839? Or 830? Or, perhaps, 802? It all depends what and how you count.
Officially, I am the 839th High Sheriff. This is based on R. B. Colvin’s The Lieutenants and Keepers of the Rolls of the County of Essex (1934), which included a list of sheriffs up to 1933. The names of those who have held office since 1900, supplied by the office of the Under-Sheriff, can be found on the website of the High Sheriffs’ Association.
Colvin’s list for the years up to and including 1832 was taken from the List of Sheriffs for England and Wales from the earliest times to A.D. 1831, published by the Public Record Office in 1898, which can for the most part be considered definitive: more reliable, for example, than the list to be found in Philip Morant’s History and Antiquities of the County of Essex, which goes up to 1768. However, the PRO list includes fifteen names between 1191 and 1224 that ‘are those of Under-Sheriffs, or others who rendered Sheriffs’ accounts at the Exchequer, widows and executors excluded.’ They should not, therefore, be included in the total number of sheriffs.
On the other hand, the PRO list was only as good as the known sources available at the time, and further research has since been carried out by Judith A. Green into the early years of the shrievalty, up to 1155, after which there are reliable and near-continuous records in one form or another. Her research was published in 1990 under the title English Sheriffs to 1154 as a supplement to the PRO list. The PRO listed seven sheriffs of Essex for the period in question; Professor Green was able to raise the total to fourteen (one identified only by the initial ‘N’), as well as a possible seven others – but we had better leave those out of our calculations.
A recount of the names in the PRO list, less the names of under-sheriffs etc., plus the additional sheriffs identified by Professor Green, gives a total of 642 sheriffs up to 1832. Add the names of those who have held office since 1833, and the total comes to 830 (including the present incumbent).
But – and this is a story full of buts – the PRO list includes a number of sheriffs who were appointed but did not serve. Thus we find that in 1702 Robert Breedon was appointed on 1 January, Thomas Webster on 12 January, and Peter Whitcombe of Great Braxted on 19 January. This accounts for three entries in the PRO list, but as Breedon and Webster were immediately replaced they should not count towards the total number of those who actually held office.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that in the Middle Ages a number of sheriffs served more than one separate term. Before 1258, there was no limit on the time a sheriff might remain in office: in 1204 Matthew Mantel and his heirs were appointed sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire in perpetuity, although in fact he seems to have thought better of it and held office for only three and a half years. It is not always immediately apparent that the same person was appointed on separate occasions, because their names are given differently: Nicholas Clericus, appointed in 1168, is presumably the same as Nicholas Decanus, appointed in 1164, apparently the only example of an Essex sheriff who was in Holy Orders.
Even after the reforms introduced in 1258 theoretically limited sheriffs to a single, twelve-month term of office: Sir John de Coggeshall, for example, served in 1334–9, 1343–8, and 1351–4. Sir Henry Tey served in 1488–9 and 1500–01, Sir John Wentworth in 1543–4 and 1553–4, and Sir Arthur Harris in 1573–4 and 1586–7. Theoretically this is still possible: the Sheriffs Act 1887 allows for reappointment after a gap of three years, if there is ‘no other person in the county qualified to fill the office’.
With all these variables, it might seem impossible to arrive at a definitive figure, and the question with which we started perhaps needs to be framed more precisely as ‘how many people have served as High Sheriff of Essex?’, counting those who served more than one term, consecutively or not, only once; not including those were appointed, but did not actually serve; but not forgetting those who replaced sheriffs in mid-term, usually as a result of death in office (or, in the case of poor John Bayard in 1256, ‘became a lunatic’). This gives a total of 802 individuals, although even so there may be some double counting of sheriffs in the Middle Ages who had the same name but were sufficiently far apart in the list to suggest that they were not the same person.
By my reckoning (and I’d welcome comments and corrections) that makes me either the 830th, or the 802nd, High Sheriff of Essex.