The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of south, east, and central Great Britain during late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, are conventionally identified as the heptarchy of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms eventually unified into the Kingdom of England.  In modern England, the region is the highest tier of sub-national division used by central Government. Between 1994 and 2011, the nine regions had an administrative role in the implementation of UK Government policy, and as the areas covered by (mostly indirectly) elected bodies. They are defined as first level NUTS regions (“NUTS 1 regions”) within the European Union.

The regions are:

In the Anglo-Saxon period, Shires were established as areas used for the raising of taxes, and usually had a fortified town at their centre. These became known as the shire town or later the county town. In most cases, the shires were named after their shire town (for example Bedfordshire) however several exceptions exist, such as Cumberland, Norfolk and Suffolk. In several other cases, such as Buckinghamshire, the town which came to be accepted as the county town is different from that after which the shire is named. The name county was introduced by the Normans, and was derived from a Norman term for an area administered by a Count (lord). These Norman ‘counties’ were simply the Saxon shires, and kept their Saxon names. Several traditional counties, including Essex, Sussex and Kent, predate the unification of England by Alfred the Great, and originally existed as independent kingdoms.  Recent local government reforms have merged the responsibilities of some parts of some counties with Boroughs or Districts to form Unitary Authorities bearing the latters name.  All such UAs and remnant County Council areas remain part of a ceremonial county.

A town traditionally was a settlement which had a charter to hold a market or fair and therefore became a “market town”. Market towns were distinguished from villages in that they were the economic hub of a surrounding area, and were usually larger and had more facilities.  A borough were an historic unit of local government, or a degree of self-government. The ancient boroughs covered only important towns and were established by charters of incorporation granted at different times by the monarch.  229 places had borough charters in the period 1307-1660.

The process of incorporation was reformed in 1835 and many more places received borough charters, whilst others were lost. All existing boroughs were abolished on 1 April 1974 and borough status was reformed as a civic honour for local government districts, allowing a District Council to describe itself as a Borough Council. At the same time a limited number of former boroughs and other settlements became successor parishes, with the right to be known as a town and preserve their charter. Boroughs that did not become successor parishes formed unparished areas, but were able to preserve their charters without a corporate body by appointing charter trustees.  A metropolitan borough is a a subdivision of a former metropolitan county (which were created in 1974, and whose councils were abolished in 1985), are defined in English law as metropolitan districts, and are effectively unitary authority areas. However, all of them have been granted or regranted royal charters to give them borough status.  The districts of London (except for the Cities) are London Boroughs.  Some counties, districts and towns have Royal status granted by charter.

In modern usage the term town is used either for old market towns, or for settlements which have a town council, or for settlements which elsewhere would be classed a city, but which do not have the legal right to call themselves such.  However, not all settlements which are commonly described as towns have a “Town Council” or “Borough Council”. In fact, because of many successive changes to the structure of local government, there are now few large towns which are represented by a body closely related to their historic borough council. These days, a smaller town will usually be part of a local authority which covers several towns. And where a larger town is the seat of a local authority, the authority will usually cover a much wider area than the town itself (either a large rural hinterland, or several other, smaller towns).  Some settlements which describe themselves as towns (e.g. Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire) are smaller than some large villages (e.g. Kidlington, Oxfordshire).

The lowest tier of English government is the (civil) parish, which generally exist in rural areas and sometimes in urban areas.  It was derived originally from the manor, and divered from Church of England parishes during the 19th century.  Since 1974, any parish council in England has the right to resolve to call itself a town.  Several communities have taken up this right, including areas that preserved continuity with charter trustees.  This will usually only apply to the smallest “towns” because larger towns will be larger than a single civil parish.  Additionally, there are “new towns” which were created during the 20th century, such as Basildon, Redditch and Telford. Milton Keynes was designed to be a “new city” but legally it is still a town despite its size.

The word town can also be used as a general term for urban areas, including cities and in a few cases, districts within cities. In this usage, a city is a type of town; a large one, with a certain status. For example, Greater London is sometimes referred to colloquially as “London town”. (The “City of London” is the historical nucleus, informally known as the “Square Mile”, and is administratively separate from the rest of Greater London, while the City of Westminster is also technically a city and is also a London borough). Camden Town and Somers Town are districts of London.

The status of a city is reserved for places that have Letters Patent entitling them to the name, historically associated with the possession of a cathedral. Some large municipalities (such as Northampton and Bournemouth) are legally boroughs but not cities, whereas some cities are quite small — such as Ely or Lichfield.  Rochester (Kent) has been a city for centuries but, when in 1998 the Medway district was created, a bureaucratic blunder meant that Rochester lost its official city status and is now technically a town.  It is often thought that towns with bishops’ seats rank automatically as cities: however, Chelmsford remains a town despite being the seat of the diocese of Chelmsford.  In reality, the pre-qualification of having a cathedral of the established Church of England ceased to apply from 1888.  Administratively,  except for the City of London, a city functions as a unitary authority or district (sometimes a Metropolitan Borough or London Borough); eight function as parishes.