The Declaration Ceremony (coronavirus style)


From Chapman & André’s map of Essex, 1777

Nearly twelve months ago I described the Declaration Ceremony and the Declaration itself. No one would then have guessed how different things would be for my successor, Julie Fosh. In January came news that there were likely to be some changes to the wording of the Declaration. When the new version arrived at the end of February it turned out to be very different from the old one. Gone were the interminable unpunctuated sentences about such matters as sheriffwicks and bailiwicks and ‘let to farm’; in their place a series of concise, elegantly worded undertakings, including what is arguably the key one, to ‘support the Judiciary and all who maintain The Queen’s Peace, who administer justice, and who protect and support their fellow citizens’.

The other change was unplanned and crept up on us at first slowly, and then rapidly. It wasn’t until Friday 13 March, of all dates, that I realised we should be thinking of contingency plans for the Declaration Ceremony because of the increasing disruption being caused by the coronavirus, which had been declared a pandemic two days earlier. After a number of changes of plan in response to ever-stricter Government advice, it was decided to bring the date forward, from 6 April to 25 March, to ensure that the key players were in good health, and then, as the situation developed, to limit the ceremony to those who absolutely needed to be present for legal reasons, and to hold it at Julie Fosh’s house in North Fambridge. 

The large-scale event of the kind we have become used to is a relatively recent invention. The Council Chamber at County Hall was first used in 2015, for Vincent Thompson’s Declaration. Before that it took place in various Crown Courts, and in some years at Hylands House. Go back a little further in the 20th century and you will find the Declaration being made in the Under Sheriff’s office with just the necessary Justice of the Peace as witness. We came close to that this year, but in the end returned to what used to be the common practice of the High Sheriff making his Declaration in his own house (and it always ‘his’ in those days). When Henry Grapnel made his Declaration in 1290 it’s more than likely that he did so in Tiled Hall, close to Latchingdon old church, a stone’s throw from where Julie is making her Declaration today. And for Henry Grapnel, and every High Sheriff until 1752, today, 25 March, Lady Day, was the first day of the new year, so he would have thought this a much more natural date for the Declaration than 6 April.

One of the pleasures of the last year and more has been getting to know Julie and Paul Fosh. Those of you know her already do not need telling that she will be a wonderful High Sheriff, and everyone else will soon find out. She will, I think, take the Essex shrievalty to new places, and not just because the current situation requires it. I wish her every joy in the role, and hope that in spite of all the challenges ahead she finds it as interesting and rewarding as I have done.

[Footnote for the benefit of future historians: The Queen’s Remembrancer has decided that in the current situation s. 7(1) of the Sheriffs Act would encompass the Declaration being read out by the incoming High Sheriff either by telephone conference or by any form of digital video link with a High Court judge or justice of the peace of the relevant county.]

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