The office of High Sheriff is the oldest continuous secular Office under the Crown, dating back to Anglo-Saxon times when the King’s Reeve, also known as the High Reeve, acted as a royal official able to enforce the King’s interest in a county without becoming embroiled in local factions. It was 992 AD when the first shire reeves (in Anglo-Saxon scirgerefa, also meaning guardian) were ordered by the King to collect the onerous ‘Danegeld’ tax, the ransom extracted by the Danes after the defeat of the Saxons at the Second Battle of Maldon on 10th August 991. The amount to be collected was twenty-four pieces of silver per household, a cruel imposition for the time.
The new Sheriffs proved successful tax-gatherers and, under the Saxon kings, they became the Monarch’s trusted administrators within the shires. After the Conquest in 1066, the Norman Kings expanded this role and the Shrievalty remained at the heart of national administration for hundreds of years.
The High Sheriff was the main administrator within the shires and accountable to the National Revenue Court, the Court of Exchequer, for tax payable to the Crown, a rent roll which had been determined by the Domesday Survey. Each Sheriff had the facility to ‘farm’ (also spelt ferm) his taxes, which meant that he could apply taxation on the populace for his own benefit as well as for the Exchequer. It was this that made the medieval Sheriff such a deeply unpopular and hated figure, giving rise to caricatures such as the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in the tale of Robin Hood.
At Easter and Michaelmas, the High Sheriffs were obliged to appear before the Court of Exchequer and make account of the taxes that had been raised. Sheriffs reported to the King’s Remembrancer in the Upper Chamber of the Court of Exchequer and made account of his ‘ferm’ on a table at the Court which was covered with a chequered cloth which acted as an early calculator. Tally sticks were issued as receipts. The stick was notched with the amount of tax raised and then split into two, one being kept by the Court and the counterpart being held by the High Sheriff.
The collection and rendering of tax to the Exchequer remained a major task of High Sheriffs and, although it reduced after the 16th century, it was still a significant and unpopular burden, as shown by the difficulties they had collecting the doomed ship money for Charles I. Over the centuries, however, their responsibilities reduced as a centrally controlled ‘civil service’ grew.
High Sheriffs presided at Shire Courts from pre-Norman times, but from 1166 itinerant justices assumed their judicial functions. However, the power to enforce Writs of Court remained vested in the Sheriffs and the mechanisms for enforcement have changed over the years. In practice, the enforcement of High Court Orders is now a matter for High Court Enforcement Officers.
The High Sheriffs’ early powers to administer justice within the land were extensive. They could raise the hue and cry after criminals in their counties and keep the King’s peace by mobilising the posse comitatus, the full military force of the county. Raising the posse comitatus was activated last in 1830 when Oxfordshire’s High Sheriff subdued an insurrection against an enclosure award. In theory, this can still be raised and as recently as the two World Wars, 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 King’s enemies.
The High Sheriff also traditionally had the responsibility to provide juries, had powers of arrest and had the responsibility to organise hangings.
By the 14th century, they had become highly influential in choosing their counties’ parliamentary representatives and the duty of High Sheriffs to act as Parliamentary Returning Officers remains to this day.
Early High Sheriffs often served for several years in succession, but in 1258 a tenure of one year only was enacted, although the annual change of postholder did not operate universally until the mid-14th century.
Historically, ladies have rarely acted as High Sheriff, two notable exceptions being the remarkable Dame Nicola de la Haye (Lincolnshire 1216) who actively repelled French invaders and Lady Ann Clifford (Westmorland 1605). The first modern woman High Sheriff was appointed to the Bailiwick of Gloucestershire in 1967, and today ladies make up about half of the High Sheriffs appointed.
In 1887, the Sheriffs Act was introduced, reforming the office of High Sheriff and regularising its structure. In 1972 the Assize Court system was replaced by Crown Courts and there was doubt whether the shrieval system would survive. It was further undermined in 2004 when the responsibility for the enforcement of High Court Writs was handed to High Court Enforcement Officers. That the Shrievalty has survived is thanks to the flexibility of the office and its continued ability to fulfil relevant functions to this day.