Essex
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Essex Map
"Pigot and Co (1842) p1.186 - Map of Essex"
extracted from page 186 of volume 1 of A Pocket Topography and Gazetteer of England.
Illustrated by maps of the English counties, and vignettes of cathedrals, etc, by James Pigot and Co. 
Licensed under Public domain via
Wikimedia Commons.

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Essex is one of the largest of the six Home Counties, and its maritime position gives it considerable importance. It was one of the early English kingdoms, and for more than a thousand years it has represented in brief the history of England. In many of its towns and villages there are monuments of antiquity and treasures of art which help us to realise the past history of our country; and we shall understand much better the progress and development of England as a whole, if we first carefully study the geography and history of the county of Essex.

In this chapter we will consider the meanings of the two words, shire and county, and then endeavour to trace the origin of the county of Essex and the meaning of its name. For a thousand years and more the county, or shire, in England has been considered the chief unit of local government, in much the same way that the canton is regarded in Switzerland, the department in France, and the state in America. We now have the two words shire, and county, but before the Norman Conquest the word shire only was used.

In the earliest period of our history the word shire dimply meant a division, and we find the word was thus used, to denote the various portions of Cornwall, and the two kingdoms Kent. Then, as time passed on, the word acquired a new meaning, and was applied to any portion that was shorn off or cut off from a larger division. The portion cut off was a share or shire, and hence many of our counties have retained this affix since the settlement of the English in our land.

The word county is due to the Norman invaders who identified the old English shire with their own comitates, the district of a comes or count. And thus it comes about that we use the two words shire and county to denote the larger divisions of our land that were made long ages ago.

The counties of England differ considerably in their origins. Such counties as Essex, Kent, and Sussex had a different origin from Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Northamptonshire. The former are probably survivals of former kingdoms, while the latter are un- doubtedly shares, or shires, of the kingdom of Mercia. Essex, Kent, and Sussex have kept their names and boundaries from the earliest times, perhaps for more than fourteen hundred years, and it is the knowledge of such facts as these that makes the study of county geography and history so interesting. Indeed it is not too much to say that some of our counties are an epitome of our national history, and to illustrate the truth of this we could not have a better example than the county of Essex.

It is rather difficult to trace the origin of some of our counties and the meaning of their names, but we have no such difficulty in the present case. Here we have a county with a distinctly English name, which was derived from the Saxons who settled in this part of England. The Saxons were perhaps the strongest of the various invaders of our country in the fifth century, and they were distinguished by the portions they settled along the eastern and southern districts. Thus we read of the East Saxons, South Saxons, West Saxons and so on, while the other invaders, the Angles and Jutes, settled elsewhere. The word Essex is thus derived from the East Saxons, and in the English Chronicle we find it written Easte saxe. Later it appears as East saxe, and in Domesday Book it is written Exsessa. Then the form Essex was used by our historians, and so it has continued to this day.

The East Saxons formed the kingdom of Essex in a district that had been settled by a Keltic tribe known as the Trinobantes, or Trinovantes, a word which means battle-spearers, or battle-stabbers. The territory of the Trinobantes was fairly compact, comprising as it did the modern county of Essex and a part of Middlesex, from beyond the Lea to the Stour on the north. Middlesex was included for a long period in the kingdom of Essex, and then for some reason, perhaps owing to the growth of London, it was separated from the East Saxon kingdom and made into a county. And this point of interest deserves notice here, for the East Saxon kingdom was also the see of the bishop of London, and so it continued till quite recent times, when owing to the growth of population Essex was annexed to the see of Rochester, and then to that of St Albans. Now Chelmsford is likely to be the see of a bishop of Essex, thus linking the county with the earliest period of our history.

Thus we may say that the modern county of Essex grew out of the East Saxon kingdom, which was formed from the territory that had been occupied by the Trinobantes, a Keltic tribe living in Britain when the Romans first landed in our country.

SOURCE:  George F Bosworth. Essex. 1909. Cambridge: University Press

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This webpage was last updated Monday, 10-Nov-2014 19:01:29 MST