Save for the Monarchy, the Shrievalty is the oldest office in the country and the only secular office surviving from Saxon times - an appointment typically 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 it is recorded that King Egbert of Kent sent his Reeve Redrid on an errand to Paris.
The word 'Sheriff' is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon word "Scir-gerefa" or "Shire-reeve", meaning bailiff or manager of the Shire.
The position originated in the King's need for capable management of his extensive estates - the Saxon kings were the greatest landowners in the realm. The 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:
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.
Over the centuries, the Sheriff's duties reduced. For instance, Justices of the Peace or magistrates were appointed to administer the law in the 13th Century and given permanent commission in 1361. Henry VIII appointed Lord Lieutenants to undertake military matters in the shires but it was not until 1908 that Edward VII gave Lord Lieutenants precedence over High Sheriffs (who take second place unless deferring to Lord Mayors, Mayors and local authority Chairmen on civic occasions in their districts). Through Acts of Parliament in 1856 and 1865, all powers concerning prisons and policing passed from the Sheriff to the Prison Commissioners and the Constabulary. Under an Act of 1883, the care of Crown property was transferred to the Crown Commissioners.
So, as society and government developed further, the powers and duties of the Sheriff were substantially reduced, but the Sheriff continues to occupy a significant role in the legal landscape of the County and the life of the Courts. Constitutionally, the Sheriff
remains the Chief Executive Officer of the Crown in the County, and is responsible for enforcing the Crown's writ where there is no other agency with that responsibility. The role still involves looking after the Sovereign's Judges, supporting those offices and agencies that uphold law and order (including, where directed by a Judge, the making of awards to members of the public who have assisted in the apprehension of a person charged with an offence) and, more generally, uniting all subjects in loyalty to the Monarchy.
The High Sheriff is appointed by the Sovereign, and one of the first duties is to appoint an Under Sheriff as deputy, customarily a practising solicitor. Each must make a declaration on taking appointment. Whilst both offices are annual appointments, it is convention for the Under Sheriff to be reappointed so as to provide continuity of support for the incoming High Sheriff. Broadly speaking, High Sheriffs are appointed for the local administrative area created in 1974 and
Under Sheriffs still operate on the pre-1974 county boundaries, though there are some regional variations.
It has been said that the story of the office of High Sheriff is the story of England itself. The post has developed over its 1,000 years or more of continuous existence and devotion to the Crown, with duties of High Sheriff being adapted and moulded to today's needs. Upholding law and order and loyalty to the Crown stay paramount, but the importance of recognising and rewarding the community spirit amongst the population now assumes ever greater importance. The last decades have witnessed many difficult social and environmental changes but today's High Sheriff still fulfils the ancient role of supporting the shire, upholding its peace and encouraging its communities to act in the furtherance of the good of all.