"In days of old when knights were bold and policemen weren't invented The Sheriff would shout for the posse stout and the King was right contented... "
Courtesy Sheriff of New South Wales, Australia
King Alfred had not long been dead, Ethelred the Unready was on the throne, and King Canute was soon to invade Wessex. The Danes were doing what Danes did best in the tenth century – pillaging, ravaging and ravishing! There was still no united Kingdom of England, let alone Scotland and Wales. The Battle of Hastings was seventy-four years away. There was no judiciary, Chancellor, Lords Lieutenant – or police and Inland Revenue, even!
Out of this disunited and disorganised society arose a Crown appointment known today, one thousand years later, as the High Sheriff. In the days of Ethelred and Canute, and increasingly over the centuries he – it almost always was a ‘he’ – was a force to be reckoned with. There were no police, no judges – not even magistrates – no Inland Revenue and no Customs and Excise. The “Scir-reeve” did the lot. He had the powers of arrest, he could raise armies, collect taxes and levies, he presided over courts, dealt with traitors and generally supervised on the King’s behalf everything that went on in the kingdom.
With all these powers, many of the Sheriffs were, as recorded of a certain Godric, Sheriff of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, “colourful old scoundrels”. Bishop Wulfstan, in the reign of King Ethelred, denounced the reeves for their “injustice, plundering, subtlety, perverse judgement and trickery”. They were also “bribe takers and sellers of justice”. The gossip writers of the tenth century had a field day. The unfortunate Godric seems to have come into more than his fair share of media attention. Sheriffs, who themselves owned considerable estates, were often found to have “confused” the King’s land with their own. Godric was more confused than most and years later it was discovered that many rich acres of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, including woodland and meadow, two mills, a church and a fishery, rightfully belonging to the King had been purloined by his Sheriff.
The creation of Magna Carta involved fourteen Sheriffs or former Sheriffs either in an advisory capacity or as participants. Of the sixty-three clauses, twenty-seven are directly concerned with the office of Sheriff. It gives a good idea of how important the office then was.
Gradually, as specialised organisations of state were set up, the powers of the sheriff declined and their excesses were curbed. It eventually got to the point that likely candidates could buy a charter exempting them from ever being appointed sheriff. Not least of the risks arose from the gargantuan appetites of medieval monarchs and their households. It was the Sheriff’s duty to provide the food for royal feasts. At one banquet thirty thousand dishes of meat were served for a royal wedding banquet.
The Office of High Sheriff remained first in precedence in the Counties until the reign of Edward VII when an Order in Council in 1908 gave the Lord Lieutenant the prime Office under the Crown as the Sovereign’s personal representative. Lord Lieutenants were created in 1547 for military duties in the Shires. The High Sheriff remains the Sovereign’s representative in the County for all matters relating to the Judiciary and the maintenance of law and order.
Modern precedence is defined by a Royal Warrant of 1904, as amplified by a Home Office Memorandum of 1928 whereby the High Sheriff takes precedence in the County immediately after the Lord Lieutenant except when precedence is deferred to a Lord Mayor, Mayor or Chairman of the Local Authority when they are undertaking municipal business in their own district.
High Sheriffs are responsible in the Counties of England and Wales for duties conferred by the Crown through Warrant from the Privy Council including:
Attendance at Royal visits to the County
The protection of Her Majesty’s High Court Judges when on Circuit in the County
Attending on Her Majesty’s High Court Judges in Court during the legal terms
The annual appointment of an Under Sheriff
Acting as the Returning Officer for Parliamentary Elections in County constituencies
Responsibility for the proclamation of the accession of a new Sovereign
Witnessing public executions (yes, really!)
The maintenance of the loyalty of subjects to the Crown
The Warrant of Appointment as High Sheriff remains valid even on the death of the Sovereign. In practice some of these responsibilities are delegated to the professional services, for example the protection of the Judges and the maintenance of law and order are in the hands of the Chief Constable of Police.
Nominations to the Office of High Sheriff are dealt with through the presiding Judge of the Circuit and the Privy Council for consideration by the Sovereign in Council. The annual nominations of three prospective High Sheriffs for each County are made in a meeting of the Lords of the Council in the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice presided over by the Lord Chief Justice on 12th November in each year. Subsequently the selection of new High Sheriffs is made annually in a meeting of the Privy Council by the Sovereign when the custom of ‘pricking’ the appointee’s name with a bodkin is perpetuated. Eligibility for nomination and appointment of High Sheriff under the Sheriff’s Act of 1887 excludes Peers of Parliament, Members of the House of Commons, Commissioners or Officers of Customs and Excise or Inland Revenue, Officers of the Post Office and Officers of the Navy, Army or Royal Air Force on full pay, clergymen whether beneficed or not and barristers or solicitors in actual practice.
Following the ‘pricking’ of the High Sheriff in the Privy Council a Warrant of Appointment is sent by the Clerk of the Privy Council to him or to her in the following terms:
‘WHEREAS HER MAJESTY was this day pleased, by and with the advice of HER PRIVY COUNCIL, to nominate you for, and appoint you to be HIGH SHERIFF of the ISLE OF WIGHT during HER MAJESTY’S PLEASURE: These are therefore to require you to take the Custody and Charge of the said ISLE, and duly to perform the duties of HIGH SHERIFF thereof during HER MAJESTY’S PLEASURE, whereof you are duly to answer according to Law.’
The High Sheriff takes up appointment upon making a sworn declaration in terms dictated by the Sheriff’s Act 1887. The appointment is for one year only except in the event of something untoward happening to the High Sheriff’s expected successor when a High Sheriff must remain in Office until the appointment of a successor is executed. High Sheriffs are now encouraged by the Shrievalty Association of England and Wales to undertake duties to improve and sustain the morale of personnel of voluntary and statutory bodies, particularly those engaged in the maintenance and extension of law and order and the entire criminal system. It is an independent non political Office which enables the holder to bring together a wide variety of individuals and Office holders for the good of the community a High Sheriff serves. The High Sheriff receives no remuneration and no part of the expense of his year of Office falls on the public purse. In recent years High Sheriffs in many parts of England and Wales have been particularly active in the field of reduction of crime and the development of an anti crime culture, particularly among young people, through National Crimebeat, DebtCred and other similar initiatives.