The History of the Office of High Sheriff
The role of a High Sheriff is a blend of tradition and evolution, dating back to Saxon times. Except for the Monarchy, the Shrievalty is the oldest secular office in the country and the only secular post surviving from Saxon times, at least since King Cnut and possibly even earlier – It’s recorded that in 669 King Egbert sent his Reeve, Redrid, on an errand to Paris.
By the end of the 10th Century there were c.40 Shires and the ‘Shire Reeves’ became the principal administrators. Their original duties were as King’s land agents and collectors of taxes.
The King’s was the most senior Reeve in the county and oversaw the Crown’s interest, regulated trade and presided at the Hundred Courts which were held every four weeks. He was responsible for carrying out the punishments handed down by the Courts.
After 1066 the High Sheriff’s role gradually moved to administering justice as well as collecting taxes and providing local military support for the King. It was at this time that the Sheriff came to be part of the Justice system, sitting in the local Shire court and supporting the judges who travelled to the courts.
Henry II reorganised & improved the procedures of criminal justice. The Sheriff was responsible for issuing Writs, organising the Court, prisoners and juries and then ensuring the sentences were duly carried out. It was also the Sheriff’s responsibility to ensure the safety and comfort of judges. This is the origin of the High Sheriff’s modern day duty of care for High Court Judges.
As the principal representative and agent for the Crown High Sheriffs were powerful individuals who could
- Convene their own Courts – originally jointly with the Bishop
- Had the power to raise the ‘Hue and Cry’ a literal calling out for forces to pursue and capture villains
- Summon and command the ‘Posse Comitatus’: The full power of the Shire in the King’s Service. Raising the posse comitatus was last activated in 1830 and in theory can still be raised. In both world wars, the High Sheriffs’ powers to mobilise the posse comitatus were re-invoked in case of an emergency, fulfilling their duty to defend the realm against the Sovereign’s enemies
- Collect taxes
- From 1254 the Sheriff was obliged to nominate and arrange for 2 Knights of the Shire to be sent to Parliament. (Interestingly the role of Returning officer is recognised in Magna Carta and to this day it is the right of a modern day High Sheriff to act as Returning Officer)
Of the 63 clauses in Magna Carta of 1215, at least 5 relate to the role of the Sheriff. They were part of the distribution process to publicise the Charter.
The Sheriff’s powers increased and their power was considered to be a threat: In 1540 Henry VIII created Lord Lieutenants to take over all the military duties. To this day both The Lord Lieutenant and the High Sheriff are appointed by, and are representatives of, the Sovereign. The High Sheriff is responsible for Law & Order – keeping the Queen’s Peace, and the Lord Lieutenant for civil and all other matters.
Other unpleasant tasks remained the duty of the Sheriff. Until the death sentence was abolished in 1965, Sheriffs would oversee executions. In the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-58) Sheriffs were charged with the burning of heretics – a gruesome responsibility which they tried to avoid.
The appointment process
Panels are now established in each county to help identify suitable, experienced and public spirited individuals who are prepared to take on a highly time demanding, self-funded post. High Sheriffs do not need to be lawyers. The under-sheriff takes care of the legal functions.
Even to this day on the 12 November each year, three names from each County are read out by the Queen’s Remembrancer. This Ceremony is held in the Royal Courts of Justice, before The Lord Chief Justice, a Lord Justice of Appeal, and two High Court Judges. In March the Roll of High Sheriffs in Nomination is submitted to the Queen who ‘pricks’ (appoints) the High Sheriffs for the ensuing year.
Elizabeth I is believed to have originated the practice that continues to this day of the Sovereign ‘pricking’ a name on the Sheriff’s roll with a bodkin. The reason for pricking through vellum was that the choice was not always a welcome honour. An ink mark could be erased but a hole in the skin (vellum) would be permanent.
The Warrants of Appointment are received in the post. The role of High Sheriff is a direct appointment of the Sovereign by Royal Warrant and you take Office by making a statutory Declaration of fidelity.
The High Sheriff’s Badge
Two crossed swords on a blue background. The swords are different – one tip is sharp, for judgement and justice and the other is blunt for mercy – showing that justice should be tempered with compassion.