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Counties of the UK

What are counties?

Each country in the UK is split into a number of smaller geographical areas called counties.

Counties have existed in Britain and Ireland since before the formation of the United Kingdom or the kingdom of Great Britain. Counties themselves were based on older, traditional geographical and political divisions of land - such as 'shires' in England and Scotland, and 'provinces' in Ireland.

Historically, counties administered justice, collected taxes and organised military forces if the monarch required an army. By the seventeeth century, counties became a way to organise local government and parliamentary elections.

The number, names and boundaries of the counties in the UK have changed over time, reflecting political and population changes. However, the historical counties have a deeper, cultural significance. Over time, people living in counties developed a sense of shared identity as well as their own customs, traditions and dialects. Sporting events, like cricket, are still contested between county teams.

The different types of county

Over time, the use of the term county has become more complicated. The term 'county' is now used for a number of purposes to describe different geographical areas in the UK. The number, names and boundaries of these areas are not always congruent.

Areas referred to as counties, include:

Historic counties

The historical, geographical areas which were set up as a system of administration by the Normans. Scotland still uses this system for the purposes of land registration.

Adminstrative counties

The modern system of local government in the UK no longer uses a unified county system to administer services , such as education, social care, housing, recycling and refuse collection. Each country of the UK has its own system of local government. In some areas of England and Wales, 24 counties are still used to administer local government.

These have changed quite frequently over the last 100 years to reflect the growth in metropolitan areas, for example.

Ceremonial counties, preserved counties and lieutenancy areas

These types of county are headed by representatives of the British monarch, known as a Lord-lieutenants. They were originally responsible for handling judicial matters and raising an army when needed). Now, Lord-lieutenants perform ceremonial duties, meet with local armed forces, magistrates and Justices of the Peace and undertake charitable works.The names and boundaries of the ceremonial counties are closely aligned with the historic counties.

These areas are known as ceremonial counties in England, preserved counties in Wales and lieutenancy areas in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

How many counties are in the UK?

This is a great question! The number of counties in the UK depends on the type of county being referred to: historical, ceremonial or administrative.

The table belows shows the current total number of counties by types, showing that there are 92 historical counties, 99 ceremonial counties and over 148 administrative 'counties' in the UK. Changes are frequently made to the administrative system to reflect political and population changes.

types of counties historical counties administrative counties ceremonial counties

What are the counties of the UK?

A full list of each of the historic, ceremonial and administrative counties can be found beside each map in the section below.

Maps of counties in the UK

Here are maps of the different types of counties in the UK:

Historic counties of the UK
92 historic counties
99 ceremonial counties
Ceremonial counties of the UK preserved counties lieutenancy areas
Administrative counties  principal areas local government districts council areas metropolitan and non=metropolitan counties
148 administrative counties

The history of counties in the UK

The creation of counties began in the medieval period, which means these units existed in Britain and Ireland long before the formation of the United Kingdom or the kingdom of Great Britain.

In England, land began to be divided into shires and counties in the 9th and 10th centuries as a way to organise the courts and justice system in the newly-formed kingdom. During the 10th century, shires also started to form in Scotland. In Ireland and Wales, counties were introduced following the Norman invasion and these were based on older, traditional areas, such as the provinces in Ireland.

The names of these historic counties reflect the names of important settlements e.g. Yorkshire, ancient kingdoms e.g. Sussex or celtic tribes e.g. Cornwall.

In the 16th century, Lord-lieutenants were appointed by Henry VIII to be his representative in the counties, handling judicial matters and responsible for raising and supervising an army when needed. When the kingdoms of Scotland and England unified, Lord-lieutenants were appointed to the Scottish counties too.

By the seventeeth century, counties became a way to organise local government and parliamentary elections. However, during the 19th century, the system was reorganised and there is no longer a unified, system of country administration in the UK.

Teaching ideas

Our FREE Counties of the UK Maps are great for building children's locational knowledge. Use the maps to play these engaging games with your class:

1. Provide pairs with a blank map. Each child takes it in turns to colour in a county and their partner uses the numbered map and key to locate and name the coloured county.

2. Provide pairs with the numbered map and key. Each child takes it in turns to call out the name of a county and their partner has to find it on the numbered map. You can extend the game by challenging the children to identify which country the county is located in using the coloured map.

Our FREE Counties of the UK Quiz is a fun way to introduce the cardinal and inter-cardinal compass points and explore directional language with your class. Children can complete the quiz or create their own for an additional challenge!

Counties of the UK map
Counties of the UK quiz

LESSON PACK The United Kingdom

FREE Counties of the United Kingdom Maps

FREE Counties of the United Kingdom Quiz