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Counties corporate were created during the Middle Ages, and were effectively small self-governing county-empowered entities such as towns or cities which were deemed to be important enough to be independent from their counties. A county corporate could also be known as a county of itself, similar to an independent city or consolidated city-county in other countries.
While they were administratively distinct counties, with their own sheriffs and lord lieutenancies, most of the counties corporate remained part of the "county at large" for purposes such as the county assize courts. From the 17th century, the separate jurisdictions of the counties corporate were increasingly merged with that of the surrounding county, so that by the late 19th century the title was mostly a ceremonial one.
By the 14th century, the growth of some towns had led to strong opposition to their government by local counties. While charters giving various rights were awarded to each borough, some were awarded complete effective independence including their own sheriffs, quarter sessions and other officials, and were sometimes given governing rights over a swathe of surrounding countryside. They were referred to in the form "Town and County of ..." or "City and County of ...", and so became known as the counties corporate. Other counties corporate were created to deal with specific local problems, such as border conflict (in the case of Berwick-upon-Tweed) and piracy (in the cases of Poole and Haverfordwest).
In the late 19th century the status of counties corporate changed. By the Militia Act 1882 the lieutenancies of the cities and towns were combined with those of adjacent counties, with two exceptions: the City of London, which retained its separate status, and Haverfordwest, which had a separate lieutenancy until 1974. Then the Local Government Act 1888 created the new status of county borough in England and Wales, with administrative functions similar to counties corporate. Some smaller counties corporate (Berwick upon Tweed, Lichfield, Lincoln, Poole, Carmarthen and Haverfordwest) became part of the administrative county in which they were situated. The City of London retained its previous status. Other counties corporate became county boroughs.
In England and Wales counties corporate were not formally abolished until 1974, although the only vestiges of their existence were the right of the city or borough corporation to appoint a ceremonial sheriff; and the fact that the letters patent appointing lord lieutenants still included the names of the town or city. For example, the Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire's full title was "Lieutenant of and in the County of Gloucester, and the City and County of Gloucester, and the City and County of Bristol".
In Ireland, eight counties corporate were extant by 1610. Each contained rural "liberties" outside the municipal boundary; these were transferred to the adjacent county-at-large in 1840–2, except in the case of Carrickfergus. The extant baronies of Cork and Dublin are approximately coterminous with the territories transferred from the respective cities in 1840. The 1842 report of the Select Committee on Grand Jury Presentments of Ireland found none of the counties corporate except Drogheda derived any advantage from their status, and recommended they be absorbed as baronies of the adjoining county-at-large. The counties corporate were explicitly abolished in 1899 under the terms of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. Cork, Dublin, Limerick and Waterford became county boroughs. Carrickfergus, Drogheda, Galway and Kilkenny became parts of administrative counties. The barony of Carrickfergus is coterminous with the former county of the town.
The counties corporate (listed with date of creation where known) were: