Sheriffs in the Middle Ages had many duties to perform besides collecting fines and taxes, and the costs they incurred could be deducted from the sums due to the Exchequer. For example, in 1257 the sheriff of Essex was ordered to provide bridges and hurdles for the equipment of a hundred ships for the passage of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, from Yarmouth to Germany. In 1262, his successor received a mandate to have the ways leading to London watched and guarded, as robberies and murders had been committed on men going to the dedication of the church of St Paul. In September 1264 the sheriffs of Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were commanded to guard the seashore in defence of the realm against aliens. For this purpose they were allowed to levy additional money if they did not have sufficient funds in hand.
The story of the task placed upon the shoulders of Richard de Southchurch, sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire in 1265–7, has found its way into many history books. The reign of Henry III was a time of successive rebellions and disputes between supporters of the king. The leader of one such dispute was Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who had been a supporter of Simon de Montfort before changing decides and playing a crucial part in his defeat at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. But differences remained.
In April 1267 the baronial forces under Gilbert de Clare entered London, which rose in their support, and the king’s army, abandoning the siege of Ely, marched south and lay at Stratford, then just outside London in Essex, for seven weeks. During this period provisions ran short and the sheriffs of both Kent and Essex scoured the countryside for military stores. Richard de Southchurch, according to the villagers of Chafford hundred, took ‘for the sustenance of the king’s host’ wheat, oats, cheese, bacon, pease, and beef, as well as ropes for making cords for the arbalests and catapults; picks, calthrops and spades to lay low the walls of London; tow and eggs for dressings, linen for bandages, chickens to feed the wounded, and finally cocks, forty of them, which he proposed to use as incendiary bombs, by tying fire to their feet and sending them flying into London to burn it down.
Stories of using birds in this way are found in many sagas and poems of the early Middle Ages. Success would depend upon the homing instincts of birds that nested in the town and ventured out by day; they could be caught, loaded with flammable material, and then released to return home as incendiaries. Cirencester was supposed to have been captured in this way in 879. It is less likely that Richard de Southchurch’s cocks would have chosen to fly into London, which was not their home, and it seems that the sheriff was having a laugh at the expense at the good folk of Chafford hundred; they declared on oath that the supplies were taken to his own manor of Southchurch – now part of Southend – in the opposite direction from London. He was allowed 200 marks (about £172,000) at the Exchequer for all the things he had taken for the king’s use, and never paid a penny for them.
Richard de Southchurch’s later misdemeanours, which included being present at the theft of a hart at the king’s forest of Chelmsford (fined 100 shillings, but pardoned) and perjury (fined 1000 pounds, but acquitted in return for surrendering the manor of Hatfield Peverel), support the suggestion that his exploit with the forty cocks was an act of deliberate dishonesty.
[The story of Richard de Southchurch and the siege was told by Helen Cam in The Hundred and the Hundred Rolls (1930), pp. 101–2; in 1916 she had published a detailed article on the Legend of the Incendiary Birds (English Historical Review, vol. 31, pp. 98–101). A more recent scholar, Michael Prestwich, is in no doubt that Richard de Southchurch ‘succeeded in a confidence trick’ by obtaining the supplies for his own use at others’ expense (Edward I (1988), pp. 58–9). For the other examples of sheriff’s obligations, see Cam, p. 100, and W. A. Morris, The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (1927), pp. 225, 236–7, & 271.]