Everyday Life

From Scir to Shire: The Ancient Division of Great Britain

The term “shire” is a traditional designation for an administrative division of land in Great Britain, as well as in other English-speaking nations such as Australia and the United States.

It is commonly equivalent to a county. Originating in Wessex with the onset of Anglo-Saxon settlement, the use of “shire” expanded to encompass the majority of England by the tenth century.



The term “shire” finds its roots in the Old English word “scir,” meaning care or official charge. This origin highlights its primary function in the administrative framework of early England. The evolution of “scir” into the Middle English “shire” marked a significant development in the territorial organization of the period.

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As “shire” became the established term for geographical divisions, these areas were typically governed by a “reeve” (known today as a sheriff) or another local authority.

This designation was specifically applied to regions organized primarily for administrative purposes and played critical roles in military and judicial operations.

The historic counties of England — red indicates “-shire” counties, orange indicates where the “-shire” suffix is occasionally used

These administrative regions were pivotal in the governance of early England, facilitating not only the enforcement of law and order but also the efficient management of resources and defence.

The role of the reeve or sheriff as the king’s representative in these shires was to oversee these functions, ensuring the crown’s interests were maintained across various shires.

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The etymological shift from “scir” to “shire” reflects the formalization of these regions as fundamental elements of England’s political and administrative landscape, a structure that would set the groundwork for the modern county system.


The system was initially adopted in the Kingdom of Wessex with the onset of Anglo-Saxon settlement and spread to the majority of England in the tenth century, accompanying the political ascendancy of the West Saxon kingdom.

By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), the city of York was segmented into shires. The earliest shires in Scotland were established in the ninth century in areas such as Lothian and the Borders, which had English settlements. King David I later consistently created shires and appointed sheriffs throughout the lowland regions of Scotland.

Shire in Doomsday Book
Counties of England in the year 1086, as documented in the Doomsday Book, after the Norman Conquest. Thee English counties were divided into several “circuits”. This one features Berkshire, Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent.

In its early days, a shire was governed by an ealdorman, and during the later Anglo-Saxon period, by a royal official known as a “shire reeve” or sheriff.

Shires were subdivided into hundreds or wapentakes, although other, less common subdivisions also existed. “Sheriffdom” was an alternative name for a shire until reforms in sheriff courts dissociated the two concepts.

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The term “shire county” is informally used in England to refer to non-metropolitan counties, particularly those that are not unitary authorities. In Scotland, the term “county” was not typically used for shires; although “county” appears in some texts, “shire” remained the prevalent term until statutory counties were established in the nineteenth century. In Ireland, the term “shire” was not adopted for counties.

History of the Shire Horse

The origins of the Shire Horse trace back to a breed of heavy horse first documented around 1066, introduced to England following the Norman Conquest. This breed evolved into what was known during the Middle Ages as the “English Great Horse” frequently referenced by medieval writers.

In medieval times, there was a crucial need to develop larger horses, known as “The Great Horse,” capable of carrying knights clad in full armour.

Shire horses in battle

The Battle of Crecy, 26th August 1346, illustration from ‘Hutchinson’s Story of the British Nation’, c.1923

During the reign of Henry VIII, from 1509 to 1547, significant focus was placed on the breeding and raising of robust horses.

To this end, several laws were enacted. Legislation passed in 1535 and 1541 prohibited the breeding of horses that stood under 15 hands high and banned all exports of horses, even to Scotland.

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In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution instigated profound changes in agriculture and transportation, leading to a decline in the use of horses as steam engines and other machinery took over many tasks previously performed by equine power.

Despite this, the Shire horse retained its popularity for heavy-duty work, being employed to haul barges along canals and transport goods around cities.

Shire horse, Wales, 1800s
Two men and a shire horse outside an ale and spirits retailer, Wales circa 1885.

The early 20th century saw a resurgence of interest in the Shire horse through the advent of horse shows specifically designed to celebrate the breed’s beauty and strength.

These events attracted breeders and enthusiasts from across Britain. The inaugural National Shire Horse Show was held in 1884, an event that continues annually to this day.

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Shire Horse Shows

Shire horse shows quickly became a favoured activity, often coinciding with agricultural fairs and other public gatherings. These shows provided breeders with a platform to exhibit their finest horses and offered the public a chance to witness these majestic creatures up close.

Shire horses in Yorkshire
East Yorkshire wagon at Lockington circa.1910

However, despite the popularity of these shows, the Shire horse breed saw a significant decline by the mid-20th century. The advent of tractors and other mechanised farm equipment reduced the need for horses in agriculture, and similarly, the demand for Shire horses in transportation waned.

By the 1950s, the Shire horse population in Britain had dwindled to just a few hundred, putting the breed at risk of extinction.

Nevertheless, a committed group of breeders embarked on a mission to preserve the breed. Thanks to their efforts, today there are over 2,000 Shire horses in Britain, ensuring the survival and continued appreciation of this historic breed.

Shires in the United Kingdom

In a more specific context, “shire” refers to ancient counties traditionally ending with the suffix “-shire”. These counties are often (though not invariably) named after their principal town. The suffix “-shire” is commonly appended to the names of counties in England, Scotland, and Wales.

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However, it is generally absent in counties that predate these divisions. For instance, Essex, Kent, and Sussex do not include the suffix “-shire” as each was originally an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

Similarly, Cornwall, before becoming an English county, was a British kingdom. Additionally, the term “shire” is not employed in the names of the six traditional counties of Northern Ireland.

Shire names in England

Counties in England that include the “-shire” suffix are Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire, and Yorkshire.

Hampshire Border Sign

Collectively, these counties cover just over half of England’s area when considered within their historical boundaries. The counties without the “-shire” suffix are predominantly located in the south-east, south-west, and the far north of England.

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Many of these counties no longer exist as administrative entities or have seen their boundaries reduced due to local government reforms.

However, several successor authorities continue to use the “-shire” in their names, such as North Yorkshire, East Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, and South Gloucestershire.

County of North Yorkshire sign

Historically, the county of Devon was known as Devonshire, although this is no longer its official name. The name was used by the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment until it was amalgamated in 2007.

Likewise, Dorset, Rutland, and Somerset were once officially known as Dorsetshire, Rutlandshire, and Somersetshire, respectively. These designations are no longer in official use and are seldom employed outside their local areas.

Hexhamshire was historically a separate county in the north-east of England from the early 12th century until 1572, at which point it was incorporated into Northumberland.

Shire names in Scotland

In Scotland, which was largely unaffected by the Norman conquest of England, the term “shire” remained more prevalent than “county” until the 19th century.

Early sources use the “-shire” suffix similarly to England, although in Scots it was often rendered as “schyr.” Later, “Shire” appeared as a distinct word.

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Scottish regions bearing “shire” names 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.

The border of Aberdeenshire

In Scotland, four shires are commonly known by alternative names that include the “-shire” suffix: Angus is also known as Forfarshire, East Lothian as Haddingtonshire, Midlothian as Edinburghshire, and West Lothian as Linlithgowshire.

Sutherland is occasionally still referred to as Sutherlandshire. Similarly, the names Argyllshire, Buteshire, Caithness-shire, and Fifeshire are sometimes used. Morayshire was formerly known as Elginshire. There is some debate over whether “Argyllshire” was ever commonly used as an official designation.

Shire names in Wales

In Wales, the counties bearing the “-shire” suffix (preceded by “Sir” in Welsh) include: Brecknockshire (also known as Breconshire), Caernarfonshire (historically Carnarvonshire), Cardiganshire (Ceredigion in Welsh), Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire, Pembrokeshire, and Radnorshire.

Occasionally, the Welsh counties of Merioneth and Glamorgan are also referred to using the “shire” suffix. The only traditional Welsh county that consistently omits the “shire” suffix in English is Anglesey, which is called ‘Sir Fôn’ in Welsh.