Walter Map, a late 12th-century cleric remembered chiefly for his satirical work De nugis curialium (The trifles of courtiers), had a rather jaundiced view of the declaration made by the sheriffs when they took up their post:
Even as the children of the night – the owl, the nighthawk, and the vulture – love darkness rather than light, so from the King’s Court are sent sheriffs, under-sheriffs and beadles: men who at the outset of their office swear before the highest judge to serve honestly and faithfully God and their master, but being perverted by bribes, tear the fleeces from the lambs and leave the wolves unharmed.
The declaration made today is surprisingly similar to that sworn in the 12th century. The wording is laid down in the Sheriffs Act 1887, but much of the wording would have been familiar to sheriffs of the 15th century (with the significant exception that 19th-century sheriffs were no longer required to take ‘every care and show all diligence in destroying and causing to cease all manner of heresies and errors commonly called Lollardies’). The Act stipulates that the declaration must be made ‘before one of the judges of Her Majesty’s High Court of Justice or before a justice of the peace for the county of which he is sheriff’.
The declaration is written in language that makes it difficult to read meaningfully, and like many legal documents it is a little short on punctuation. The declaration is concerned largely with the execution of writs, and ensuring that the proceeds find their way to the Exchequer, something which no longer forms part of the High Sheriff’s duties. The emphasis is very much on safeguarding the monarch’s rights and ensuring that the sheriff does not profit personally at the monarch’s expense.
But, once the sheriff’s duty to the Crown has been firmly stated, the sheriff’s duty to the people of his county makes a crucial appearance:
I will do right as well to poor as to rich in all things belonging to my office; I will do no wrong to any man for any gift reward or promise nor for favour or hatred; I will disturb no man’s right.
Finally, he undertakes in even more general terms:
I will truly and diligently execute the good laws and statutes of this realm, and in all things well and truly behave myself in my office for the honour of the Queen and the good of her subjects, and discharge the same according to the best of my skill and power.
The modern High Sheriff has no opportunity to break most of the undertakings he gives when making his declaration, but he can certainly well and truly behave himself, and has ample opportunity to do right as well to poor as to rich by supporting those engaged in public service and voluntary work in his county.
[For the history of the declaration, see Irene Gladwin, The Sheriff: the man and his office (1974), pp. 163, 259–60, 373–4. Walter Map is quoted in Helen Cam, The Hundred and the Hundred Rolls: an outline of local government in medieval England (1930), p. 59.]