A shire is a traditional term for a division of land, found in the United Kingdom and Australia. It was first used in Wessex from the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement, and spread to most of the rest of England in the tenth century.
The word derives from the Old English scir, itself a derivative of the Proto-Germanic skizo (cf. Old High German scira), meaning care or official charge. In Britain, "shire" is the original term for what is usually known now as a county; the word county having been introduced at the Norman Conquest of England. The two are nearly synonymous. Although in modern British usage counties are referred to as "shires" mainly in poetic contexts, terms such as Shire Hall remain common. Shire also remains a common part of many county names.
In some rural parts of Australia, a shire is a local government area; however, in Australia it is not synonymous with a "county", which is a lands administrative division.
In regions with so-called rhotic pronunciation such as Scotland, the word shire is pronounced // or //. In non-rhotic areas the final R is silent unless the next word begins in a vowel. When shire is a suffix as part of a placename in the UK, the vowel is unstressed and thus usually shortened and/or monophthongised: pronunciations include //, or sometimes //, with the pronunciation of the final R again depending on rhoticity. In many words, the vowel is normally reduced all the way to a single schwa, as in for instance Leicestershire // or Berkshire //. Outside the UK, and especially in the USA, it is more common for shire as part of a placename to be pronounced identically to the full word, as a result of spelling pronunciation.
The system was first used in Wessex from the beginning of Anglo-Saxon settlement, and spread to most of the rest of England in the tenth century, along with West Saxon political control. In Domesday (1086) the city of York was divided into shires. The first shires of Scotland were created in English-settled areas such as Lothian and the Borders, in the ninth century. King David I more consistently created shires and appointed sheriffs across lowland shores of Scotland.
The shire in early days was governed by an Ealdorman and in the later Anglo-Saxon period by royal official known as a "shire reeve" or sheriff. The shires were divided into hundreds or wapentakes, although other less common sub-divisions existed. An alternative name for a shire was a "sheriffdom" until sheriff court reforms separated the two concepts. In Scotland the word "county" was not adopted for the shires. Although "county" appears in some texts, "shire" was the normal name until counties for statutory purposes were created in the nineteenth century.
Shire names in the United Kingdom
"Shire" also refers, in a narrower sense, to ancient counties with names that ended in "shire". These counties are typically (though not always) named after their county town.
The suffix -shire is attached to most of the names of English, Scottish and Welsh counties. It tends not to be found in the names of shires that were pre-existing divisions. Essex, Kent, and Sussex, for example, have never borne a -shire, as each represents a former Anglo-Saxon kingdom. Similarly Cornwall was a British kingdom before it became an English county. The term 'shire' is not used in the names of the six traditional counties of Northern Ireland.
Shire names in England
Shires in England bearing the "-shire" suffix include: Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, and Yorkshire. These counties, on their historical boundaries, cover a little more than half the area of England. The counties that do not use "-shire" are mainly in three areas, in the south-east, south-west and far north of England.
The areas of South Gloucestershire and North Somerset are Unitary authorities, and only have '-shire' in their name because these former County of Avon areas existed - in the past - as part of the neighbouring '-shire' County.
Yorkshire no longer exists as a unit of local government in England. Some of the successor modern counties formed by its breakup (North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire) however retain the old county name as a component. (East Yorkshire has a more complicated signification.)
The county of Devon is also known as Devonshire, and although this is not currently the official name it was historically the County's name. The counties of Dorset, Rutland and Somerset were likewise formerly Dorsetshire, Rutlandshire and Somersetshire. These terms are now most commonly restricted in use to the local populations, and are not local government / geographic areas.
Shire names in Scotland
In Scotland, barely affected by the Norman conquest of England, the word "shire" prevailed over "county" until the 19th century. Earliest sources have the same usage of the "-shire" suffix as in England (though in Scots this was oftenmost "schyr"). Later the "Shire" appears as a separate word.
"Shire" names in Scotland include Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Banffshire, Berwickshire, Clackmannanshire, Cromartyshire, Dumfriesshire, Dunbartonshire, Inverness-shire, Kincardineshire, Kinross-shire, Kirkcudbrightshire, Lanarkshire, Morayshire, Nairnshire, Peeblesshire, Perthshire, Renfrewshire, Ross-shire, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire, Stirlingshire, and Wigtownshire.
Sutherland is occasionally still referred to as Sutherlandshire. Similarly, Argyllshire, Buteshire, Caithness-shire and Fifeshire are sometimes found. Also, Morayshire was previously called Elginshire. There is currently much debate about whether Argyllshire was ever really used.
Shire names in Wales
Shires in Wales bearing the "-shire" suffix include: Brecknockshire (or Breconshire), Caernarfonshire, Cardiganshire, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire, and Radnorshire.
In Wales, the counties of Merioneth and Glamorgan are occasionally referred to with the "shire" suffix. The only traditional Welsh county that never takes "shire" is Anglesey—in English: in Welsh it is referred to as 'Sir Fon'.
The suffix –shire could be a generalised term referring to a district. It did not acquire the strong association with county until later.
Other than these, the term was used for several other districts. Bedlingtonshire, Craikshire, Norhamshire and Islandshire were exclaves of County Durham, which were incorporated into Northumberland or Yorkshire in 1844. The suffix was also used for many hundreds, wapentakes and liberties such as Allertonshire, Blackburnshire, Halfshire, Howdenshire, Leylandshire, Powdershire, Pydarshire, Richmondshire, Riponshire, Salfordshire, Triggshire, Tynemouthshire, West Derbyshire and Wivelshire, counties corporate such as Hullshire, and other districts such as Applebyshire, Bamburghshire, Bunkleshire, Carlisleshire, Coldinghamshire, Coxwoldshire, Cravenshire, Hallamshire, Mashamshire and Yetholmshire.
Non-county shires were very common in Scotland. Kinross-shire and Clackmannanshire are arguably survivals from such districts. Non-county "shires" in Scotland include Bunkleshire, Coldinghamshire and Yetholmshire.
Shires in Australia
"Shire" is the most common word in Australia for rural local government areas (LGAs). New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland Western Australia and the Northern Territory use the term "Shire" for this unit; the territories of Christmas Island and Cocos Island are also shires.
Three LGAs in outer metropolitan Sydney and four in outer metropolitan Melbourne have populations exceeding that of towns or municipalities, but retain significant bushlands and/or semi-rural areas, and most have continued to use "Shire" in their titles whilst others have dropped "Shire" from their titles. These "city-shires" are:
- Sutherland Shire (which is locally referred to as "The Shire")
- The Hills Shire ("The Garden Shire", previously "Baulkham Hills Shire")
- Hornsby Shire ("The Bushland Shire")
- Shire of Nillumbik ("The Green Wedge Shire")
- Shire of Yarra Ranges
- Shire of Cardinia
- Shire of Mornington Peninsula (which is locally known as "The Peninsula")
- Shire of Pakenham
Shires in the United States
- Accomac Shire (since 1642 Northampton County, Virginia)
- Charles City Shire (since 1637 Charles City County, Virginia)
- Charles River Shire (now York County, Virginia)
- Elizabeth City Shire (now consolidated with the City of Hampton, Virginia)
- Henrico Shire (now Henrico County, Virginia)
- James City Shire (about 1642-43 James City County, Virginia)
- Warwick River Shire (now consolidated with the City of Newport News, Virginia)
- Warrosquyoake Shire (now Isle of Wight County, Virginia)
As of 2013 six of the original eight Shires of Virginia are considered to be still extant whilst two have consolidated with a neighbouring city. Most of their boundaries have changed in the intervening centuries.
Before the Province of New York was granted county subdivisions and a greater royal presence in 1683, the early ducal colony consisted of York Shire, as well as Albany and Ulster, after the three titles held by Prince James: Duke of York, Duke of Albany, Earl of Ulster. While these were basically renamed Dutch core settlements, they were quickly converted to English purposes, while the Dutch remained within the colony, as opposed to later practice of the Acadian Expulsion. Further Anglo-Dutch synthesis occurred when James enacted the Dominion of New England and later when William III of England took over through the Glorious Revolution.
- Comarcas of Spain
- Comarques of Catalonia
- Counties of England
- Counties of Scotland
- Counties of Wales
- Counties of the United Kingdom
- Online Etymology Dictionary, entry "Shire". Retrieved 15 October 2011.
- Gareth Dean, Medieval York 2008:21.