir (Cheshire) was ravaged by a northern naval force’.
The scope and scale of English local government has incurred many changes since the Anglo-Saxon period. Although the boundaries of counties and boroughs may warp and shift, in many cases their names persist. These names have deep roots in local history, and many are first recorded on the pages of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts.
Many of these manuscripts can be viewed in person in the British Library's once-in-a-generation Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. It's open until 19 February 2019 and we recommend that you book online before you visit.
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