Glossary:- Regional Nomenclature



The Eidgenossenschaft – the confederation of cities and country districts in Switzerland – had 8 members between 1353 and 1481, when two new members were admitted.   By 1513 it had 13 members and added no more thereafter until its abolition in 1798, but around its edges were districts that were allied to it (the Zugewandte Orte, literally the facing districts).

Three of the allies, called the associates of the Confederation, were allowed the special privilege of representation at the Diet, where they were allowed one vote instead of the two permitted to the members.   They were the Abbey ofSt Gallen (1451), the town of St Gallen (1454), and the town and district of Biel (1479).   The district of Appenzell had also been an associate between 1452 and 1513, before becoming a member.

The other allies were not as closely linked as the associates:  the Valais in the south (1416);  Neuchâtel in the west, which made everlasting alliances with Bern (1406), Fribourg (1495) and Lucerne (1501);  Mulhouse, in Alsace (1515);  Rottweil, in Swabia (1519, until it withdrew in1632);  Geneva (1526);  the Bishopric of Basle, mostly in the Jura (1579); and the largest of them all, the Grisons, in the east.   The Grisons was itself a confederation of three Leagues:  the  Gotteshausbund (formed in 1367 and allied to the Swiss Confederation in 1498);  the Grauer Bund, or Oberer Bund, (formed in 1395 and reformed in 1424, allying with the Swiss Confederation in 1497);  and the Zehngerichtesbund (formed in 1436).  The first two banded with one another in 1451;  the traditional date for the joining of all three is 1471, but there is no sure evidence until 1524.

Neither Rottweil nor Mulhouse bordered on any Swiss territory, while Neuchâtel was distinctly peculiar in that it was an hereditary principality allied with republican territories, and even more odd after 1707 in that its new Prince was the King of Prussia.

In addition to the Allied districts, there were two protected ones, the Abbey of Engleburg between Unterwalden and Uri, and Gersau, on Lake Lucerne.

In 1798 the Eidgenossenschaft was abolished and the Swiss lands formed a unitary state, the Helvetic Republic.   In 1803 a new Confederation was formed, in which the only allies remaining as Swiss territory, the St Gallen territories and the Grisons, formed cantons and were as fully members as the thirteen.   After Napoleon’s fall the lands that had been either absorbed by, or subordinated to, France, except Mulhouse, were added to Switzerland.   The Biel district and the former Bishopric of Basle were added to the Canton of Bern;  the rest became cantons in the recreated Swiss Confederation.

ALLOD   Or, alod; allodium, or alodium (Latin).

Land completely owned by its holder and free of all obligation, unlike a fief (feodum) which was land held from someone else with an obligation to provide a particular service.   Allodial land was widespread in northern Europe, including Germany.

AMT   Or, AMTSKOMMUNE (Denmark).

Territorial division of Denmark, usually translated as county.

The amt first appeared in the aftermath of the Swedish victories over Denmark in the 1650s.   Until then Denmark had been an elective monarchy.   Even though the heir by primogenture was always chosen in normal times, Kings were obliged on their election to make promises.   The charter issued on Frederick III’s accession in 1648 had made many concessions to the nobility, who held much influence in government.   The most significant local unit was the len, the fiefs of the greater nobles, which accounted for about a quarter of the land of the Danish Kingdoms.   The Church too held much land.

In 1660 Frederick III, in alliance with the burghers, moved to reduce noble power and establish hereditary succession to the Crown and an absolute monarchy.   As part of the reforms that followed, a new system of local government was introduced in 1662.   The new unit of provincial government was the amt, headed by the Amtmand.

Today there are 14 amter, plus the city of Copenhagen, which exercises the powers of both an amt and a commune (municipality).   Since the 1970s more functions have been exercised by the elected councils of the amter, instead of by the Amtmand (Prefect), who is appointed by the central government.   He retains certain responsibilities in family matters and supervises the communes within the area.

The kommune (commune/municipality) is the unit of local government.   There are 275 kommuner at present.

APPANAGE   Or, apanage (the French spelling).

Provision made for junior members of a family:  the literal meaning is the provision of bread (panus in Latin), but the word is normally used for the provision of land.   The appanaged territory remained part of the Kingdom or principality from which it was detached;  the degree of independence of the appanaged prince within his lands varied.   Sometimes he was simply the financial beneficiary of the properties;  sometimes he was the real ruler of the lands.


  1. Since 1800 the departments of France have been sub-divided into arrondissements (from 1790 until 1800 into districts).   The principal officer there is the sous-préfet (sub-prefect).   In 1926 a number of arrondissements were suppressed, but some were restored in 1933 and more between 1940 and 1943, during the Vichy regime.   There are now 325 in the 96 departments of metropolitan France.
  2. The cities (and communes) of Paris, Lyon and Marseille are also divided into arrondissements.





English name for the COMMUNIDAD AUTÓNOMA, since 1981/3 the principal territorial division of Spain.







see REGION (Italy).



The Soviet Union consisted of a number of Soviet Socialist Republics, which were each named after a predominant nationality.   Within several of the SSRs there were minority nationalities sufficiently numerous and sufficently concentrated to form ASSRs.   In the last years of the Soviet Union the Azerbaijani, Turkmen and Uzbekh SSRs each had one ASSR, the Georgian SSR had two, while the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic had 16.   The predominant nationality in all the ASSRs except one was determined by language.   The exception was the Adzharian ASSR in the southwest of the Georgian SSR where the population speaks Georgian but are mostly Moslem by faith.

Besides the ASSRs there were Autonomous Oblasts (Regions), mostly where the population was smaller than in the republics.  The Azerbaijani, Georgian and Tajik SSRs each had one, the RSFSR had five.   One of the RSFSR oblasts was unique in that it did not represent a people long resident within its area but was the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the far eastern territory of the RSFSR, lying north of the River Amur and bordering upon China.    There were also ten Autonomous Okrugs (Districts), only in the RSFSR, which were smaller still as far as population was concerned but as several of them lay in the immense Arctic region, they were enormous in area.

As the Communist regime approached its end, the Autonomous was dropped from the name of the Republics in the RSFSR late in 1990 and in July 1991 four of the five autonomous oblasts (the Jewish was the exception) were given the status of republics.

In Trans-Caucasia the former autonomous republics and oblasts, with the exception of Adjaria, have proved troublesome.   Abkazia and South Ossetia have troubled the internal affairs of Georgia since independence.   Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian in population, has been an international problem since Armenia’s intervention in what was Azerbaijan’s territory.   Tensions between the two are not eased by the fact that Nakhichevan, mainly Azeri in population, is separated from the bulk of Azerbaijan by Armenian territory.

BAD (Germany)

For modern German towns beginning with Bad (which means “spa”), see under the second part of the name;  e.g. the former Imperial Free City now called Bad Buchau will be found under Buchau.

BAVARIA ~ Administrative Regions.

During the Napoleonic era King Maximilian I Joseph had divided his Kingdom up into Kreise (Circles) for administrative purposes.   Like the departments of Napoleonic France, which he so much admired until defeat loomed, Max named the Kreise after physical features, in his case rivers.

His son, Ludwig I, broke away from the French pattern in 1837 when he rearranged the Kreise and named them after the old territorial names (two Bavarias, three Franconias, two Palatinates and one Swabia).

During the Weimar era besides the 8 administrative Kreise, which were divided into 158 Official Districts and which carried out the policies of the Bavarian government, there were 8 Kreise, with the same boundaries, for the purposes of local government, each with an elected council and an executive committee.   These Kreise were divided into Bezirke, each with their Council and Committee.

In the Land created in 1945-6 the administrative Kreise continued, though reduced to 7, because of the loss of the Pfalz Kreis to the French Occupation Zone (and eventually to the Land of Rheinland-Pfalz), but they were renamed Regierungsbezirke and they were administrative agents of the Bavarian government, not institutions of elected local government.  Bavaria was also divided up into Kreise for local government purposes, each with their elected councils.   The larger towns form Stadtkreise, of which there are now 25 altogether;  the rest of Bavaria is divided into 71 Landkreise.   The Landkreise are themselves sub-divided into Gemeinden, so that outside the larger towns local government in Bavaria is two-tier.


Schloss Mattsee - Bundesland Salzburg - Österreich

Schloss Mattsee – Bundesland Salzburg – Österreich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Federal state or province in Austria;  also called LAND.   There are nine Bundesländer altogether.

The Austrian Republic of 1918 was formed from the Crownlands in the west of the Austrian lands of the Dual Monarchy.   There were seven of them, long-established historic entities.   Two of them, Styria and Tirol, lost considerable territory in 1918/19, while Niederösterreich and Carinthia lost small strips of land.   Oberösterreich, Salzburg and the westernmost Land, Vorarlberg, were unchanged, though for a while Vorarlberg sought unsuccessfully to join Switzerland.

By the time the Constitution was setttled in 1920, nine independent Bundesländer were named as constituting the Federal State of Austria.   One of the extras was the Burgenland, the predominantly German district in western Hungary, which was ceded to Austria under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon, though it took some time for the full transfer to be made because a plebiscite was held in 1921, which allowed Burgenland’s former capital, Sopron, to remain in Hungary.   The other new Land was the city of Vienna, which was separated from Niederösterreich, the overwhelmingly most populated of the Länder.   The constitutional provision became fully effective in 1922.   Vienna and Niederösterreich remain the two Länder with most people, still together containing some 40% of Austria’s population.

The Austrian constitution of 1920 was federal;  those powers that were not allocated to the federal government belonged solely to the Länder and some of the Federal government’s responsibilities were made effective by the Länder.

A year after the Anschluss in 1938 the Nazis made changes in April 1939.   The Länder were replaced by Reichsgaue, areas which served both as provincial administrations and as Nazi Party units.

With the downfall of the Third Reich and the restoration of Austrian separateness, the Bundesländer were restored as they had been.   So the two Länder that had been abolished, Voralberg and Burgenland, were restored, and Osttirol returned to Tirol from Kärnten.

The Bundesländer, other than Vienna, are divided into Bezirke (singular: Bezirk [district]), 15 Stadtbezirke and 84 Landbezirke altogether (a Stadtbezirk has a Burgomaster at the head of the administration).   Vienna has 23 Stadtbezirke.   The Landbezirke in their turn are divided into Gemeinden (sing. Gemeinde).   The Gemeinden for the larger towns (those not qualifying as Stadtbezirke) have the status of a Stadt, for the smaller towns that of a Markt, while the more rural areas have Gemeinden pure and simple.


See LAND (Germany).


CANTON (France)

In France, a grouping of communes to form a division of an arrondissement, itself a division of a département.   In the 1790s the cantons had administrative functions but these were abolished in 1800.   The canton survived as the area of jurisdiction of a juge de paix, the judge dealing with the least important criminal cases.   Cantons have also been used for electoral purposes, at the present time for the conseil général, the elected council for the département, whose members represent the cantons.

CANTON (Switzerland)   (Fr); KANTON (Ger: plural Kantone); CANTONE (It: pl. Cantoni).

The Cantons – now twenty-three in number – are the constituent members of the Swiss Confederation.   Each has its own constitution, assembly, executive and judiciary.

In pre-Revolutionary Switzerland the normal name for a confederate member was Ort (plural Orte), meaning place, district only Fribourg, which was mixed French and German, was not predominantly German among the Orte.   Canton was used to describe the individual Confederates, in a Treaty with France in 1452 and in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, while Machiavelli called them cantoni.

Canton became the official name for the divisions of Switzerland in 1798 when the Helvetic Republic was created.   That Republic was different from the Switzerlands that preceded and succeeded it in that it was a unitary, not a federal, state, and the 19 cantons were the equivalent of the French departments.   The cantons also included all the Swiss territory of the time, unlike the earlier confederate Switzerland, where the Orte were the members, with whom other districts were allied and to whom yet other districts were subjected.

The Helvetic Republic was never widely popular and in 1803 Switzerland became a confederation again, with 19 cantons as members.   Although the number of cantons was the same, the cantons themselves were different because some of the radical reordering of the Swiss territory was undone.   All 13 members of the earlier confederation were restored (some of the smaller ones had been merged in 1798);  the remaining six cantons were formed from former allied and subject districts.   After Napoleon’s defeat the Swiss Constitution of 1803, which was of his making, was revised in 1815, and the new Constitution was approved by the Congress of Vienna.

The 19 cantons continued and were joined by 3 more, from former Swiss territory that had been taken over by France (Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva).   A 23rd Canton came into existence in 1979, when that of Jura separated from Bern, after plebiscites had been held.

The Confederation of 1815 was a weak one.   A prolonged crisis in the 1840s nearly led to war between seven of the Catholic Cantons, joined together in an alliance called the Sonderbund, and the rest.   The Constitution was revised in 1848 and gave greater powers, more clearly defined, to the federal government.   The Constitution has since been revised in 1874 and 1999.

The actual membership of the Confederation is of 26 sovereign entities, because three of the Cantons are divided into Half-Cantons (Halbkantone, demi-cantons).   These are:-  (1) Unterwalden, one of the original cantons of 1291, which was even then normally divided into Nidwalden and Obwalden;  (2) Appenzell, divided in 1597 by confessional bitterness into Inner Rhoden and Ausser Rhoden;  and (3) Basel, divided by constitutional difficulties in 1833 into Baselland and Baselstadt.   In the Ständerat, the upper chamber in the Swiss parliament, created by the constitution of 1848, each Canton has two members, those divided into Half-Cantons having one member for each half.   (Before 1848, when each canton had one vote in the Diet, if the two half-cantons in a divided canton could not agree, it was impossible to cast the cantonal vote).

The eantons are arranged in a hierarchy, principally determined by the date of joining the Confederation, thus Jura is twenty-third in the list of cantons, and twenty-sixth in the list of the self-governing bodies.   Leading the cantons, however, are Zürich, Bern, and Lucerne, which in order of admittance are in fact fifth, eighth, and fourth respectively.  The reason is that these are the three cantons which provided the place of government for the Confederation between 1815 and 1848, Zürich for the first two years, then Bern, then Lucerne, then Zürich for its second term and so on.   In 1848 the city of Bern was established as the capital but Zürich retained its primacy among the cantons.

Graubünden is the largest canton;  Zürich has most people.  Bern is runner-up to them both.  Baselstadt is the smallest half-canton and Appenzell Inner Rhoden has least people;  they are the only half-cantons smaller than the tiny Canton of Zug.   Uri is the canton with fewest people.

The cantons and half-cantons are officially abbreviated to two capital letters.   Thus Aargau, for example, is AG.

The cantons are themselves divided into Gemeinden or communes.   Just as the cantons play a vital part within the Confederation, so the Gemeinden and communes are essential within the cantons.   Citizenship, for example, is a matter which is decided by the Gemeinde or commune in which the applicant lives.   The civil servants of the United Kingdom Home Office must be astounded.

Most cantons are divided into administrative districts, called by various names (Bezirke in several, Amtsbezirke in Bern, Ämter in Lucerne, Amteien in Solothurn, distritto in Ticino, district in most French cantons, but arrondissements in Fribourg).   Each district covers the area of several Gemeinden or communes and is the local office of the cantonal government, so it is run by officials not by elected representatives.   Its officials liase between the cantonal governments and the local governments of the Gemeinden and the communes.

CANTRED   A medieval division of an Irish county, the equivalent of a hundred in an English county, later called a barony.

CANTREF  CANTREF; Welsh plural, cantrefi.  The name meant a hundred townships.  The cantref was a district in medieval Wales, in which courts were held to try cases, in which dues and taxes were collected, and within which services to the lord were carried out, but in which also the inhabitants held certain rights, and which gave those who lived a sense of common identity.

In several parts of Wales, the cantref ceased to be of importance, and was displaced by the CWMWD – anglicised as commote – which was a smaller unit, two or more cymydau making up one cantref.    In the northwest, for example, the cwmwd of Eifionydd, which included Criccieth and Pwllheli, the cwmwd of Ardudwy uwch Artro, which included Harlech, and that of Ardudwy is Artro, which lay north of the Mawddach estuary, were the effective districts, the cantref of Dunoding which had joined them merely a memory.

Some of the cantrefi that were taken into Anglo-Norman Wales were transformed into Marcher lordships, though with different practices and perhaps with altered boundaries.


In a city-state, government was republican rather than monarchical. Even if there was a monarch at the head of the state, as there was in Venice and Genoa, so long as the power operated through councils that the head of state could not control, so that he was a figure-head, the state was a city-state.   If government is monarchical, the small state is a principality rather than a city-state, like Monaco, for example, which though not big (its total population is about 30,000) is highly urbanised (with about 14,000 people per square kilometre).  It has a constitution, but its Prince still exercises considerable powers.

A city-state is not necessarily small, though it is unlikely to be large. Among the successful city-states were those in Switzerland, which gained control over the surrounding territory and in the case of Bern was almost imperial in its ambitions. The Swiss cities kept control over the territories they acquired;  their oligarchies did not share power with their acquisitions.   There was one gigantic city-state, at least in area, in medieval Europe, the Principality of Novgorod.

The Russian principalities together covered an immense area;  most of them were named after their capitals, the seats of princes of the Rurikid dynasty, but in Novgorod the power of the prince became limited to military matters and the city’s leadership controlled Novgorod and its territory.

The place where city-states flourished and abounded was medieval Italy (see next article), where with the decline of the Holy Roman Empire they became virtually independent.   In Germany many cities had a considerable degree of independence, subject only to the Emperor (see IMPERIAL FREE CITIES).   Most of the Italian cities passed under the rule of princes, either because one of their own families had taken control, like the Visconti in Milan or the Medici in Florence, or because they had fallen under the rule of another city and its oligarchy or prince, as many of the Lombard towns fell to Milan or the Veneto cities had to bow to Venice.   But many of the Imperial Free Cities in Germany survived until Napoleon’s day, sustained in near-independence by a Holy Roman Empire whose existence was tied up with the maintenance of the rights of the small states within its borders.

The term has a specific modern use in Germany.   The three Länder of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen are called Stadtstaaten – city states.   They differ from the other Länder in that their parliaments also exercise the functions of city-councils, though in the Land of Bremen, the town of Bremerhaven, which is physically separated from the rest of the Land, has its own town council.

Another cluster of little city-states was to be found along the coasts of medieval Dalmatia, but their freedom was threatened by noble neighbours, and more potently by outside powers particularly Hungary and Venice.   Only one survived as a city-state into the modern era.  Ragusa (Dubrovnik) made commercial agreements with the rising Ottoman power  in the late 14th centuy and by the mid-15th century acknowledged Ottoman suzerainty, but because it was economically an asset to the Ottoman government it retained a considerable independence.

Isolated city-states soon fell if they did not find protection, such as the institutions of the Holy Roman Empire gave to all the petty states within it, or as Ragusa found in the Ottoman Empire.  The port of Riga, which had for a long time had a fair amount of autonomy, found itself independent with the collapse of the Teutonic Order in Livonia and of the Prince-Archbishop of Riga in the late 1550s/early 1560s and it perilously hung on to its freedom while four powers tusselled in the following twenty years.   As the confusion clarified Riga submitted to Poland in 1581.   The city of Cracow was made an independent city in 1815 and the three powers that had divided Poland between them were made its protectors, but in 1846 Austria decided to annex Cracow, and Russia and Prussia agreed.

The city of Danzig was left free when the Kingdom of Prussia annexed West Prussia in 1772 but in 1793 was added to Prussia.   Napoleon restored its freedom in 1807 but after his fall Prussia again acquired it.   At the end of the First World War it was again created a Free City in the Treaty of Versailles, with the League of Nations to supervise and protect it.  In 1939, with many of its citizens willing, it was added to Nazi Germany.

The Swiss cities changed into cantons which were no longer ruled by city oligarchies so only one city state survives now.   As a city San Marino is not large, with 24,000 people, but it is 90% urban.   It still retains an oligarchic appearance, with its two principal officers only holding office for six months so that everyone has his chance of a turn and no-one has the opportunity to transform himself into a prince, but the elections now are democratic.

Besides San Marino there is the Stato della Città del Vaticano.   But this is a name.  The Vatican is a palace, not a city. Its ruler is a monarch, though of a unique variety. The Vatican City State is the outward and visible sign of the inner and spiritual grace of the Holy See.

CIVITAS   (Plural – civitates).

Roman city-community, with the chief town (the urbs) and the districts around it (called pagi, – in the singular, – pagus), which were composed of small towns and countryside.   There were several civitates in a Roman province;  the council of the civitas was responsible, among other things, for passing on the taxes to the provincial authorities.

In the later Roman period many of the civitates acquired a Bishop, so that, where there was a considerable degree of continuity between the Roman Empire and its successors, as there was in much of Gaul, the civitates became ecclesiastical dioceses. Otherwise they lost cohesion.   In the Frankish Kingdom, counts were appointed to govern the civitates, though in some it was the pagi (in French called pays) that were used.

Town and country parted ways.   Civitas – city – came to mean the town (where the Bishop lived) not a community that embraced the country.    In Italy where the Roman provincial organisation of society had been broken beyond repair in the 6th century wars involving the Ostrogoths, Byzantines and Lombards, there nonetheless remained a firmer connection at the more local level between town and country.


coat of arms of the German speaking community ...

coat of arms of the German speaking community of Belgium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Communities in Belgium are language communities, Dutch (or Flemish), French and German (Vlaamse Gemeenschap, Communauté Française, and Deutschsprachige Gemeinschaft).   The Dutch Community consists of the Dutch speakers in the Flemish provinces and in Brussels, the French Community of the French speakers in Wallonia and in Brussels, the German Community of the German speakers in part of Wallonia close to the frontier with Germany.   The (diminishing) French minority within the Flemish region belong to no community.

Following a constitutional amendment in 1970, legislation in 1971 established the Flemish and French Cultural Councils, with a number of responsibilities in cultural matters.   A German Cultural Council was created by legislation in 1973. In 1980, when regional governments were created in Flanders and Wallonia (followed in 1988 with regional government for Brussels), the French and German Cultural Councils became Community Councils, but in Flanders the new Flemish Council (Vlaams Raad) united, in one body, responsibility for the Flanders Region and for the Dutch Community. The six members of the Vlaams Raad who represent Brussels only act in Community matters because in regional government Brussels forms a separate region.

The functions of the Vlaams Raad (in respect of the Dutch Community) and of the Conseil de la Communauté Française were extended in 1988 when the central government devolved new responsibilities, especially in broadcasting and education. Cultural matters, including broadcasting, practically all education, and welfare matters like health, hospitals and family policy (except those expressly retained by the central government, for example, services for the handicapped)) belong to the communities. The Rat der Deutschsprachigen Gemeineschaft had to wait for the federalisation of the early 1990s to receive the full powers in broadcasting and education.

The Rat of the German Community has always been elected since the Community was formed in 1973. It occupied only a small corner of Belgium, in the land transferred to Belgium by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and has a population of about 60,000. For the Dutch and French Communities, the councils were formed from the members of the national parliament until the laws of 1993 (which made Belgium a federal state) provided for the election of the Vlaams Raad and the Conseil de la Communauté Française. The first elections were held in 1995.


Logo of the Odinist-Asatruar Community of Spain.

Logo of the Odinist-Asatruar Community of Spain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Comunidades Autónomas were created in Spain, 1978-83.   The Constitution of 1978 provided frameworks for the several Statutes of Autonomy that lay out the powers of each community.

There had been earlier attempts to provide autonomy for areas of Spain, but all had been short-lived. Spain was a centralist state under the Bourbon Kings in the 18th century and the liberal regimes of the 19th century, but there were alternatives which briefly established themselves in power.

One was Carlism, the movement that supported the claims of Don Carlos and his heirs to the throne after 1833. It was reactionary and clericalist, and never controlled much of Spain in either of the two Carlist Wars of the 1830s and 1870s.   It had widespread support, away from the cities, in the Basque Country and in Navarre, where ancient rights had survived within the Kingdom of Castile and had not been lost when the Bourbons established themselves, and also in the mountainous regions of Catalonia and Aragón, provinces that had been reduced in status as a result of the Bourbon succession to the throne of Spain in the early 18th century.

The defeats of Carlism led to the Basque fueros (their special rights) being abolished in two stages, in 1839 and 1876. Navarre also lost some important privileges but some of its fueros survived, even through the era of Franco’s rule.   They were saved by the ardent Catholic and conservative support in Navarre for the military, nationalist cause, 1936-9, so that not even Franco, to whom autonomy was deeply repugnant, could deprive Navarre of its remaining liberties.

Far removed from the nostalgic reaction of Carlism, 19th century republicanism in Spain was federalist in outlook. It briefly took office in 1873-4 after the departure of the second monarch of Spain to lose the throne in five years, but fell before the Cortes it had summoned had created a federal constitution. One of the reasons was the inability of the First Republic to control local seizures of power (called cantonalism) in the Levante and in Andalusia. In 1875 the Bourbon dynasty was restored, attractive once more to those who feared anarchy.

By the time that the Second Republic replaced the monarchy in 1931 nationalism was a considerable force in both Catalonia and the Basque Country. Both regions had undergone an industrial revolution, in both there had been a revival of literature written in their languages, in both new nationalist parties had emerged that had support in the cities, whereas Carlism had been largely rural. Catalonia in particular caused problems for the government in the first two decades of the 20th century. Concessions were made, particularly in 1913 when the four provincial councils in Catalonia were united to form the Mancomunitat (Association), which thus became an elected body for all Catalonia. It was suppressed by the incoming military dictator, Primo de Rivera, in 1923.

When the King left Spain in 1931 the leaders of the Catalonian Left proclaimed Catalonia a Republic within an Iberian Federation.   They were persuaded to abandon the proclamation and to establish a provisional committee that would negotiate with the central government the terms for a Statute of Autonomy. Once it had been approved the Statute was put to a referendum and the new autonomous government was established in 1932.

It was suspended in 1934 after defying the rightwing central government, elected in 1933, on agrarian law, which had been reserved to the Spanish government in the Statute of Autonomy, but autonomy was restored with the victory of the Popular Front in the elections of 1936. The Constitution of 1931 permitted groups of provinces to seek autonomy if they so chose. In 1932 the Basque region, Galicia and Andalucía were all looking at the possibility. Of these, only Basque autonomy came about, and then not until 1936. The Galicians were less fortunate. A referendum there overwhelmingly approved a Statute of Autonomy in 1936 but the Civil War broke out in the following month.

The fear of the break-up of Spain was one of the reasons for the military and rightwing revolt against the Spanish government in 1936. Basque autonomy was destroyed in 1937, and Catalan in 1939, along with the Republican government itself.  Franco’s regime would have no truck with any autonomy, except for the medieval survivals in Navarre, the region from which some of his best troops had come.

With his death in 1975 his conservative successors were well aware that a stable Spain that eschewed repression would have to accommodate both Catalan and Basque nationalism, but without casting doubt upon the integrity of Spain, because that might invite a military intervention in defence of the state. Catalan nationalism had been a major player in Spanish politics for nearly a century: even when deprived of the right to express itself its shadow had still lain across the minds of those who feared it. Because a section of Basque nationalism had gone violent in recent years, despatching government officials, army officers and even, in 1973, the Prime Minister of Spain to their deaths, there was a problem of presentation for conservatives favouring concession. Would not concession mean surrender?

Fortunately there is a third non-Castilian language in Spain, besides Catalan and Basque, which is spoken by a significant number of people.   Most of its speakers were themselves conservative in temperament, Catholic in religion, and most unlikely to throw bombs at anyone.  The Galicians, who had once approved of autonomy, also ranked as an “historic nationality”.

The intention was to create autonomous communities (Comunidades Autónomas) for these three and any other province or group of provinces that might seek such a status.  Community was chosen because its meaning was not loaded, one way or the other, as federal state or region would have been.   It also has the advantage of being simple and meaningful.   While the constitution was being drafted in 1977-8 a process of discussion was going on to sort out the areas that might form such communities, but the Constitution of 1978 did not actually establish any particular community or define any boundaries.    What it did was to state what powers would belong to the communities if they were established (Article 148) and what powers were entirely reserved to the central government (Article 149).   It also provided mechanisms that would bring autonomy into effect.  The most important of them would be the Statute of Autonomy for each community, which would among other things sort out what powers the community should have in addition to those set out in article 148.

As the historic nationalities, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, had all approved Statutes of Autonomy in the 1930s they were privileged in that they did not have to apply to the central government for consideration as autonomous communities, but could begin the negotiations for their Statutes of Autonomy.   Those for the first two were approved in 1979 and successfully submitted to a referendum;  their parliaments were elected in 1980. Galicia’s Statute was approved by the central government and in a referendum in 1980, and its parliament elected in 1981.

The other potential communities had to follow one of two routes.   The first, laid down in Article 143, necessitated lengthy consultation to ensure the approval of a sufficient number of municipalities within the area before the application to central government to become a community.   The new community would then have the powers set out in Article 148.   After five years it could seek to extend its powers by getting parliamentary approval for the amendment of its Statute of Autonomy.   The five years wait for more extensive powers led to this particular method being called the slow route.

The alternative route (provided in Article 151) was faster than the five year wait in securing the greater powers, but more cumbersome in the early stages, because not only were there consultations within the area and negotiations with central government concerning the powers, but the Statute agreed between Madrid and the proposed community had to be submitted to a referendum. Nor did a majority suffice;  a majority was also required in each province in the proposed community.

This “fast” route was the one chosen by Andalucía, the region with the most people and with a great deal of poverty. Unlike the historic nationalities it had no separate language of its own, though it had a profound sense of identity.   It wanted to be on an equality with the frontrunners.   Early in 1980 the Statute of Autonomy was submitted to a referendum.   There was a clear majority in Andalucía as a whole, but a narrow majority against in one of the eight provinces, Almería.   The Statute was somewhat modified, even if the Constitution had not envisaged second chances, and was resubmitted to a referendum in October 1981.   This time both Andalucía as a whole and Almería in particular approved.

That Andalucía would seek to be an autonomous community cannot have been a surprise but that every potential community should dash for the status in the early 1980s was.   The government, with the agreement of the principal opposition party, the Socialists, tried to prevent any other region using the fast route with its risk of jiggery-pokery if the referendums followed Andalucía’s pattern.   Legislation was passed in 1981 to ensure that central laws took precedence in those areas where powers could be held by either the central government or the communities (this legislation was later rendered largely void by the Supreme Court).

The Act was passed not long after the failed coup in Madrid led by a colonel of the Civil Guard, a coup that had also seen a general bring his tanks out on to the streets of Valencia. Although the coup had only lasted a day and a half there remained a fear that the army might be provoked into defending the unity of Spain as fiebre autonómica (devolution fever) – alternatively called the demand for café para todos (coffee all round) – gripped the regions of Spain.

It soon became clear that the failed coup would not be repeated.   Most of the military had been uninvolved and the rising had been suppresssed by soldiers and police.   Public opinion showed no sign of hankering for a return to an authoritarian regime.   As far as the fears that devolution fever would provoke a crisis were concerned, it may well be that the opposition which the heartlands of Castile, historically so influential in Spanish government and still of major importance within the army, had previously shown to special treatment for Catalonia had been dissolved by the offer of “coffee all round”.

So all of Spain, with the exception of the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast, became divided into autonomous communities, with 13 more parliaments being elected in 1983 (Ceuta and Mellila received a degree of autonomy in 1994 with legislatures replacing their municipal councils).   Ten of the communities had gone by the “slow route”.  The Canary Islands and Valencia received rather more powers by a modified slow route.   Navarre had some rights surviving from the middle ages, and its autonomy amounted to an adjustment of those rights.

Each community has a single-chamber parliament, elected for four years, and an executive – called by different names, which arise from the history of the various communities – headed by a President.   It also has its own high Court of Justice.

Important adjustments were made in the 1990s, particularly between 1992 and 1994 when the central government devolved some of its powers to the ten communities which had the minimum powers set out in Article 148.   These included powers concerned with university education and social services, but health was not included as most of the ten did not wish that complex and costly matter to come to them.    There were also arrangements whereby the communities retained part of the taxation collected instead of receiving grants from the central government.   Three of the poorer communities, Extremadura, Castilla y León and Galicia, were exempted from this change, which would have reduced their incomes.   It at least partly came about because this was an old fueral right that was allowed to the Basque Country and Navarre in their States of Autonomy.   Catalonia cast a jealous eye on the arrangement and helped to bring about the change.   Central government was not opposed:  it wanted the communities to take more financial responsibility.

History mostly formed the communities that emerged in the late 1970s.   Galicia, Asturias, the Basque Provinces, Navarre, Aragón, Catalunya, Valencia, Andalucía, Extremadura are more or less what they were five hundred years ago after the conquest of the Kingdom of Granada and the exclusion of French Navarre.

The islands – the Canaries, the Balearics – are defined by geography.   In the remainder of Spain – the vast interiors of Old and New Castile, plus Cantabria on the coast of Biscay and Murcia on the Mediterranean – the historical regions have been modified, though not beyond recognition.

In the south of the interior lay the historic region of New Castile, divided into five provinces.   But one of them, Madrid, was quite different from the rest.   The city of Madrid, with more than half the population of the province, dominates it, and indeed the city by itself has more than twice as many people living in it than the remaining provinces of New Castile -Ciudad Real, Toledo, Cuenca and Guadalajara – put together.   This imbalance, impossible to do anything about except by destroying Madrid, led to the province of Madrid becoming one of the communities.   The rest of New Castile was joined with the province of Albacete, long associated with the old Kingdom of Murcia, to form Castilla-La Mancha.   This left the province of Murcia, which had long had a separate history, to became another one-province autonomous community.   It has more than a million people;  five of the communities have fewer.

North of the Guadarrama Mountains lay the old Kingdoms of León and Old Castile.   Two of the provinces associated for centuries with Old Castile, Santander on the Cantabrian coast, and Logroño, on the River Ebro, could claim a distinct historic identity, and they became the communities of Cantabria and La Rioja.   That left León and Old Castile proper.   Historically the boundary between them had become confused as Castile had expanded at León’s expense.   The combined region was sparsely populated:  Valladolid, easily the most densely populated of its provinces, with 61 people per square kilometre, was well below the average for Spain as a whole (80).

Given the sparsity of its population, the decision was taken to form one community, Castilla y León, from the region.   There has been some resentment in León, and a Leonese People’s Party took two seats (out of 84) in the community parliament in 1995.  León had been a Kingdom, whereas Cantabria had only been a Duchy, and that well back in the mists of time, while La Rioja had been a disputed territory beween Navarre and Castile and then province.   The three indisputably Leonese provinces (León, Zamora and Salamanca) have a population over 1,110,000, four times as many as La Rioja, and a greater population than five of the other communities, so there were reasonable grounds for those Leonese who felt their land hard done by.

In the seven single-province communities (Madrid, Asturias, Cantabria, La Rioja, Navarre, Murcia and the Balearic Islands) there is no provincial council, its functions being performed by the parliament.   The governor too has tended to disappear.   The central government has its own representative in each autonomous community, the delegado del gobierno.   The delegado represents the State at official functions within the area of the community and he also superintends the work of the civil governors of the provinces, so the tendency has been for the delegados in single-province communities to act as the governor as well.


See COMMUNITY (Spain).




  1. For the territory of a Count, see under COUNT;
  2. The longest serving territorial division in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (see following articles);
  3. County also serves as the normal translation for the territorial divisions of the Scandinavian countries (the AMT in  Denmark,  the FYLKE in Norway, and the LÄN in Sweden) and of three countries historically associated with Hungary (the MEGYE in Hungary itself, the ZUPANIJE in Croatia, and the JUDEȚ  in Romania).


The county has been the principal territorial division of England for more than a thousand years. The Anglo-Saxon name was SHIRE, a related word to our shears:  the Kingdom was cut up into shires.  The counties were the creation of Kings and their servants, and served as judicial, fiscal, military and administrative areas. When the Normans took England over in the 11th century, they brought the word comté, anglicised as county, with them.  The Count in most of the comtés into which Normandy was divided was the Duke, who was represented in each comté by a vicomte, an officer quite similar to the sheriff, who had become the principal officer in each shire during the 11th century.


Most of the English counties were created by the Kings of Wessex. The first known mention of one that has –shire as a suffix is Hampshire, in the heart of Wessex, in 755 or 757, though whether its extent was similar to later Hampshire and what its functions were are not known. The -shire suffix has also been used for groups of estates, for example Hallamshire and Howdenshire in Yorkshire, and it may be that the Hampshire of the 750s is a grouping of the royal estates in the vicinity of Southampton. The administrative shire appeared in Alfred’s reign, or quite possibly earlier, with Wessex divided into Hampshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire, and the western settlements of Somerset and Dorset.

Wessex took over other Kingdoms (Sussex, Kent and Essex) during the 9th century and treated them as shires. It is likely that the western lands of Essex, which became the counties of Middlesex and Surrey, were divided into districts while it was still a Kingdom. East Anglia had certainly been divided into the districts of the North and South Folk, and these continued as counties, after Wessex had taken them over from the Danes in the 10th century.

In the far west, the last British Kingdom lost its eastern lands in the 8th century and these became Devon. When the surviving Kingdom was suppressed, Cornwall emerged as a county. Beyond the Trent and the Humber the Scandinavian Kingdom of York fell temporarily in 927, permanently in 954, to a Wessex that had become England. Its territory was not carved up into shires but became the biggest of all the counties.

The other Scandinavian lands fell to Wessex earlier than Yorkshire, mostly in the 910s. These were mostly old Mercian territory, which had been reorganised by the Danish settlers. Certain towns served as rallying points and meeting-places for the settlers living around them, so that there was an existing structure that could be readily taken over as shires. Hertford, Bedford, Cambridge, Huntingon, Northampton, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Derby, all became the chief towns of shires that were named after them. In several cases the existing Danish rallying area was simply taken over to form a shire, but in others adjustments were made.  Hertfordshire, for example, was formed  by joining together former Danish-held territory on the left bank of the River Lea and land on the right bank that had remained under English control.

Another example is inferred rather than proven as a fact. Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Derby, which all became the heads of shires, formed most of the federation of the Five Boroughs, the fifth of which was Stamford. It therefore seems virtually certain that there was a potential Stamfordshire, but either it was not treated as a shire by the English or it was later abolished. The Stamfordshire that disappeared may be represented by the Parts of Kesteven within Lincolnshire, to which Stamford belonged until 1974, and by tiny Rutland, the only county south of the Humber and Mersey to be created after the Conquest, whose eastern border was only two or three miles from Stamford.

Western Mercia, which had remained under English control when Alfred agreed to divide England with the Danes, was added to the Kingdom of Wessex by Edward the Elder. When the region was shired, some time in the 10th century, the old structure of Mercia – which survived in the medieval dioceses of Lichfield, Worcester and Hereford until the reign of Henry VIII – was ignored and some of the fortified towns (Buckingham, Oxford, Warwick, Worcester, Gloucester, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Stafford and Chester) were used to provide the chief towns of shires.

The lands of northern England, except for Yorkshire, were not shired until well after the Norman Conquest. In the northeast, after several attempts to continue with the Northumbrian Earldom north of the River Tees, the King gave considerable powers to the Bishop of Durham over part of the territory, so that two counties, Northumberland and Durham, emerged east of the northern Pennines. In the far northwest, the shiring only followed upon the taking into the English kingdom of the lands south of Solway Firth and the valley of the River Eden, which was only finally settled in 1157. They were married with lands to the south, and two counties, Cumberland and Westmorland, were formed, which each had teritory that had been in the Scottish kingdom before 1092 and territory that had been counted as the northwestern fringes of the immense county of Yorkshire in Domesday Book.

Further south, Lancashire was an odds and ends sort of place, collected together in the late 11th century as a result of the lands between the Mersey and the Ribble, those between the Ribble and the Lune, the valley of the Lune, and the lands north of Morecambe coming into the hands of one lord. He lost them in 1102, but they were later brought together again, and Lancashire was the accidental consequence.

The counties before 1888.

The counties created by the West Saxon and Norman Kings lasted for centuries. The principal officer at first was the ealdorman, but during the 10th century ealdormen began to be responsible for groups of counties, a process that continued in the 11th century, when they became known as earls. After the Norman Conquest the earls lost their provincial role and many counties were without an earl, so that the sheriff had become the most important officer within the county.

The sheriff still survives, largely ceremonial in function, the actual duties still attached to his office being performed by underlings. Other officers, such as the coroners, first appointed in the reign of Richard I, took over some duties. For the important judicial function of the early shires, the King’s own judges were sent out from London to take charge of justice from the reigns of Henry I and Henry II.

In the reign of Edward III, Justices of the Peace took over the responsibilities for dealing with lesser cases and for considering whether the evidence in a major case warranted referral to the King’s Justices. They also were given over the centuries an increasing number of administrative responsibilities, for rivers, bridges and roads, for weights and measures, for the poor and many other local matters, that made them, local landowners, an important part of the government of the country.  In the 16th century the military responsibilities of the sheriffs were given to new officers, the Lord Lieutenants of the counties, who were appointed from among the greatest of nobleman and so were the social leaders of their counties.  The Justices were appointed on the recommendation of the Lord Lieutenants, who thereby held considerable powers of patronage.

Even in the days when the sheriffs were  powerful officers, the counties and sheriffdoms were not identical in every case, because some sheriffs were appointed for two counties. Until the Tudor era the sheriff for Norfolk was also the sheriff for Suffolk;  Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire also had a joint sheriff, as did Somerset and Dorset, Essex and Hertfordshire, and Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire .  Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, with separate sheriffs in the Norman era and for a few years in the reign of Charles I, otherwise had a common sheriff for centuries, anticipating to some fair degree the modern county of Cambridgeshire.

Sheriffs might well have various areas seemingly within their county over which they had no jurisdiction. These were liberties or franchises, where the lord of the liberty exercised the royal powers, not the sheriff. Many liberties were small –  an abbey’s buildings and little more, for example – but some were large. The Isle of Ely, for example, was an extensive liberty under first the Abbey at Ely and then the Bishop. Most of western Suffolk formed a liberty for the Abbey of Bury St Edmund’s and southeastern Suffolk another one for the Prior and Church at Ely. (Thus the joint sheriff for the two East Anglian counties was not too greatly burdened with Suffolk, large parts of which lay outside his jurisdiction). Those liberties that remained in Henry VIII’s reign were either abolished then or greatly restricted, to be finally abolished in the 19th century, so that they did not affect the jurisdiction of the Lord Lieutenant, an office created after Henry’s death.

There were other areas where the sheriff of the county had no jurisdiction, though the Lord Lieutenant did. Between 1373 and 1692 certain towns and cities were granted either one or two sheriffs. These were, like Bristol, the first of them, a county of a city (or a city and county in itself) or, like Nottingham until 1897, when it became a city, a county of a town, etc.  They were also called counties corporate. Besides these, the sheriffs of the City of London were also sheriffs of Middlesex from the reign of King John and from the reign of Edward IV were elected by the City, which thus imposed its sheriffs on Middlesex. Berwick-upon- Tweed was an entity on its own. The last survivor of English territory in Scotland, it had its own sheriff.

In parts of England, notably from Shropshire and Staffordshire southwards to Wiltshire and Berkshire, the map was complicated by a county having within it enclaves of territory belonging to other counties and having without it exclaves of its own territory within the borders of its neighbours. In the case of County Durham, the bulk of the county lay between Tyne and Tees, but the north of the county, which bordered on Scotland, was separated from the main body by the length of Northumberland, within which Durham also had an small exclave in Bedlingtonshire. Most of these anomalies were removed during the 19th century, either in an Act of 1844, in the Divided Parishes Acts of 1876, 1879 and 1882, or the Local Government Act of 1888. After 1888 Dudley remained an enclave (of Worcestershire within Staffordshire), Lancashire north of Morecambe Bay was still cut off by land from the rest of the county, and the convoluted border areas between Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire had to wait until an Act of 1931 tidied them up.

Administratively the counties were divided into hundreds (most of England) or wapentakes (former Danish England) or wards (in the three northernmost counties) or lathes (Kent) or rapes (Sussex). These were tax, military and law & order districts, still used for registration purposes into the 20th century. In a few counties there was an intermediate division between the county and the equivalent of the hundred. The two largest counties were divided:  in Yorkshire’s case into three Ridings, in Lincolnshire’s, into three Parts. Other counties, like Sussex and Suffolk, had divisions (in these two counties, between East and West).

Yorkshire’s three Ridings were special in that each had its own Lord Lieutenant and Commission of the Peace, so that in these respects the Ridings had the appearance of counties. There was however one sheriff for Yorkshire, though York, as a city and county of itself, had its own.

The counties, 1888-1965/74.

The Local Government Act of 1888 created elected county councils, to which most of the administrative functions of the Justices of the Peace were transferred (they retained licensing and their duties in relation to police administration). Passed by a Conservative Parliament, the Act was conservative in that the tidied up ancient counties of England remained the basis of local government. There were 39 ancient counties, counting Yorkshire as one county, or 40, if Monmouthshire is regarded, as was common then, as an English county. (It did not matter so far as the Act was concerned whether it was regarded as English or Welsh as the Act of 1888 dealt with England and Wales).

Every ancient or historic county received an elected county council, but some received more than one. It can have been no surprise that the three Ridings of Yorkshire each had an elected council, but the second largest county, Lincolnshire, also had three councils, one for each of the Parts. Sussex, long informally divided, received councils for West and East. So did Suffolk:  in its case, the creation of West Suffolk separate from East, was the echo of an ancient and abolished division within the county, the liberty of the Abbey of Bury St Edmund’s, which had once held most of western Suffolk. Two other ancient ecclesiastical liberties re-emerged as areas for county councils:  the Isle of Ely was separated from Cambridgeshire and the Soke of Peterborough from Northamptonshire. The physically separate Isle of Wight became administratively separate from Hampshire.

One entirely new county was created. The county of London was formed from parts of Middlesex, Surrey and Kent. There were thus 49 County Council areas or administrative counties altogether (50 with Monmouthshire) in England.

The Act of 1888, besides creating a new county for the London built-up area, also separated the larger towns and cities from the administrative counties. The existing counties of cities or towns, except for the two smallest, together with boroughs over 50,000 in population were made county boroughs and as such exercised all the powers and functions given to county councils.

They were therefore entirely independent administratively, but remained part of the county so far as the Lord Lieutentants were concerned. All the counties corporate, including Lichfield, Poole and Berwick, which did not became county boroughs, retained that status (they were to be finally abolished by the Act of 1972);  the other county boroughs continued to come under the jurisdiction of the High Sheriff of the county. The administrative county plus the county boroughs, if any, made up the geographical county.

The creation of new adminstrative counties did not increase number of the Lord Lieutenants, except for the Isle of Wight and the county of London. Lincolnshire, Sussex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire remained united counties so far as the Lord Lieutenants were concerned.  There were thus 43 ceremonial counties, to use a later expression (44 including Monmouthshire).

As time went by the ceremonial counties (the geographical counties in all but five cases) tended to become identified with the historic counties. The ancient enclaves became forgotten.

Changes in 1965.

By an Act of 1963, a new county of Greater London was created, absorbing all the county of London and most of Middlesex, which was abolished, the remainder of its territory – around Staines – being added to Surrey. Surrey, Kent, Essex and Hertfordshire also lost territory to Greater London. The Act went into effect in 1965.

In the same year two new administrative counties were formed, one by uniting Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely, the other by uniting Huntingdonshire and the Soke of Peterborough. The number of administrative counties was therefore reduced to 46 (47 with Monmouthshire, though by 1965 Monmouthshire was generally accepted to be Welsh).

The 1960s also saw a resumption in the creation of county boroughs, suspended since the early 1930s.  One of those created broke new ground. In 1968 Middlesborough, itself a county borough, Stockton-on-Tees, and parts of southeastern Durham and northeastern Yorkshire formed the new county borough of Teeside. Some previous creations of county boroughs had led to adjustment of historic county boundaries, but Teeside was the first county borough that deliberately ignored the ancient boundaries but was formed from two historic counties. Its creation was a recognition that in some parts of the country at least the old county boundaries made little sense, and set the scene for the Act of 1972, which among other things abolished this still infant county borough.

The 1974 counties.

By an Act passed in 1972 the system that resulted from the Acts of 1888 and 1894 (when urban and rural districts and civil parishes were created) was swept away. Where the 1888 reform had accepted the historical counties as the basis of the new system, the 1972 Act abolished some counties and created new ones, particularly in the areas of greatest population. Six new metropolitan counties were created for the larger conurbations and three new non-metropolitan counties for the lesser conurbations of the Bristol/Bath region (Avon), Teeside (the 1968 county borough writ rather larger as Cleveland) and Humberside.

The administrative counties of the three Ridings and the three Parts of Lincolnshire were all abolished. The two Suffolks merged, as did Worcestershire and Herefordshire. The recently created Huntingdom & Peterborough was absorbed into an enlarged Cambridgeshire.

The small counties of Westmorland and Rutland disappeared, though the latter only disappeared as a county (unlike Westmorland, it remained a district, though that did little to console its injured amour propre). Cumberland too ceased to be, but as it became the larger and more populous part of the new county of Cumbria of which its chief town, Carlisle, was the administrative centre, it could be argued that it was enlarged and renamed rather than simply abolished, as Westmorland certainly was..

Other counties lost or gained slabs of territory.  The geographical county of Lancashire was the most transformed, losing all its heavily populated southern districts to two metropolitan counties and to Cheshire and the lands north of Morecambe Bay to Cumbria, but gaining the east of the Forest of Bowland and the west of the district of Craven from the defunct West Riding.

The result of the Acts of 1963 (reforming the government of London) and 1972 was a much simplified system. There were the County of Greater London, 6 Metropolitan Counties and 39 Non-Metropolitan Counties. Each of these was divided into districts (London boroughs, metropolitan and non-metropolitan districts).. The former county boroughs were abolished;  the districts that replaced them had some of the local government functions, the rest belonging to the county council. Large towns, small towns, countryside were all on the same footing:  two-tier local government.

The distinction that existed was in the allocation of functions. The metropolitan district councils were responsible for some matters that in the non-metropolitan counties were the responsibility of the county councils, notably education.  Just as there was no longer any difference between administrative and geographical counties, there was no difference between them and ceremonial counties either. Each of the counties created in by the Acts of 1963 and 1972 had a Lord Lieutenant, and they alone.  So the administrative, geographical and ceremonial counties were one and the same by 1974, when the Act of 1972 became effective.

The Act was intended to provide greater efficiency, but it came at a time when local government was not particularly popular and the new buildings for some of the new authorities and the new jobs, with greater salaries, for some of the senior employees caught the public eye.  There were some enforced marriages, like Humberside or Bristol and Bath in Avon, that were much disliked locally;  there were the embittered loyalists of big Yorkshire and small Rutland;  there were cities like Bristol and Southampton, with long years of separate government, that had lost their status as education authorities because they were in non-metropolitan counties, to see entirely new creations like Tameside in Greater Manchester or Knowsley in Merseyside become responsible for the largest single item of local government expenditure because they belonged to metropolitan counties.

Nor was the new system helped by the need that arose a few years later for central government to limit expenditure at the behest of the International Monetary Fund while the councils were still new. The most dramatic changes in local government had taken place in the conurbations, where mainly Labour authorities, some of them of militant character, were within six years of the changes to be facing the unfriendly face of Thatcherite Conservatism.

Changes, 1986-2000.

The first casualties of the Conservative years were the Greater London Council and the six Metropolitan County Councils, leaving the London and Metropolitan boroughs as the sole elected local authorities (unitary authorities) in the seven counties. The counties, however, remained as ceremonial counties, with their Lord Lieutenants.

The Conservative government set up a new Local Government Commission in 1992 to consider changes in England outside Greater London and the metropolitan counties. The government’s clear hope was that a system of unitary authorities would be established, but the Commission was in fact to recommend that in some areas there should be unitary authorities while in others the county/district structure should continue. The changes that were made were implemented in four successive years, 1995 to 1998, beginning with just one change in 1995, when the two district councils on the Isle of Wight were abolished, to leave the county council as a unitary authority.

Besides the Isle of Wight, two more counties became unitary authorities. Herefordshire separated from Hereford & Worcester, and had one local authority, the county council (Worcestershire, on the other hand, continued with a county council and district councils). Rutland, which had been reduced to a district within Leicestershire, became a separate county once again.

In 19 counties, one or more districts became unitary authorities while the county council continued. These counties are sometimes called hybrid counties, where some districts share functions with the county while one or more unitary authorities exercise them all themselves. These counties remind one of the distinction made before 1972 between administrative counties (the area under the county council) and geographical counties (the administrative county plus the county borough(s)).

In 15 counties (including Worcestershire) there are the county council and district councils but no unitary authorities.

One county, Berkshire, is entirely composed of unitary authorities, but although the county council has been abolished, the ceremonial county, headed by the Lord Lieutenant, remains.

Three counties, all first created by the 1972 Act, have been entirely abolished (Avon, Humberside and Cleveland). For administrative purposes they have been replaced by twelve unitary authorities. Their Lord Lieutenants have also been abolished. Two new Lord Lieutenants have been appointed, for Bristol and for the East Riding of Yorkshire (whose Lord Lieutenant includes Hull within his area).

The remaining unitary authories come under the Lord Lieutenant of the county whence they originally came (Somerset, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Durham and North Yorkshire [as heir to the North Riding]). One of them, Stockton-on-Tees, is divided by the River Tees, the old county boundary, and so is ceremonially in Durham north of the river and North Yorkshire south of it.

The abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 meant that London was the only European capital city without some overall local authority. The elections of the Mayor of London and of a London Assembly in 2000 were intended to make good the deficiency, but whether the limitations placed on the authority by legislation and the financial constraints imposed by the Treasury will seriously limit the new London institutions is not yet clear.

COUNTY ~ Ireland

With the Anglo-Norman takeover of much of Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries, the model of the English shires was used for some of the lands. There was a shire of Dublin before 1200. In the course of the 13th century shires were created in eastern Ireland (Louth, Meath and Carlow), in the west (Roscommon and the large shire of Connacht), and in the south (Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary).  There were also liberties where the lord exercised the royal powers, as there were in England, but in Ireland they were more important. The lords of Ulster (the eastern lands, not the whole province), Trim, Wexford and Kilkenny were men of great power.

In addition to these Anglo-Norman areas much of Ireland remained in the hands of Gaelic petty kings and chieftains. Ireland was similar to Wales, where there were counties where the King’s Sheriff operated, lordships whose rulers, though subjects of the King, exercised regal powers, and native rulers. But in Ireland royal power was rather more manifest in the 12th and 13th centuries, partly because Henry II had determined in 1171 to make sure that those Welsh Marcher lords who had exported themselves to Ireland should not turn distance into independence, and partly because he had given the Lordship of Ireland to his youngest son, John, which gave an English prince and later King a direct interest in the island.

As royal power retreated in the 14th and 15th centuries, partly from local circumstances but largely because England’s energies had turned southwards towards France, some shires became liberties and Gaelic princes extended their sway. Royal Ireland was pushed back to the eastern coasts and only survived at times by placing it under one of the great magnates of Anglo-Norman descent.

The Tudors reasserted royal power. As it extended, the old shires were resurrected and then all of Ireland was brought into the county system in the later Tudor and early Stuart period.  The liberties as well as the Gaelic kingdoms disappeared (that of Ormond – the county palatine of Tipperary – came into the hands of the Crown in 1621 but was regranted to the first Duke of Ormonde in 1664 and only finally abolished in 1716).

Central Ireland was shired in mid-century;  Connacht was broken up into shires in the 1560s and 1570s;  Ulster was shired in the 1580s, at least in name, though actual royal power was not fully established there until the new century and the next dynasty. In the making of the shires the existing Gaelic districts were taken into account, so that the 32 counties of Ireland were not entirely arbitrary creations but kept some links with Ireland’s past.

They mostly took their names from a town, an innocuous form of nomenclature, but some old names survived, including Tyrone, an anglicised form of Tir Eoghan, the land of Eoghan or Owen, the legendary son of Niall of the Nine Hostages and founder of the Cenél Eoghan, one of the branches of the Northern Uí Néill. The county was formed in 1585, at a time when the English were seeking to entice the O’Neill, the great chieftain of those parts.

The equivalent of the hundred in an English county was the barony, though in the medieval counties the term cantred, related to Welsh cantref, was used, brought over by the Marcher lords to describe the divisions of their lordships, and so later used for the Irish equivalent of the English hundred. The baronies continued to be used as administrative and fiscal units until the 19th century.

In the 19th century, county administration, much of it carried out by grand juries, was still in the hands of the landowners, which meant it was part of the Protestant Ascendancy. In 1898 the Unionist government extended the reforms in local government that had been introduced in Great Britain between 1888 and 1894 to Ireland – elected county councils and urban and rural district councils.

Co. Tipperary, which had long been divided into North and South Ridings, each with its own Grand Jury, was given a county council for each Riding, so that there were 32 historic counties but 33 administrative counties in Ireland. Six of the towns were separated from the new county council system, and were the Irish equivalent of the English county boroughs:  Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford in the later Republic, Belfast and Londonderry in what became Northern Ireland.

The change to elected county government was radical enough in Great Britain:  in Ireland it was revolutionary. In most of Ireland the members of the grand juries had not the glimmer of a chance of being elected to the new councils. Farmers, traders, professional men, most of whom were Catholic in religion and Nationalist in politics, took over local administration in most of Ireland. In the Protestant north the old order hung on, and thus the reform intensified the polarisation of the island.

When Ireland was partitioned, 26 historic counties were included in the Free State, now the Republic. By an Act of 1925 the rural districts were abolished so the county councils are local authorities for some functions in the urban areas and for everything in the countryside. There are now 29 administrative counties in the Republic, Co. Tipperary still being divided into the North and South Ridings, while the most heavily populated Irish county, Co. Dublin, was divided in 1993 into the three administrative counties of  Fingal, South Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. There are now five county boroughs, the original four created in 1898, plus Galway, promoted in 1986.

Partisan, corrupt and inefficient local councils in the 1920s led to the appointment of managers in some authorities to carry out the main administrative tasks, a method of government that has been extended to all the cities and counties since. Other local government functions have been taken over by central government or transferred to regional bodies. Much of the income for local government comes in grants from central government:  domestic rates were abolished in 1978 and rates on agricultural land in 1982.  Irish local government is weak.

COUNTY ~ Northern Ireland

Six of the northern counties of Ireland (but not Donegal, which contains the northernmost land in the Ireland) formed the separate area of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, which was given its own government and parliament by the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, later abolished in 1972.

The counties had their own county councils, already created by the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898, but the two largest towns, Belfast and Londonderry, were county boroughs, with their own councils exercising all the functions of local government. They were also separate for ceremonial purposes from the historic counties to which they had belonged, each having its own Lord Lieutenant. The county council areas were divided into districts.

In 1973 the counties, county boroughs and the district councils were replaced by 26 unitary authorities (Londonderry county borough had already ceased to function, its place having been taken by a Development Commission). The six counties and two county boroughs continued as ceremonial counties.


The Kings of Scotland in the 11th century appointed local officers to administer their estates, which were scattered here and there, often in clusters, around the Kingdom. The nobles who ran these estates held the office of thane, an English word. From the 1120s the Kings began to appoint officers with wider responsibilities than superintending estates. They dealt with matters within the legal jurisdiction of the King, collected taxes and carried out military duties.

By this time the King was attracting Norman barons from further south to hold land from him, and the name of sheriff, familiar to them, displaced thane. The sheriffs resided in a town, usually but not necessarily with a royal castle: the towns generally gave their names to the sheriffdoms, though in some the old provincial names survived.

Many of the towns in later medieval Scotland enjoyed self-government as burghs, but the countryside tended to be ruled by chieftains, barons and nobles, against whom the Kings of Scotland were usually much weaker than the Kings of England. The office of sheriff became hereditary, held by the local great lord, with the actual work being carried out by the sheriff’s depute.

To weaken noble power meant, among other things, bypassing the sheriffs and finding institutions that would operate in the countryside. The reign of James VI saw the beginning of reform. In 1587 the shires were given representation in Parliament and mention was made of the idea of justices of the peace, though it was not until 1609 that they actually got going, and then hesitatingly.

They were given some administrative responsibilities after the Restoration, like their English counterparts, but they were not as successful. It was in fact in an institution thrown up by the civil wars that the way was found to make county government effective. During those wars officials had assessed the taxes in rural areas, and after the Restoration these became the Commissioners of Supply, appointed to assess the taxes outside the burghs (where the magistrates acted as commissioners of supply). They were appointed from local landowners and many of the administrative duties of local government were placed in their hands over the years, so that they became the true administrative equivalent of the English Justices of the Peace.

Eventually, in 1747, the year after Culloden, the hereditary sheriffdoms were abolished. The sheriff became a functioning legal officer, in charge of a group of counties with sheriff substitutes in each county town and some other towns. The judicial sheriffdom survives.

In the reign of Charles I the very large sheriffdom of Inverness – about a third of all Scotland – was broken up with the creation of new sheriffdoms for Sutherland (1631), Caithness and Ross (both in 1641). When Cromartyshire was elevated to the status of a county in the late years of the century, the number of counties stood at 33 (32 shires plus Kirkcudbright whose principal officer was a steward).

In 1889 an Act was passed creating elected county councils in Scotland, to which the administrative duties of the justices of the peace and the commissioners of supply passed. There remained 33 counties because although Orkney and Shetland were separated, Ross and Cromarty were united. In 1929 a further reform of local government clarified the responsibilities of counties and burghs.

The smaller burghs were left with fewer functions than the larger ones, whilst the four largest burghs, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, were completely separated from their counties and exercised all local government functions, with the status of counties of cities. In the areas outside the burghs district councils consisting of the county councillors from the areas plus representatives specifically elected to serve on the councils were established. Two of the smallest counties in population, Kinross and Nairnshire, were administratively united with Perthshire and Moray respectively by the 1929 Act, though without ceasing to be counties.

Some of the counties, and more of the burghs, were small. This led eventually to the Act of 1973 which swept away the burghs (though no royal burgh fails to this day to tell you as you enter it of its status) and replaced the counties with nine regions and three island authorities.

Fife, the great survivor in Scottish history, managed to transform itself into a region, and when the regions in their turn disappeared in 1996, was still there as a unitary authority. Orkney and Shetland became and remain island authorities. 19 of the districts within the regions were similar to 20 former counties (Perth & Kinross united most of Perthshire with Kinross-shire, a change that had largely taken place in 1929), though in most cases either expansion or reduction of the county had taken place, and in one or two the names had changed. 8 of these districts survive as unitary authorities, plus a restored and enlarged Aberdeenshire: the 11 that disappeared as administrative units in 1996 were in those areas (Highland, Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders), where the unitary authorities are regional in size.

But it is in the ceremonial counties, headed by the Lord Lieutenant, that the old Scottish counties still largely survive. There are 31 of them, of which the Western Isles alone is a creation of 1973/5. Mostly they use old names, but Tweeddale is old Peebleshire, while Stirlingshire has become Stirling & Falkirk. Perth & Kinross form one ceremonial county. Roxburgh, Ettrick and Lauderdale was once Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and the south of Midlothian.

Some of the boundaries of the old counties changed in 1975 to take account of regional and district boundaries, so that Berwickshire, for example, is not quite as big as the old county. Banffshire, which was divided between two of the Grampian districts in 1975 and which is still divided between the unitary authorities of Aberdeenshire and Moray, has nevertheless survived as a ceremonial county. The only pre-1975 county not to survive, even with borders adjusted, is Buteshire; even so, its two larger islands figure in the names of the ceremonial counties to which they belong (Argyll & Bute, Ayrshire & Arran)

There was a greater sensibility to people’s sense of belonging in the Scottish Act of 1973 than in the English and Welsh Act of 1972. The ceremonial survival of the West Riding and of Rutland might have made the administrative changes more acceptable. If the inhabitants of Humberside had continued to belong to the East Riding and Lincolnshire the enforced marriage by statute might have been more endurable.

COUNTY ~ Wales

In 1284, following the destruction of the independence of Gwynedd, Edward I created a Principality of Wales, which was divided into counties after the English fashion. The coreland of Gwynedd became the counties of Anglesey, Caernarvonshire and Merioneth (which came to be known collectively as the Principality of North Wales).

In the southwest the King’s existing lordships of Carmarthen and Cardigan were expanded with neighbouring territory taken from the Welsh to form Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire. In the northeast of Wales the royal estates, which lay in three blocs of land, were formed into the county of Flintshire and became the responsibility of the Justiciar for Chester.

There were also two substantial Marcher lordships in southern Wales, the Palatine Earldom of Pembroke and the lordship of Glamorgan, which, being run by sheriffs, were regarded as shires, but they only became royal lands later, Pembroke from 1389 (with interruptions) and Glamorgan from 1471.

In February 1536 Justices of the Peace were introduced into the Principality of Wales, including Flintshire, and also into Pembroke and Glamorgan. The purpose was to involve the gentry of Wales in the administration of local justice as they had become involved in England for more than a century.

These arrangements only applied in half or so of Wales. The rest was brought into line later in the year in the first measure of the Act of Union, the abolition of the Marcher lordships. Some of the Marcher lands were added to the county of Carmarthenshire (to make it the largest of the Welsh counties), to Flintshire and Merioneth, and to the lordships of Pembroke and Glamorgan. Some of the easternmost lands were added to English counties. The rest were divided up among five new counties: Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire, Breconshire and Monmouthshire.

Haverfordwest, which already had sheriffs by a grant of Edward V, became a town and county in itself in 1543, and the same status was accorded to Carmarthen, the old royal administrative centre in south Wales, in 1604. Haverfordwest was to have the unique distinction among the counties corporate of having its own Lord Lieutenant.

The Act of 1888, which created elected county councils, applied to both England and Wales. Neither Carmarthen nor Haverfordwest was large enough to become county boroughs under the terms of the Act. Cardiff and Swansea, in Glamorgan, qualified, as did Newport in Monmouthshire. They were subsequently joined by Merthyr Tydfil in 1905. So only in two of the 13 counties was there a distinction between the administrative and geographic counties (one out of twelve, if Monmouthshire is reckoned as English).

In 1970, on the eve of reform, only two of the 13 Welsh counties had populations over 200,000, while six had fewer than 100,000 (the least populous, Radnorshire, had fewer than 20,000 people and was declining).

The 1972 Act (which also reformed English local government) completely reshaped Welsh local government. It established a two-tier system of 8 counties and 37 districts. In the greater part of Wales four counties replaced eleven: Dyfed (southwest), Gwynedd (northwest), Clwyd (northeast) and Powys (east and central).

In the southeast four counties (three Glamorgans plus Gwent) replaced two. Of the abolished counties, Monmouthshire, less its western districts, became the county of Gwent (this incidentally settled the question where Monmouthshire belonged), while Anglesey (Ynis Môn), Cardiganshire (Ceredigion), Montgomeryshire (Montgomery) and Radnorshire (Radnor) became districts within the new counties, as did most of Breconshire (Brecknock) and Merioneth (Meirionydd).

The largest county, Dyfed, was fourteen times the size of the smallest, South Glamorgan, which included Cardiff. Mid Glamorgan had most people, Powys which was the second largest in area, had least. Old Welsh names were resurrected for counties (Dyfed, Gwynedd, Powys and Gwent had all been Kingdoms) and districts.

An Act of 1994 (the first Act to deal with Welsh counties separately from English since the Act of Union) abolished the Welsh counties and districts as local authorities, though the eight counties remained, with their borders adjusted, as ceremonial districts or counties, with their Lord Lieutenants at their head.

In their place 22 unitary authorities were created, some designated as counties and some as county boroughs. One might imagine that these designations signalled the difference between rural and urban areas, but the two largest Welsh towns belong to the Cities and Counties of Cardiff and Swansea. The new authorities, first elected in 1995, took over all the responsibilities of the counties and districts in 1996, except for fire services (three special authorities) and the National Parks. (Four police forces for the Principality had already been created by a separate Act of 1994).

The 1972/4 county of Powys survived, without some of its northernmost territory, as a unitary authority, as did Gwynedd, though shorn of Anglesey and Conwy, the latter having the status of a county borough.. A sizeable part of more rural Gwent became a unitary authority under the old name of Monmouthshire.

Of the old counties that had survived as districts, Ceredigion and the Isle of Anglesey continued as unitary authorities and counties, the latter reverting to its English name. The counties of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokehire reappeared, as did the names of Denbighshire and Flintshire, though these unitary authorities and counties were smaller than their predecessors because of the existence of Wrexham as a separate authority.


Local authority, usually in the larger towns of England and Wales, exercising all the functions of local government, 1889-1974.

County boroughs were also found in Ireland, where they were created by an Act of 1898. They survive in the Republic but not in Northern Ireland.

Half the Welsh unitary authorities created in 1994 and effective from 1996 are designated as county boroughs. (For more detail, see under UNITARY AUTHORITY).


  1. Cities and towns with their own sheriffs in England and Wales
  2. Four cities of Scotland, independent of their surrounding counties, 1929-75.


Several cities and towns in England and Wales were allowed to have either two sheriffs or one, thus separating themselves from the jurisdiction of the sheriff of the county. This made the city or town a county of a city (or town) or a CITY/TOWN AND COUNTY OF ITSELF or a COUNTY CORPORATE.

The City of London had sheriffs by the reign of King John. They also served as sheriffs for Middlesex, and in this respect the City of London is unlike the several counties corporate created between 1373 and 1692, where the appointment of sheriffs separated the city or town from the county it belonged to. In Middlesex the county became subordinate to the city, particularly from the reign of Edward IV, when the City received the right to choose its sheriffs.

The first county corporate created outside London was Bristol in 1373. Already a major port, it was allowed to include within it the suburb of Redcliffe across the Avon and so in Somerset. Straddling two counties in consequence, it was made independent of both.

When the Municipal Corporations Act was passed in 1835 there were eighteen of these counties of a city or of a town (excluding the City of London). Practically all had been given the status in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Most were county towns; several were episcopal cities, either before becoming counties or, like Bristol, Gloucester and Chester, after. Chester was, inter alia, involved in the government of northern Wales.

Carmarthen, which had been the seat of the Justiciar for South Wales (or West Wales), was one of two Welsh counties corporate. The other was the small Haverfordwest, at the head of the waters of Milford Haven, made a county at the time of the Act of Union in 1536.

In English law, fully applied to Wales from 1536, the Commmon Law operated within the boundary of a county, Admiralty law taking over as the boundary reached the shore. In order to counteract piracy in the enclosed waters of the Haven, Haverfordwest became a county of a town. (Similarly some years later, Poole, with its enclosed Harbour, became a town and county of itself).

Haverfordwest was unique among the counties corporate in having a Lord Lieutenant, as though it were a full-blown county. It was also represented in Parliament by one member, separate from the representation of the Pembrokeshire boroughs. The Parliamentary representatives of the other counties corporate in England and Wales were elected as borough members, not as county.

Carmarthen and Haverfordwest, Poole and Lichfield all had populations under 20,000 in 1888 when county boroughs were created and so did not qualify to be excluded from the jurisdiction of the new county councils. The remaining thirteen qualified (Coventry had ceased to be a county of a city in 1843 but it too qualified because its population exceeded 50,000). All the counties corporate kept their sheriffs and their status, whether county boroughs or not, until they were abolished by the Local Government Act of 1972.

In 1996, with the abolition of the county of Avon, a Lord Lieutenant was appointed for the City of Bristol for the first time and also a sheriff for a city that once had had two. So Bristol became a sort of latter-day county of a city.


In Scotland county councils had been introduced by an Act of 1889, but a thorough overhaul of the burgh, which had long been the principal unit of local self-government in Scotland, waited until the Act of 1929. By that Act, the four largest of the Royal Burghs of Scotland, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen, were made completely independent of the county councils. Each already had the status of a county of a city, and this term came to be treated as the rough equivalent of the county borough in England and Wales. One difference between them was that in the Scottish counties of cities the Lord Provost acted as the Lord Lieutenant within the bounds of the city.

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