The county (otherwise the shire) was the main unit of provincial government in England from before the Norman Conquest until modern times. Domesday Book (1086) describes 32 shires. Five of these were subdivisions of the former kingdom of Wessex. Of these, Hampshire already existed in 757; the others may be as old. Five shires derive from former kingdoms absorbed into Wessex (Kent, Sussex, Essex, and East Anglia (divided into Norfolk and Suffolk). The shires of the midlands were nearly all created in the 10th cent. The only additions to the system were Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Durham, Northumberland, and the anomalous Rutland. The Domesday shires had, to a remarkable extent, the boundaries which they retained for many centuries. By 1066 each shire (sometimes pairs of shires) had an official, the sheriff, responsible for the royal lands and the exercise of aspects of royal authority. The county court, meeting twice annually, was a principal forum for justice both civil and criminal.
After the Norman Conquest the principal changes were the construction of shire castles and a great increase in the frequency with which the shire courts met. Although the importance of these courts diminished, the most important new judicial authorities, the justices of the peace, were organized on a shire basis. The justices acquired many powers as time went on; their quarter sessions were the principal organs of local government until the establishment of county councils by the Local Government Act of 1888.
The only major innovation in the centuries before 1888 was the creation of the office of lord‐lieutenant in 1549, whose function was to command the shire levies. Shire associations of regular regiments were made standard and universal by an act of 1881. This was an expression of the greater shire‐consciousness of the later 19th cent., expressed also in the associations of archaeological societies, cricket clubs, and agricultural societies. An Act of 1972 brought major changes in county organization. Some historic shires were merged and new ones without historic antecedents created. Further changes were made in 1996. Central government has usually shown little affection for counties, the general public more so.