BERKSHIRE     (Berks)


Windsor (Photo credit: paulafunnell)

County in south central England, west of London.   One of the Home Counties, but no longer an administrative county.   It was the only English county which had shire as an integral part of its name and which was not named after a town (Berkshire, unlike Devonshire, has no alternative form). The name came from a wooded hill called Berroc, though where that was is not certain.

The districts which were to form the county may have been an independent province in the earliest years of Anglo-Saxon England, but soon formed part of early Wessex.   However as the Kingdom of Mercia emerged and grew powerful the Berkshire lands became a zone in which the frontier between the Kingdoms moved one way and then the other.   Parts of Berkshire were recovered by Mercia as late as the 830s when Mercia escaped from the domination that Egbert of Wessex had temporarily established in the later 820s.   Berkshire finally became West Saxon in the first half of Aethelwulf’s reign (839-58).   It soon became a shire, there being an ealdorman for Berkshire by 860.

Its northern boundary was the River Thames from just below Lechlade to some way below Windsor.   The southwest of the county was drained by the river Kennet;  in the southeast was Ascot Heath.   The southern boundary ran roughly speaking west to east;  the northern boundary was long and convoluted.   The result was that eastern Berkshire was narrow, western Berkshire wide.   The county had two exclaves within Oxfordshire, one around Little Faringdon and Langford, another around Shilton, west of Witney.  Within eastern Berkshire were enclaves of Wiltshire at Spencer Wood and north and northwest of Oakingham (now Wokingham).  These had disappeared by the end of the 19th century, as had a finger of Berkshire extending into Wiltshire near Hungerford.  The 20th century saw Berkshire advance north of the Thames boundary when Caversham in Oxfordshire was added to Reading, the one County Borough in Berkshire.

There were no medieval Earls of Berkshire, a county with a royal castle at Windsor.   One sheriff had responsibility for both Berkshire and Oxfordshire until the reign of Elizabeth I.   Berkshire belonged to the diocese of Salisbury until 1836, when it was transferred to Oxford.

The 1972/74 changes to Berkshire were considerable.   The northwestern districts, lying north of the Berkshire Downs (or White Horse Hills), were transferred to Oxfordshire, and so Berkshire lost Abingdon (once its county town), Faringdon, Wallingford and Wantage, the birthplace of King Alfred.   In the east, Berkshire acquired the region around Slough, north of the Thames, from Buckinghamshire (Slough itself had been a county borough until then).   The result was that the revised county was only some two-thirds the size of the old, though with slightly more people.

In 1998 the County Council ceased to exist, as all Berkshire was divided among six unitary authorities.   These are (from west to northeast) Newbury (soon renamed West Berkshire), Reading, Wokingham, Bracknell Forest, Windsor & Maidenhead, and Slough.

The county survives ceremonially, headed by its Lord Lieutenant.

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