Hampshire is the largest county in South East England and remains the third largest shire county in the United Kingdom despite losing more land than any other English county in all contemporary boundary changes. At its greatest size in 1890, Hampshire was the fifth-largest county in England. It now has an overall area of 3,700 km2 (1,400 sq mi), and measures about 86 km (53 mi) east–west and 76 km (47 mi) north–south.
Hampshire's tourist attractions include many seaside resorts and two national parks: the New Forest and the South Downs (together covering some 45% of the county). Hampshire has a long maritime history, and two of Europe's largest ports, Portsmouth and Southampton, lie on its coast. The county is famed as home of writers Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, as well as the birthplace of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It has many close associations with Florence Nightingale.
Hampshire takes its name from the settlement that is now the city of Southampton. Southampton was known in Old English as Hamtun, roughly meaning "village-town", so its surrounding area or scīr became known as Hamtunscīr. The old name was recorded in the Domesday book as Hantescire, and from this spelling, the modern abbreviation "Hants" derives. From 1889 until 1959, the administrative county was named the County of Southampton and has also been known as Southamptonshire.
The region is believed to have been continuously occupied since the end of the last Ice Age about 12,000 BCE. At this time, Britain was still attached to the European continent and was predominantly covered with deciduous woodland. The first inhabitants came overland from Europe; these were anatomically and behaviourally modern humans, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Over several thousand years, the climate became progressively warmer, and sea levels rose; the English Channel, which started out as a river, was a major inlet by 8000 BCE, although Britain was still connected to Europe by a land bridge across the North Sea until 6500 BCE. Notable sites from this period include Bouldnor Cliff.
Agriculture had arrived in southern Britain by 4000 BCE, and with it a neolithic culture. Some deforestation took place at that time, although during the Bronze Age, beginning in 2200 BCE, this became more widespread and systematic. Hampshire has few monuments to show from these early periods, although nearby Stonehenge was built in several phases at some time between 3100 and 2200 BCE. In the very late Bronze Age, fortified hilltop settlements known as hillforts began to appear in large numbers in many parts of Britain including Hampshire, and these became more and more important in the early and middle Iron Age; many of these are still visible in the landscape today and can be visited, notably Danebury Rings, the subject of a major study by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe. By this period, the people of Britain predominantly spoke a Celtic language, and their culture shared much in common with the Celts described by classical writers.