History of the Office of High Sheriff

The Office of High Sheriff is the oldest continuous secular office under the Crown and can be traced back more than 1,000 years to the reign of the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready (978-1016).

High Sheriffs were appointed to act as the Sovereign’s representative in their county, historically referred to as a Bailiwick, and they wielded great power. The legal aspect of the role was present from the outset when Sheriffs sat in judgment at trials and were responsible for general law and order. They could raise the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of criminals and keep the King’s Peace by mobilising the ‘posse’, the full military might of the county. The Sheriffs’ powers spread when they became responsible for the raising and collecting of taxes which they had to account for at the Court of Exchequer in London, a significant and often unpopular task.

Sheriffs are mentioned in 27 of the 63 clauses of the Magna Carta (1215) and by the 13th century were clearly fundamental to the running of the counties. By the 14th century they had also become highly influential in choosing their county’s parliamentary representatives.

One of the more unpalatable duties of High Sheriffs was to organise and attend public executions and ensure they were properly performed. This duty continued until the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.

Over the centuries the role of the High Sheriff has gradually been redefined and many of their former duties are now vested in Lord Lieutenants, High Court Judges, Coroners, Magistrates and Local Authorities. The Sheriffs’ Act of 1887, still in force, consolidated the responsibilities of High Sheriffs and confirmed their role as the Sovereign’s representative in the county for all matters relating to the Judiciary and the maintenance of law and order, tasks today principally delegated to the Police and Crime Commissioner and the Chief Constable of Police.

Following the Courts Act of 2003, the High Sheriffs’ ancient responsibility for the enforcement of High Court Writs was transferred to the newly-appointed High Court Enforcement Officers.

Today, as well as their involvement with the Judiciary and the offices of law and order, the responsibilities conferred upon High Sheriffs by the Crown through warrant from the Privy Council can be summarised as follows:

  • attending royal visits to the county

  • attending High Court Judges on circuit and ensuring their well-being

  • acting as Returning Officer for parliamentary elections

  • proclaiming the accession of a new Sovereign and maintaining the loyalty of subjects to the Crown

  • appointing an Under Sheriff and carrying out various ceremonial functions

  • nominating a future High Sheriff.

Finally, it could be said that the history of the High Sheriff is the history of England itself. The office has developed over more than 1,000 years of continuous existence and devotion to the Crown, with the duties of the High Sheriff being adapted and moulded to today’s needs. The High Sheriff of the 21st century still fulfils the ancient role of supporting the shire, upholding its peace and loyalty to the Crown, and stimulating its communities to act in the furtherance of the good of everyone.

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