Except for the Monarchy itself, the Shrievalty is the oldest office in the United Kingdom and the only secular office surviving from Saxon times.It is an appointment exercised at least since the reign of King Cnut (1017 – 1036) and reputedly two centuries before that. Written records are scarce but there are references to Reeves by King Beorhtric who reigned over Wessex from 786 to 802. Even in 669 and there is a record to show that King Egbert of Kent sent his Reeve Redrid on an errand to Paris.
The word 'Sheriff' is said to derive from the Anglo-Saxon word “Scir-gerefa” or “Shire-reeve”, meaning bailiff of the Shire.
The position originated in the King's need for capable control of his extensive estates – since the Saxon kings were the greatest landowners in the realm. The Shire Reeve or Sheriff was the person appointed to carry out that duty. The King's Reeve was naturally the most senior reeve in the county and assumed powers not only overseeing the Crown's interest directly, but also regulating trade and presiding at the Hundred Courts which were held every four weeks. The King's Reeve was additionally charged with the responsibility of carrying out the punishments handed down by these Courts.
After the Norman Conquest, all land was deemed to be the King's land and Sheriffs' powers increased to cover tax collection which replaced the Anglo-Saxon system of rents in kind. During the 11th and 12th Centuries, the Sheriff's powers were very extensive, for example:
- They convened their own courts – originally jointly with the bishop.
- They had the power to raise the “Hue and Cry” in pursuit of felons within their Shire and could summon and command the “Posse Comitatus”, the full power of the Shire in the King's service. (The associated power of arrest remains a residual power of the High Sheriff).
- They collected taxes, levies and all dues on Crown lands.
- They held Crown property in custody and responsibility in the Shire.
- They were the principal representative and agent for the Crown and each was a very powerful individual in the Shire.
- They nominated and arranged for representatives of the County to be sent to Parliament (the role of returning officer is recognised in the Magna Carta).
Early Sheriffs often served for several years in succession, but in 1258, tenure of one year only was enacted, this was intended to reduce the opportunities of the Sheriff to build up a power base. This annual change of postholder, still current today, did not operate universally until the mid-14th century.
Historically, women have rarely acted as Sheriff, two notable exceptions being Dame Nicolla de la Haye (Lincolnshire 1216) and Lady Ann Clifford (Westmoreland 1605). Since 1967 however, women have been appointed in increasing numbers.
Collecting and rendering tax to the Exchequer was a major task of Sheriffs. Some enterprising ones found that a profit could be made by raising more than the tax expected from their county, but conversely the Sheriff whose tax collecting fell short was either forced to make up the deficit from his own pocket or found himself in jail. One of King John's more imaginative Sheriffs raised additional monies for the Crown by kidnapping the mistresses of the clergy, returning them to their lovers only after high ransoms had been paid. The King apparently found this highly amusing and rewarded him with a gift of £1,000.
High Sheriffs' accounts were from medieval times recorded on wooden tallies which were stored in the Houses of Parliament, until 1826 when the decision was taken to burn these dusty pieces of wood and the over-zealous staff set on fire the whole of the Palace of Westminster, which resulted in the building of the Houses of Parliament as we now know them.
The collection of tax continued to be an important responsibility, and although it reduced after the 16th century, it was still a significant and unpopular burden, as shown by the difficulties Sheriffs had collecting the doomed ship money for Charles.
Other unpleasant tasks remained the duty of the Sheriff. Until the death sentence was abolished in 1965, High Sheriffs would oversee executions. In the reign of Queen Mary Tudor (1553-58), Sheriffs were charged with the burning to death of heretics. The Sheriffs tried to avoid this gruesome responsibility, but some 300 men and women were burnt at the stake.
Raising the Posse Comitatus was last activated in 1830 when the High Sheriff of Oxfordshire subdued an insurrection against an enclosure award. In theory, this can still be raised and as recently as the two 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. Thus my own remit for raising such a group in Belfast.
To be continued