Past, Present and Future of the
Office and Role of Sheriff
The current role of Sheriff is not in any way the result of a simple journey. Its’ origins date so far back that the complexities of how the lands of ancient Anglo-Saxon England, Wales and Scotland was governed, fought over, conquered, divided and governed again - in many different ways over many centuries, has to be considered. Those complexities and time spans cannot possibly be captured in these pages but make for a fascinating journey into further reading. To learn more click on the link below
Below is a (very) brief overview of how Sheriffs came about and evolved.
The Sheriffs of (from left to right) Gloucester, York, Chester, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Lichfield, Southampton, Poole, Nottingham, Canterbury, Lincoln and Haverfordwest at Southampton in 2018
During the Anglo-Saxon times the land we now know as Great Britain was divided into 'manageable' realms known as 'Shires'.
Many counties still retain the reference within their names (Hampshire, Cheshire, Lancashire, Wiltshire, Yorkshire and so on) and some have mostly dropped the suffix (Dorset (shire), Somerset (shire), Devon (shire) etc.).
Each of these shires that constituted the overall ‘kingdom’ were governed by a king’s representative known as ‘ealdormen’ – a system largely inherited from the Romans.
Under King Alfred, who reigned in the latter part of the 9th century, the representatives (the 'ealdormen') were authorised to appoint deputies who were known as ‘reeves’.
Later, notably following the Norman Conquest when William appointed a reeve to each shire the reeves became known as ‘Shire Reeves’ evolving gradually to ‘sheriff’.
From the earliest times the main role of these deputising royal representatives was to oversee and distribute justice to the people within their areas of jurisdiction.
Over time, the king’s immediate representatives became more honorary and privileged and less ‘hands-on’ and their deputies, the sheriffs, became more important and more accepted as representing the king’s authority directly at local level carrying out a large part, if not all, of the king’s business.
It is hard to imagine the power and influence that these men had over their domains but they came from high ranking, highly wealthy families which would have already been established within the royal household inner circle.
The role of king’s representative encompassed many aspects of life. They were responsible for the collection of taxes, ensuring land and farms were productive and for ‘recruiting’ armies to serve the king’s needs.
In return he was rewarded with large swathes of land and castles and grand residences to reflect his power.
So successful was the system of ‘sheriffs’ that the office survived the Norman Invasion and the Normans evolved and shaped the role further during their reorganisation of the kingdom.
Up to the time of Edward I it was the king’s privilege to appoint the person he desired. But Edward I changed the dynamic considerably by making a declaration that gave the local people of each shire to appoint their own Sheriff. Not all shires chose to do this and those that did often found the process so disruptive and divisive that
Edward II intervened and allocated the power of appointment to specific local dignitaries, namely judges, treasurers and chancellors. This system appeared to work well and lasted, with some adaptations, through several reigns including Henry VIII's. By his reign, the appointment of sheriff was made by the king from three names submitted by local dignitaries namely the chancellor, treasurer, president of the king’s council the chief justices and chief baron and on a specific date (November 6th).
However, as was the power of the king, very often he did not nominate a sheriff from any of the names submitted, however carefully and painstakingly determined, but chose his own. This practice gave place to the name ‘pocket sheriff’.
During the long journey of change and adaptation of the role, the time period for which sheriffs could serve varied from being specifically just one year to, by the king’s personal intervention, lifelong (either the sheriff’s or the king’s).
The power and influence of the Office of Sheriff became so abused and unpopular that the Magna Carter (Great Charter) signed by King John in 1215 to appease his Barons featured many reforms to keep them in check. This interpretation (follow link) is of particular interest
Richard II later made a statute that specified no sheriff could serve for a second time or more within three years of finishing a time in office.
A Covetous position
The role of sheriff was held in great esteem and was clearly coveted by women as well as men and some women certainly served in office.
This is clear from local records where wealthy and powerful local dignitaries actually bid for the role of sheriff, paid for it, or won it by favour with the king. Bishops, Archbishops, earls, chief justices and counts held position of Sheriffs – many through their wealth.
Women of great nobility and in powerful positions – wives and widows of kings, countesses, and some whose husbands had held the position and died in office were given the office of sheriff.
The office of sheriff survived through tumultuous times of war, unrest, revolt, invasion, plague, pestilence and famine.
At times the nobility were diminished and neighbouring shires were merged for a period of time under the governance of one sheriff – Devon with Cornwall, Dorset with Somerset, Norfolk with Suffolk, Nottingham and Derby to name but a few. These were then separated back to their individual shrievalty as the numbers within the nobility increased
The Present - Upholding Shrieval Heritage - the evolving role
The current role of sheriff across all shrievalties is very much ceremonial. Each town and city that holds the office of sheriff has a different interpretation of what that role can bring to the town. In Nottingham, for example, whose name is inexorably linked with the Office of Sheriff due to the legend of Robin Hood, the role is important in promoting the city as a destination for visitors and tourists.
The role certainly is celebrated and utilised to uphold ancient traditions such as the annual riding of the parameters of the city in Lichfield “on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary”, the ‘Beating of the Sea Bounds' in Poole and the 'Sheriff's Riding in York’.
Many of the shrievalty town and cities have old traditions, legends and stories drawn from ancient archives that have served to intrigue and educate people over centuries. Please visit the pages relating to each of the towns and cities that retain the Office of Sheriff.
The Future - Into the 21st Century
The Office of Sheriff is an honour and a privilege to hold. With financial pressures increasingly growing on Local Authorities the Office needs to and should be one that demonstrates service to the local community.
In addition to promoting the Office of Sheriff at local events, especially ancient customs and traditions, supporting local organisations, events and charities through active fund raising and/or promoting those activities undertaken by others is a vital part of the role.
Organising and taking part in activities such as litter picking and conservation are valuable ways to demonstrate that the Office of Sheriff can still be a
valid one in today's local communities.
Sheriffs need to keep in touch with members of their communities through all means available to them, including social media, and actively encourage schools, youth groups and other organisations to invite them in to talk about the Office and its history.