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When we look at a map of England we cannot fail to be struck by the way in which the land has been divided up into the different areas which we call counties or shires. It is not easy at first to see what method has been pursued in the division. There are two well-known ways of dividing up a large area of land. One is by the use of regular lines, such as parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude; a method which, though not employed in England, has been used largely in North America and in Australia. The other is to make the dividing lines follow some natural feature of the land whenever that is possible, and this has been the rule in England in many places, but not at all uniformly. For instance, the division into counties in the north of England clearly shows the influence of the Pennines, and in the south the river Thames has played an important part. There is yet another method, that of growth from a smaller unit. History teaches us that the division which we know as a county or shire grew from a collection of smaller units of area, the "hundreds." These hundreds were probably tracts of land inhabited by a hundred families; when larger divisions were wanted these were obtained by grouping together a certain number of hundreds; and just as the outside boundaries of certain properties would form the boundary of the hundred, so the outside boundaries of certain hundreds would form the boundary of the shire. In fact the county was formed out of a certain number of hundreds grouped together, and was not, as might be supposed, subdivided into hundreds. The boundary of the shire might or might not follow natural features of the country; the determining factor was the boundary of the smaller unit.
In this book we are going to deal with one particular county, Northamptonshire, so that our attention will be riveted on a small tract of land, the size of which is about one fifty-eighth of that of England and Wales.
The first thing to do is to consider the name given to this division of the country. If we look at the names of other counties, we at once notice that the ending -shire is common to a great many. This word shire is derived, like the word share from an old English word meaning " to shear," "to cut off," so that it is clear that the name Northamptonshire means " the division (or share) of Northampton." We might at once guess that the town of Northampton must have existed before the division was made of the land which gave a certain portion of the country to it as its "shire." We should be right in this, for although we do not know for certain when Northampton was actually founded, we do know that it had been in existence for some centuries before any division such as that of " shires " was effected: we find it mentioned in the Saxon Chronicle as Hamtune, and it must have received later the prefix North- to distinguish it from Southampton, which is also referred to in the same chronicle as Hamtune. Early in the tenth century the town was held by the Danes, and in 1010 Sweyn almost completely destroyed it. Ever since that time it has been a town of importance, and several parliaments have been held within its walls. But we shall have more to say of its history later.
We have learnt, then, the meaning of the word Northamptonshire. It remains for us to find out when the division took place which marked off our county as "the share of Northampton."
If we look at a map of England after the Treaty of Chippenham in 878, we shall not see any district marked Northamptonshire, but we notice that the boundary of Danish Mercia, which divides it from the kingdom of Guthrum and from English Mercia, follows roughly a great part of the boundary of our modern county. In 878 then, we may say, Northamptonshire formed the southern portion of Danish Mercia. In all probability it was at some time during the century succeeding the Treaty of Chippenham that England was divided up into counties or shires. Many of the shires took their names from the chief towns in them, so that it was only natural that this county should receive the name of Northampton- shire.
Following the revolt of the Northumbrians in the reign of Edward the Confessor, a fresh division was made of the kingdoms in the north, and we find that Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire were assigned as a separate earldom to Waltheof. We also find the county mentioned in Domesday Book, when it included much of Rutland, but in the reign of Henry II it was reduced practically to the area and shape which it has now.
SOURCE: Brown, Malcom. Cambridge; University Press. 1911
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