Reforming the shrievalty (i): 1258 and 2008

The sheriff who gave the shrievalty a bad name, as imagined by Howard Pyle (1883): but which sheriff of Nottingham(shire), and which king?

From time to time the monarch (in the Middle Ages) or parliament (in more recent times) has felt that the role of the sheriff needed investigation and reform. Some of the most far-reaching reforms were included in the so-called Provisions of Oxford, to which King Henry III gave grudging assent in 1258 – part of wide-ranging constitutional reforms promoted by Simon de Montfort. The principal change as far as sheriffs were concerned was that they were to hold office for only a year at a time, and should not make any charge for his services. Restricting the office to a single year made it difficult to find enough suitable candidates, but it recognised the fact that corruption flourished when sheriffs held office for too long.

For the first time, he had to take an oath upon entering office, that he ‘will do right to all people according to the power which he has from his office and that he will not fail for love nor for hate, nor for fear of any, nor for greed, as well and as soon to do speedy justice to poor as to rich’ – words remarkably similar to those in the Declaration which today’s High Sheriffs make.

In order to prevent him taking advantage of his position, the sheriff also had to swear that he would not take anything from anyone except the meat and drink which by custom is brought to his table and then for one day only; that he would not bring more than his own horse to the place where he lodges; that he would not lodge with poor people or indigent religious houses; that he would not lodge with the same people more than twice a year and then only by their invitation; that he would not accept a gift from his host above the value of one shilling; and that he would restrict the number of his servants to the minimum required to administer his bailiwick. All this arose out of the tendency of sheriffs to travel round the county on their business with a large retinue, turning up at abbeys or castles and emptying their larders and cellars.

750 years later, in 2008, the Justice Committee of the House of Commons was more concerned about the way in which High Sheriffs are appointed, and those interested in this should read the Committee’s Report (which includes a very clear account of the process) and the Government’s response.

[For the Provisions of Oxford, see Irene Gladwin, The Sheriff: the man and his office (1974), pp. 161–65, and W. A. Morris, The Medieval English Sheriff to 1300 (1927), p. 170.]

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