County of western England, the northernmost county on the borders with Wales. Because of its proximity to Manchester and Liverpool it is generally regarded as part of northwest England, though the southeast of the county is close to Stoke-on-Trent and thus the Midlands.
The lands that became the county were on the edge of the Kingdom of Mercia, and were only slowly absorbed into that Kingdom. It belonged to English Mercia, never falling to the Danes in the later 9th century.
At some time in the 10th century the lands of English Mercia were shired, possibly in the reign of Edward the Elder, who added Mercia to his Kingdom of Wessex in 919. Cheshire came under strong Scandinavian influence in the later years of the first millennium, but it was because of Norse immigration from across the Irish Sea, not through Viking conquest.
With the Norman Conquest Cheshire became a County Palatine. The first Earl, appointed in 1070, soon left, but he was soon replaced by Hugh of Avranches. In Hugh’s time the border with Wales was pushed well beyond Wat’s Dyke, but by the end of the century the recovery of Gwynedd forced the Normans to retreat, with the result that the present border of Cheshire with Wales is in fact further to the east than the border zone marked by Offa’s and Wat’s Dyke in the days of Mercian greatness.
The northern border of Cheshire ran along the Mersey, whose name indicates boundary and which is formed by the confluence of the Rivers Tame and Goyt. The Tame continued the Mersey boundary between Lancashire and Cheshire, while the Goyt, until its confluence with the Etherow, and then the Etherow formed the northern section of the Cheshire-Derbyshire border.
In the far northeast of the county the Cheshire lands between the Rivers Tame and Etherow formed that peculiar attachment to the county that was nicknamed the Cheshire panhandle.
The son of Earl Hugh of Avranches died in 1120 and was succeeded by his nephew. There were four Earls of that family, three of them called Ralph and all known by different nicknames. They were amongst the most powerful men in England, given their palatine powers upon the borders with Wales. The last of them died in 1232 and was succeeded by his sister’s son, a member of the Royal House of Scotland, but he died without an heir in 1237.
This allowed the County Palatine, where the King’s officers and courts were without jurisdiction, to come back to the King’s hands, and when he next created an Earl he limited the effect by making his own eldest son, the future Edward I, Earl in 1254. Since then all the Earls of Chester have been heirs to the English throne, the future Edward III as Earl, and all the others, including Edward II, as Princes of Wales and Earls of Chester.
Much of the separateness of the County Palatine disappeared in the reign of Henry VIII. It was then that the county first sent members to Parliament, though the palatine court survived until 1830.
With the Local Government Act of 1888, which created elected county councils, Cheshire’s ancient border along the Mersey was altered. Stockport and Stalybridge, both municipal boroughs, had territory, across the Mersey and Tame respectively, in Lancashire. Chester, as a county of a city, Stockport and Birkenhead became county boroughs. Cheshire lost a substantial area in 1931 when Manchester expanded across the Mersey and created housing estates in Wythenshawe.
The 1974 changes were far more considerable and ended the Mersey as a boundary river. The new metropolitan county of Merseyside received about 2/3rds of the Wirral peninsula, including Birkenhead, while that of Greater Manchester gained Stockport and much of the Cheshire share of the Manchester conurbation. The remoter part of the old panhandle, which disappeared entirely, went to Derbyshire. In their stead Cheshire gained Warrington and Widnes, both north of the Mersey.
Cheshire lost about a ninth of its acreage, the population of the geographic county declined by more than 600,000, and even the administrative county by 200,000. The old administrative county had been the 6th largest in population in England (the geographical county was in 7th place); the new county fell to 18th position. Such was the effect of losing the suburbs and the smaller towns of two conurbations. The acquisition of well-populated southernmost Lancashire and Chester’s loss of county borough status were not sufficient to compensate for the loss.
The area under Cheshire County Council was further reduced in 1998 when the districts of Warrington (once a county borough in Lancashire) and Halton (which united the towns of Runcorn and Widnes, in Cheshire and Lancashire respectively before 1974) became unitary authorities. Approximately 30% of its population was lost. Rural Cheshire could hope to be more powerfully influential in the future, though there remained a considerable urban population in places such as Chester, Crewe and Northwich.
Cheshire was in the old Mercian diocese of Lichfield until the diocese of Chester was created in 1541. The Chester diocese originally included Lancashire, southwestern Cumberland, southern Westmorland, and northwestern Yorkshire. In the 19th century the creation of the dioceses of Ripon (1836), Manchester (1848) and Liverpool (1880) reduced the diocese of Chester to Cheshire.