The largest towns in Warwickshire as of 2004 are: Nuneaton (pop. 77,500), Rugby (pop. 62,100), Leamington Spa (pop. 42,300), and Bedworth (pop 32,500).
The bulk of Warwickshire's population lives in the north and centre of the county, The north has traditionally been industrial, with towns such as Nuneaton, Bedworth and Rugby whose traditional industries include (or included) coal mining, textiles, cement production, and engineering.
The south of the county is largely rural and sparsely populated, and includes no towns of any significant size. The southern fringe of Warwickshire includes a small area of the Cotswolds.
Historically much of western Warwickshire, including the area now forming part of Birmingham and the West Midlands, was covered by the ancient Forest of Arden (although most of this was cut down to provide fuel for industrialisation in the 17th to 19th centuries). For this reason, several places in the northwestern part of Warwickshire have names with the termination "-in-Arden".
In the 8th and 9th century, what is now Warwickshire was a part of the kingdom of Mercia. In the late 9th century the Mercian kingdom declined and in 874 large parts of Mercia to the east of Warwickshire were ceded to Danish (viking) invaders by King Alfred's treaty with the Danish leader Guthrum. Watling Street, on the north-eastern edge of Warwickshire, became the boundary between the Danelaw (the kingdom of the Danes) to the east and the much reduced Mercia to the west. There was also a boundary with the kingdom of Wessex to the south.
Owing to its location at the frontier between two kingdoms, what is now Warwickshire needed to establish defences against the threat of Danish invasion. This task was undertaken by Ethelfleda, "Lady of the Mercians" and daughter of King Alfred, who was responsible for the building of the first parts of Warwick Castle. Defences against the Danes were also built at Tamworth (seeTamworth Castle).
Periodic fighting between Danes and Saxons occurred until the 11th century. Because of its castle, Warwick grew into a prosperous market town and a powerful centre within the Mercian kingdom. In the early 11th century, new internal boundaries within the Mercian kingdom were drawn and Warwickshire came into being as the lands administered from Warwick.
The first recorded use of the name Warwickshire was in the year 1001, named for Warwick (meaning "dwellings by the weir").
During the 18th and 19th centuries Warwickshire became one of Britain's foremost industrial counties. The coalfields of northern Warwickshire were amongst the most productive in the country, and greatly enhanced the industrial growth of Coventry and Birmingham.
Towns like Nuneaton, Bedworth, and Rugby also became industrialised. The siting of a major railway junction in the town was the key factor in the industrial growth of Rugby.
Towards the end of the 19th century Birmingham and Coventry had become large industrial cities in their own right, and so administrative boundaries had to change. In 1889 the administrative county of Warwickshire was created, and both Coventry and Birmingham became county Boroughs which made them administratively separate from the rest of Warwickshire.