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County in United Kingdom

Definition of County

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of County :

A first-tier *local government area in England (outside Greater London) or Wales. The Local Government Act 1972 created 45 counties for England and 8 for Wales, dividing the former into 6 metropolitan and 39 nonmetropolitan counties. The metropolitan counties – Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, and West Yorkshire – were abolished and their functions transferred generally to district councils by the Local Government Act 1985. The Local Government (Wales) Act 1994 reorganized local government areas in Wales; on 1 April 1996 all the existing counties and *districts were replaced by 11 counties and 11 county boroughs, each administered by a single-tier (unitary) council. In some parts of England unitary authorities (see unitary authority) have replaced *county councils; this has resulted in the reorganization of certain county areas.


(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 penny of 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. 317 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. (G. J. T.)

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

Meaning of County

The following is an old definition of County [1]: Originally, a province governed by a count, – the earl or alderman to whom the government of the shire was intrusted.” A civil division of the territory of England. The terms ” the county ” and the ” people of the county” may be convertible; so, too, “the county” and the ” commissioners of the county.” The city of St. Louis, under the constitution of Missouri of 1875, though not a county as that word is ordinarily used in the constitution, is in a qualified sense a county, being a ” legal subdivision of the State ” which bears county relations to the State, and having many important attributes of a county. A county is not a corporation, but a mere political organization of a certain portion of the territory within the State, particularly defined by geographical limits, for the more convenient administration of the laws and police power of the State, and for the convenience of the inhabitants. Such organization Is invested with certain powers, delegated by the State, for the purpose of civil administration; and for the same purpose is clothed with many characteristics of a body corporate. It is a quasi corporation, for in many respects it is like a corporation. But the power to sue and be sued is expressly conferred by statute. In the Revised Statutes, or in any act or resolution of Congress, the word county shall include a ” parish ” or any other equivalent subdivision of a State or Territory. “Establishing” a county is setting apart certain territory to be in the future organized as a political community, or quasi corporation for political purposes; ” organizing ” a county is vesting in the people of the territory such corporate rights and powers. County corporate. A city or town, with more or less territory annexed, to which, out of special favor, the king has granted the privilege to be a county of itself, and not to be comprised within another county. Similar to this are the counties of Philadelphia, New Tork, and Boston. Foreign county. . Another county than the one in which a matter arises or is drawn in question. Body of a county. 1. The territorial limits of a county. See Body, 3. 2. The people of a county collectively considered. See Venue. County bridge. See Bridge. County court. 1. A name for a class of courts having civil jurisdiction in controversies of medium grade, varied powers in the charge, and care of persons and estates within legal guardianship, a limited criminal jurisdiction, appellate jurisdiction over justices of the peace, and numerous powers and duties in the administration of county affairs. 2. In England, a court of great antiquity.incident to the jurisdiction of the sheriff. It seems to have had cognizance of purely personal actions and of some real actions; but it was not a court of record. Since 1846, a tribunal, established under 9 and 10 Vict. c. 95, in upward of five hundred districts, none within the city of London; and at present invested with a common-law jurisdiction over demands not exceeding ?50, an equity jurisdiction where the amount involved does not exceed ?500, together with certain jurisdiction in probate, admiralty, and bankruptcy. County oificer. One by whom a couiity performs its usual political functions, – its functions of government; who exercises “continuously, and as a part of the regular and permanent administration of government, its public powers, trusts, or duties.” He may be the auditor, commissioner, supervisor, treasurer, or other functionary of the county. Local statutes usually designate who shall be considered county officers, and prescribe their duties. County purpose. May include only the ordinary purposes, as the ordinary expenses, of a county. County seat. See Permanent. Power of the county. The male inhabitants of a county, over fifteen years of age, whom the sheriff may command to aid him in preserving the peace, executing process, arresting felons, etc.; the posse comitatus. See Sheriff; Coroner; Warrant.


Notes and References

  1. Concept of County provided by the Anderson Dictionary of Law (1889) (Dictionary of Law consisting of Judicial Definitions and Explanations of Words, Phrases and Maxims and an Exposition of the Principles of Law: Comprising a Dictionary and Compendium of American and English Jurisprudence; William C. Anderson; T. H. Flood and Company, Law Publishers, Chicago, United States)


See Also

Local Government Commission for England; preserved county.

Further Reading

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.

English Law: County in the Past

In the English law this word signifies the same as shire, county being derived from the French and shire from the Saxon. Both these words signify a circuit or portion of the realm, into which the whole land is divided, for the better government (see more about this popular legal topic in the U.K. encyclopedia) tof this and the more easy administration of justice. There is no part of England (see more about this legal system) that is not within some county and the shire-reve, (sheriff) originally a yearly officer, was the governor of the county. Four of the counties of England (see more about this legal system) , viz. Lancaster, Chester, Durham and Ely, were called counties Palatine, which were jurisdictions of a peculiar nature and held by, especial charter from the king. See stat. 27 H. VIII. c. 25. [1]


Notes and References

  1. Partialy, this information about county is based on the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, 1848 edition. There is a list of terms of the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, including county.

See Also

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  • Article Name: County
  • Author: Agostino Von Hassell
  • Description: Definition of County In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of County : A first-tier [...]

This entry was last updated: March 26, 2020


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