Song against Sheriffs

The original Latin. Sheriffs were also known as ‘vicecomte’, the Norman French equivalent of sheriff.

Sheriffs had a poor reputation for much of the Middle Ages (think of the Sheriff of Nottingham), not surprisingly given that one of their principal duties was to collect fines and taxes on behalf of the monarch. The post (then as now) was unpaid, and many sheriffs could not resist the temptation to profit from it by exacting more tax than they were required to pass on the Exchequer, or by taking bribes in connection with their duties of administering justice. In 1274 King Edward I ordered an enquiry into widespread crime and corruption at all levels of government, but seventeen out of the forty questions that were drawn up related specifically to sheriffs. Sad to say, Walter de Essex, sheriff in in 1269 and 1270–1, emerged particularly badly from the process. 130 charges were made against him, one of which was the acceptance of a bribe to allow a murderer to go free, and another was the theft of a flock of sheep. His bailiffs were no better than their master, and were accused of 110 crimes, which included the unlawful seizure of cattle and riding peasants’ horses to death and making no compensation their owners.

A Latin poem written just a little later, at the beginning of the 14th century, survives in a manuscript in the British Library (Harley 913) and has been given the title ‘Song on the Venality of the Judges’. It includes these verses on sheriffs, translated by Helen Cam under the title ‘Song against Sheriffs’:

Who can tell truly

         How cruel sheriffs are?

Of their hardness to poor people

          No tale can go too far.

If a man cannot pay

          They drag him here and there,

They put him on assizes

          The juror’s oath to swear.

He dares not breathe a murmur,

          Or he has to pay again,

And the saltness of the sea

          Is less bitter than his pain.

When a sheriff comes

          To abbey or to hall

The best of meat, the best of drink,

          Is brought at his call.

But all this store of dainties

          Does the host no good

Unless a gift of jewels

          Is dessert after food.

His grooms and his beadles

          Must each have his share,

And his lady wife must have a gown

          Of rainbow hues to wear.

Oh, the sheriff’s clerks!

          Needy folk at first,

Poor like others, suffering

          From hunger and from thirst;

But when they get a bailiwick

          How they grow and swell!

Their teeth grow long, their heads grow high,

House, lands, and rents they buy,

          And pile up gold as well.

They scorn their poor neighbours,

          They govern by new rules,

That is reckoned wisdom now

          In our modern schools.

[From Helen M. Cam, The hundred and the hundred rolls: an outline of local government in medieval England (1930), p. 106. The Latin text of the complete poem (British Library, MS Harley 913), with a more literal prose translation, can be found in The political songs of England: from the reign of John to that of Edward II, ed. Thomas Wright (Camden Society, 1839), pp. 224–30. Wright gives it the title ‘Song on the Venality of the Judges’, and dates it to the beginning of the 14th century. The background to the poem, including the shortcomings of Walter of Essex, is discussed in Irene Gladwin’s The Sheriff: the man and his office (1974), pp. 179–182.]

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