The Posse Comitatus

The Office of High Sheriff is an independent non-political appointment for a single year. The origins of the Office date back to Saxon times, when the ‘Shire Reeve’ was responsible to the king for the maintenance of law and order within the shire, or county, and for the collection and return of taxes due to the Crown. Today, there are 55 High Sheriffs serving the counties of England and Wales each year. My own appointment for Belfast was through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Whilst the duties of the role have evolved over time, supporting the Crown and the judiciary remain central elements of the role today. In addition, High Sheriffs actively lend support and encouragement to crime prevention agencies, the emergency services and to the voluntary sector. In recent years High Sheriffs in many parts of England and Wales have been particularly active in encouraging crime reduction initiatives, especially amongst young people. Many High Sheriffs also assist Community Foundations and local charities working with vulnerable and other people both in endorsing and helping to raise the profile of their valuable work. The High Sheriff Association adopted DebtCred and Crimebeat in recent years in response to specific areas of need.

As High Sheriff of Belfast I formed a Posse comitatus, to support the rule of Law and Order in Belfast in the forthcoming Decade of Centenaries. This entered the public domain at the end of November ,2011 and outlived my tenure as High Sheriff at the end of December, when I fully entered another service. The Posse comitatus or sheriff’s posse is the common-law or statute law authority of a county sheriff or other law officer to conscript any able-bodied males to assist him in keeping the peace or to pursue and arrest a felon; compare hue and cry. Originally found in English common law, it has not now generally been applied; however, it survives in America, where it is the law enforcement equivalent of summoning the militia for military purposes.

The term derives from the Latin posse comitatūs, “the power of the county” or the right to an armed retinue, in English use from the late 16th century, shortened to posse from the mid 17th century. While the original meaning refers to a group of citizens assembled by the authorities to deal with an emergency (such as suppressing a riot or pursuing felons), the term posse is also used for any force or band, often also figuratively or humorously. In 19th-century usage, posse comitatus also acquires the generalized or figurative meaning.

The powers of sheriffs for posse comitatus were codified by section 8 of the Sheriffs Act 1887 for England and Wales, the first subsection of which stated that:
Every person in a county shall be ready and apparelled at the command of the sheriff and at the cry of the country to arrest a felon whether within a franchise or without, and in default shall on conviction be liable to a fine, and if default be found in the lord of the franchise he shall forfeit the franchise to the Queen, and if in the bailiff he shall be liable besides the fine to imprisonment for not more than one year, or if he have not whereof to pay the fine, than two years.

This permitted the (high) sheriff of each county to call every citizen to his assistance to catch a person who had committed a felony – that is, a serious crime. It provided for fines for those who did not comply. The provisions for posse comitatus were repealed by the Criminal Law Act 1967. However, the second subsection provided for the sheriff to take ‘the power of the county’ if he faced resistance whilst executing a writ, and provided for the arrest of resisters. This subsection is still in force.

The members of my Posse Comitatus were Martin McAleese, Jackie McDonald, Sean Murray, Tom Hartley, George Newell and Professor Wesley Hutchinson. A record of its proceedings may be found in the Archive to my Blog.

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.

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