Nominations to the Office of High Sheriff go through the Privy Council for consideration by the Sovereign in Council. The annual nominations of three prospective High Sheriffs for each county are made in a meeting of the Lords of the Council in the King’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice presided over by the Lord Chief Justice on 12th of November each year when the names of all the High Sheriffs in nomination are read out by the King’s Remembrancer.
The Nomination of the High Sheriff in the Lord Chief Justice's Court
Since before the Norman Conquest, the Sheriffs of each county had come annually to the King's Court (the Curia Regis) to give an account of their stewardship and to account for the monies they have collected on behalf of the King.
By the late 1100s, the annual visit was made at Michaelmas when the Sheriff appeared before the King's Court of Exchequer - so called because of the chequered cloth laid on the table before the judges and officials - to produce the revenue of his 'farm'. On one side of this table stood the Treasurer who read out of Domesday the money due from each piece of land in the shire. This was represented by counters which were placed on different squares on the cloth in an elaborate pattern which the Sheriff sought to match with his returns also represented by counters which in turn were placed on the squares opposite the Treasurer's counters. This sober annual reckoning was known as the ludus computorum - or the game of the counters. Present on the Bench watching the taking of the account were the High Officers of State: the Justicia, the Constable, the Marshall, the Chancellor and in later years, the barons or judges of the Court. One of these barons was responsible for revenue matters and was known as the Cursitor Baron who remained, until 1854, as the judge responsible for receiving from the Sheriffs all feudal dues and monies owed to the King.
Although Sheriffs no longer collect the King's monies, this ancient attendance of the Sheriffs at the King's Court has been recognised by the ceremony of nomination of the new Sheriffs. It is held before a court which still contains vestiges of the old Court of Exchequer. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is invited to preside but he does not attend. However, the Sheriffs Act 1887 requires two High Officers of State together with two High Court Judges to attend. Nowadays, it is customary for the High Officers of State to be represented by the Lord Chief Justice and a Lord Justice of Appeal.
The meeting is attended by the Clerk to the Privy Council who sits to the right of the King's Remembrancer. On the King's Remembrancer's left is his Chief Clerk who is responsible for the preparation of the Roll of Sheriffs to be submitted to the King for him to pick his choice of High Sheriff. Each of the pages of nominations will be typed on to a single roll of paper to form a Pipe Roll and wound onto two rods. The Roll will be unwound by the Clerk to the Council as the King pricks each new Sheriff's name.
The King's Remembrancer attends as the successor to the Cursior Baron and the tricorn hat precariously balanced on her full-bottomed wig is the hat formerly worn by the Cursitor Baron whose functions passed to the King's Remembrancer in the 1850's. Its function is a reminder that no one* except the Sovereign may have his head covered in the King's Court.
Initially the list for each county is read out with the present High Sheriff in third place. The King's Remembrancer then calls for one new nomination or name which is given to her by one of the High Officers of State of High Court Judges in turn and the list is then revised for the forthcoming year with the name of the person expected to be the next High Sheriff in first place, followed by the names of his or her two successors. This revised list is then read out by the Remembrancer.
The City of London has the right to appoint two sheriffs (one formerly for the county of Middlesex) but the approbation of the King has to be sought from the King's Remembrancer which is given in October at the Quit Rents Ceremony.
This ancient ceremony of nomination concludes with a short address of thanks by a High Sheriff to which the Lord Chief Justice replies.
*Except the Lord Mayor of London, but even he has to remove his hat in the presence of the King or His Remembrancer.
Subsequently, the selection of new High Sheriffs is made annually in March, when the traditional custom of the Sovereign ‘pricking’ the appointee’s name with a bodkin is perpetuated. Eligibility for nomination and appointment of High Sheriffs excludes Parliamentarians of both houses, full-time members of the Judiciary including Tribunal Judges, and Officers of the Royal Navy, Army or Royal Air Force on full pay. These provisions reflect the essential requirement that the Office of High Sheriff is a non-political appointment.
In March, one of those whose name has been read out is chosen by the monarch to be High Sheriff for the year. This occurs at a ‘pricking’ ceremony (a hole being pierced by a bodkin through the name of the person concerned).
The real reason for pricking through vellum was that the choice was not always a welcome honour due to the costs the incumbent was likely to have to shoulder and also the challenges faced in assessing and collecting taxes, particularly unpopular taxes such as Charles I’s demands for ship money in 1635. A mark with a pen on vellum could easily be erased with a knife, but a hole in the vellum (which is made from calf skin) could not be removed or repaired invisibly. The potential expense to the incumbent of becoming High Sheriff was one of the reasons the role was for a single year only. Another explanation often put forward is that an annual role denied the incumbent the opportunity to build up a power base.
Following the ‘pricking’ of the High Sheriff in the Privy Council by the Sovereign a Warrant of Appointment is sent by the Clerk of the Privy Council in the following terms:'WHEREAS HIS MAJESTY was this day pleased, by and with the advice of HIS PRIVY COUNCIL, to nominate you for, and appoint you to be HIGH SHERIFF of the COUNTY OF... during HIS MAJESTY'S PLEASURE: These are therefore to require you to take the Custody and Charge of the said COUNTY, and duly to perform the duties of HIGH SHERIFF thereof during HIS MAJESTY'S PLEASURE, whereof you are duly to answer according to law.'
The High Sheriff takes up appointment, usually in April each year with the making of a sworn declaration in terms set out by the Sheriffs Act 1887 before a High Court Judge or Justice of the Peace. The appointment is for one year only except in the event of something untoward happening to a High Sheriff’s expected successor, when a High Sheriff must remain in Office until the appointment of a successor is completed.
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