Historic counties of Wales

The historic counties of Wales are sub-divisions of Wales. They were used for various functions for several hundred years,[1] but have been largely superseded by contemporary sub-national divisions,[2] some of which bear some limited similarity to the historic entities in name and extent. They are alternatively known as ancient counties.[3]

The counties

1 The earldom of Pembroke and lordship of Glamorgan pre-date the Edwardian conquest.
2 These counties originate in 1282, following King Edward I's conquest.
3 These counties originate in 1535, with the Laws in Wales Act, 1535, converting the remaining Marcher Lordships into counties.
4 Despite being created at the same Act as the other counties, Monmouthshire was included with English counties for some legal purposes until 1974. But neither this Act nor any other states that Monmouthshire is removed from Wales and added to England. However, between 1536 and 1874 the formulation "Wales and Monmouthshire" was frequently used.[4] The Welsh people have always considered Monmouthshire to be part of Wales.[5]

The 1535 Laws in Wales Act had the effect of abolishing the marcher lordships within and on the borders of Wales. In the border areas, several were incorporated in whole or in part into English counties. The lordships of Ludlow, Clun, Caus and part of Montgomery were incorporated into Shropshire; and Wigmore, Huntington, Clifford and most of Ewyas were included in Herefordshire.[6]

The historic counties established by 1535 were used as the geographical basis for the administrative counties, governed by county councils, which existed from 1889 to 1974. The historian William Rees said, in his "Historical Atlas of Wales": (published 1959) "... the boundaries of the modern shires have largely been determined by the ancient divisions of the country. The survival of these ancient local divisions within the pattern of historical change constitutes a vital element in the framework of the national life and helps to preserve its continuity."


The Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 abolished several enclaves. One of these, Welsh Bicknor (Llangystennin) was an exclave of Monmouthshire between Gloucestershire and Herefordshire and was transferred to Herefordshire. Another was Ffwddog, identified using the English variant Fothock on older maps, an exclave of Herefordshire transferred to Monmouthshire. The exclave of Flintshire, called Maelor Saesneg (English Maelor) was, however, left untouched.


The territory which became Monmouthshire was part of the Welsh kingdoms of Gwent and Glywysing and later, after the Norman conquest of southern Wales, of the Welsh Marches. Although the original Laws in Wales Act of 1535 specifically stated the lands making up Monmouthshire were from the 'Country or Dominion of Wales', the Laws in Wales Act 1542 added Monmouthshire to the Oxford circuit of the English Assizes rather than falling under the Court of Great Sessions in Wales. According to historian John Davies, this arrangement was the cause of the erroneous belief that the county had been annexed by England rather than remaining part of Wales.[7] In later centuries, some English historians, map-makers, landowners and politicians took the view that Monmouthshire was an English rather than a Welsh county, and references were often made in legislation to "Wales and Monmouthshire". The position was finally resolved by the Local Government Act 1972, which confirmed Monmouthshire's place within Wales.

Local government


The Local Government Act 1888 created administrative counties based on the historic counties but not with exactly the same boundaries in 1889. Additionally, certain boroughs were deemed to be county boroughs, outside the administrative counties (Cardiff and Swansea in 1889, Newport in 1891 and Merthyr Tydfil in 1908).


The Local Government Act 1972 has led to a lot of confusion. It replaced the administrative counties created in 1889 with eight counties in 1974. The existing Lieutenancy areas were also redefined to use the newly created local government areas, defined by the act as "counties." Furthermore, the historic counties were abandoned at the time by the Royal Mail as postal counties and were no longer shown on maps. However, in spite of widespread misunderstanding, the Local Government Act 1972 never abolished the historic counties. Indeed, the Department of the Environment made this very clear in a statement it issued on the 1st April 1974:

" The new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of...local government. They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional areas of Counties (the historic counties), nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change."

The eight new counties were themselves replaced in 1996 by the current principal areas of Wales, but modified versions were retained for Lieutenancy as the preserved counties.

Vice counties

The vice counties, used for biological recording throughout Great Britain and Ireland since 1852, are largely based on historic county boundaries. They ignore all exclaves and are modified by subdividing large counties and merging smaller areas into neighbouring counties. The static boundaries make longitudinal study of biodiversity easier.


  1. Bryne, T., Local Government in Britain, (1994)
  2. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, Aspects of Britain: Local Government, (1996)
  3. Vision of Britain - Type details for ancient county. Retrieved 19 October 2006.
  4. Statute Law database: "Wales and Monmouthshire" search results
  5. Cf. the traditional Welsh expression "O Fôn i Fynwy" ("From Anglesey to Monmouthshire", i.e. "across Wales", "the whole of Wales").
  6. John Davies, A History of Wales, Penguin, 1993, ISBN 0-14-028475-3
  7. John Davies, A History of Wales, 1993, ISBN 0-14-028475-3

External links

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