1,000 years of history of High Sheriffs

A brief history of the office of High Sheriff and how it evolved into its present day role.

The office of High Sheriff is the oldest secular office in the United Kingdom, after the Crown, and dates back to Saxon times. The word ‘Sheriff’ derives from ‘Shire Reeve’ or the Anglo-Saxon ‘ Scir Gerefa’. The King’s Reeve was also known as the ‘High Reeve’. Anglo-Saxon Sheriffs fought at the Battle of Hastings and Godric, the first recorded Sheriff from Berkshire, was killed during this famous battle.

The High Sheriff & The Normans

After the Conquest in 1066, the Normans continued to appoint Sheriffs. In the 11 th and 12 th centuries, the powers of the High Sheriff were considerably extended. These powers included:

  • Acting as chief magistrate in cases before Courts of the Hundred (an administrative unit in the Shire); these Courts were chiefly responsible for the administration of the law and keeping the peace;
  • Raising the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of wrong-doers in their Shire (the phrase derives from an Anglo-Norman phrase);
  • summoning the ‘posse comitatus’ which was the power to conscript any able-bodied man to assist in keeping the peace;
  • Administration of Crown Property in the Shire;
  • collecting taxes and all dues on Crown lands on behalf of the Crown.

1200s – 1800s

In the Magna Carta, twenty seven of the sixty three clauses in that famous document relate to the role of the Sheriff. From 1254 the High Sheriff supervised the election to Parliament of two knights of the Shire.

In the 13th century, some of the Sheriff’s powers were transferred to the newly created roles of Coroners and Justices of the Peace. Henry VIII was the first to create Lord Lieutenants to certain English counties in the 1540s. They were appointed to be the personal representative of the Sovereign.

The High Sheriff from the 1800s onwards

By Acts of Parliament in 1856 and 1865 the Sheriff’s powers relating to police and prisons passed to the Police Commissioners and the local constabulary. Under an Act of 1883 the responsibility for administering Crown Property passed to the Crown Commissioners.

The Sheriffs Act of 1887 consolidated the law relating to the Office of High Sheriff and the Act remains in force today though there have been several amendments. The Act stipulates that the Office should be held for one year only and confirmed the historic process of nomination and selection by the Sovereign.

The ceremonial uniform that is worn by High Sheriffs is known as Court Dress. The style of the uniform for men has remained essentially unchanged since the late seventeenth century and includes a sword and a cocked hat. When not wearing Court Dress, a High Sheriff will wear a badge of office.

Today, the High Sheriff remains the King’s representative for Law and Order in the County. This involves the organising of such events as the Ceremonial Service for the Opening of the Judicial Year. The position is unpaid.