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Lincolnshire is the second largest English county but one of the most thinly populated. From the Humber in the north, which formed the border with Yorkshire, to the Welland in the south, running through Stamford, is more than 70 miles. The greater part of the county is flat but there are three parallel north–south ridges. Lincoln stands at the gap in the western ridge, the Lincolnshire edge, Louth at the gap of the eastern. The northern parts drain into the Humber via the Trent and the Ancholme, the southern into the Wash via the Witham, Glen, and Welland.

At the time of the Roman invasion, the region formed part of the territory of the Coritani. The Romans established a legionary base and then a colonia at Lincoln (Lindum) where the Fosse Way and Ermine Street intersected. The name derives from the Celtic Linn, a pool—presumably the Brayford pool—with the suffix coln, derived from colonia. The Roman north gate survives and is still used by traffic. Caistor was another Roman town of significance, possibly a spa. The Foss dike, a Roman canal, joined the Trent with the Witham.

There were few obstacles to early Saxon settlement except in the south where salt marshes rendered the land impenetrable. Lindsey, in the northern part, may have formed a subkingdom, disputed between Mercia to the west and Northumbria to the north. Bede records the evangelizing visit to Lincoln of Paulinus in the 620s and a diocese of Lindsey was established from 678, though it fell victim to Danish raids in the 9th cent.

From the 870s onwards, the area formed part of the Danelaw, Lincoln and Stamford being two of the five boroughs. The Danes left a great impression on the area. Many of the place-names are of Danish origin—Grimsby, Saxby, Beckby, Swinthorp. The area was divided into three trithings—Lindsey, Kesteven, and Holland—and the largest, Lindsey, was further divided into three ridings. The smaller divisions known elsewhere as hundreds were in Lincolnshire called wapentakes, the brandishing of arms by assemblies of warriors. The shire itself seems to have been formed after 1016, when the southern divisions of Kesteven and Holland, previously orientated towards the east midlands and East Anglia, were united with Lindsey. The Domesday survey treated it as one unit.

In 1066 Lincoln was one of the leading towns in the country, with a population of about 5,000. Torksey, at the junction of the Trent and the Foss Dike, Stamford, Grantham, Barton, and Grimsby were also important. Castles were built at Lincoln and Stamford and in 1072 the diocese was transferred from Dorchester to Lincoln. The building of the cathedral began almost at once. The new diocese was enormous and in the 13th cent. Lincoln itself was said to have more than 40 churches. Barton did not long retain its importance, partly because the Great North Road diverted to the west from Ermine Street, bypassing the shire completely, partly because Hull took much of its river traffic. Boston, however, not mentioned in Domesday, developed rapidly and by 1204 was second only to London in subsidy payment. Lincoln soon complained of the competition, particularly after the wool staple was transferred in 1369. Louth and Sleaford, under the jurisdiction of the bishop, were just outside Lincoln's pull at 26 and 17 miles, and developed as local centres. The main activity of the shire was sheep-rearing on the wolds, cattle on the flatlands, and fishing: reclamation of fenland went on steadily.

In the later Middle Ages a slow decline began. Stamford and Lincoln suffered much from the Black Death in 1349. Other areas in the west, such as Wiltshire and the Cotswolds, developed their own cloth industries. A number of small harbours suffered from silting up of the coast. The Foss Dike was out of action frequently and Grimsby and Boston each found silting hard to deal with. With the growth of colonies in the New World the whole axis of trade shifted towards western ports. Camden in 1586 wrote of the county largely in terms of past glories. Torksey was ‘now a little mean town, but heretofore very noted’: of Lincoln itself ‘'Tis incredible how much it hath sunk and decayed, under the weight of time and antiquity.’

Tudor and Stuart Lincolnshire was little known or visited—a quiet county of small market towns, left to its own devices. Its participation in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 provoked Henry VIII to denounce its inhabitants as ‘the most brute and beastly of the whole realm’. Celia Fiennes in the 1690s noted that Lincoln's waterways were choked up, and 20 years later Defoe, while admiring the minster and the countryside, dismissed the town as ‘an ancient, ragged, decay'd and still decaying city’—if, indeed, it could be called a city. His crossing of the Humber from Barton, which he shared with fifteen horses and twelve cows, took four hours and made him very sick. Isolation encouraged insularity. Mary Yorke, wife of a dean, remarked in 1769 that ‘the people in general of Lincoln have the least curiosity for anything out of their own circle that ever I met with’.

The industrial developments of the 19th cent., while leaving the character of the shire basically unchanged, helped to diversify it. The improvements in transport—turnpikes, canals, railways—helped to knit the shire together but did comparatively little to integrate it with the rest of the nation. The bridge at Gainsborough opened in 1790—the only one north of Newark—improved communications with the north-west. Schemes for a main railway line north through Lincoln came to nothing and in the end the main line followed the Great North Road, almost bypassing the county. But the growth of an agricultural industry brought employment to Lincoln, Gainsborough, and Grantham. Grimsby opened its new dock in 1800 but its spectacular expansion followed the arrival of the railway in 1848, which benefited the fish trade. By 1901 it had overtaken Lincoln as the largest town in the shire. The discovery of iron in the north-west of the county led to the development of a steel industry and the town of Scunthorpe came into existence from a group of small villages: by 1961 it was the third largest town with 67,000 people. Rail transport and the cult of seaside holidays produced Cleethorpes, Skegness, and Mablethorpe with holiday camps and caravan sites. The balance of town and country shifted steadily. In 1801 only 21 per cent of the shire lived in the twelve largest towns; by 1901 it was 34 per cent, by 1931 50 per cent, and by 1961 53 per cent.

The ancient divisions of the shire were acknowledged in 1888 when separate county councils were established for Lindsey (Lincoln), Kesteven (Sleaford), and Holland (Boston). The Local Government Act of 1972 brought them together again but hived off Grimsby, Cleethorpes, Brigg, and their surrounding villages to form the new county of Humberside, which was to be welded together by the Humber bridge, opened to traffic in 1981. Though Humberside was abolished in 1996, the towns were not returned to Lincolnshire, but made into the unitary authorities of North Lincolnshire and North-East Lincolnshire. Otherwise Lincolnshire retained its county status.

J. A. Cannon

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Lincolnshire County in e England, bordering the North Sea; the county town is Lincoln. The area was settled by the Romans, and an Anglo-Saxon kingdom was later established in Lindsey. In the Middle Ages it was a prosperous farming region. In 1974, part of n Lincolnshire was incorporated into the authority of Humberside. Apart from the undulating Wolds, the region is flat, drained by the Trent, Welland, and Witham rivers. Agriculture, mainly cereals, sugar beet and sheep, is the mainstay of the economy, and local industries are closely allied to it. Area: 5886sq km (2273sq mi). Pop. (1997) 628,600.