County palatine

A County palatine is an area ruled by a count palatine (or earl palatine, who may hold the higher title of Duke); with special authority and autonomy from the rest of the kingdom. In feudal times, counts palatine exercised royal authority, and ruled their counties largely independently of the king, though they owed allegiance to him. In England today there are three counties which are formally palatine counties, namely, County Durham, Cheshire and Lancashire.


Counties palatine were erected in the 11th century to defend the northern (Scottish) and western (Welsh) frontiers of the Kingdom of England. In order to allow them to do so in the best way they could, their counts were granted palatine ("from the palace", i.e. royal) powers within their territories, making these territories nearly sovereign jurisdictions with their own administrations and courts, largely independently of the king, though they owed allegiance to him.

The Counties Palatine of Durham and Chester, ruled by the Prince-Bishops of Durham and the Earls of Chester respectively, were established by William the Conqueror. Cheshire had its own parliament, consisting of Barons of the county, and was not represented in the Parliament of England until 1541, while it retained some of its special privileges until 1830. The earldom of Chester is traditionally vested in the Sovereign's eldest son upon his crowning as Prince of Wales.

As well as having spiritual jurisdiction over the diocese of Durham, the Bishops of Durham retained temporal jurisdiction over County Durham until 1836. The bishop's mitre which crowns the Bishop of Durham's coat of arms is encircled with a gold coronet which is otherwise used only by Dukes, reflecting his historic dignity as a palatine earl.

Lancashire was made a county, or duchy, palatine in 1351, and kept many of its special judicial privileges until 1873. Although the dukedom of Lancaster merged into the Crown in 1399, it is to this day held separate from other royal lands, and managed by the Duchy of Lancaster; the title of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is still used as a sinecure for a member of the British government without a 'real' portfolio. (In Lancashire, the Loyal Toast is to "the Queen, our Duke".)

The king's writs did not run in these three palatine counties until the nineteenth century, and until the 1970s Lancashire and Durham had their own Courts of Chancery.

There are two kings in England, namely, the lord king of England wearing a crown… and the lord bishop of Durham wearing a mitre in place of a crown…William de St Botolph, 1302

Other palatine counties

The county of Cornwall, although not normally reckoned a palatine county, has a similar status to Lancashire, in that royal lands in Cornwall are held by the Duchy of Cornwall, which belongs to the Sovereign's eldest son, who inherits the title of Duke of Cornwall at birth, or at his father or mother's accession to the throne.

At various times in history the following areas had palatinate status: Shropshire, Kent, the Isle of Ely, Hexhamshire in Northumberland, and in Wales the earldom of Pembroke (until the 1536 union with England). There were also several palatine districts in Ireland, the most important of which was County Tipperary. In Scotland, the Earldom of Strathearn was identified as a palatine county in the fourteenth century, although the title of Earl of Strathearn has usually been merged with the crown in subsequent centuries, and there is little indication that the status of Strathearn differed in practice from other Scottish earldoms.

In the colonies, the historic Province of Avalon in Newfoundland was also granted palatine status.

Sources and references

  • The 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • WorldStatesmen - UK

Most of Wikipedia's text and many of its images are licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (CC BY-SA)

Return to Main Index