The Totham connection (i): Sir John Sammes

All Saints Church, Little Totham, Sammes monument

Great Totham cannot claim a High Sheriff as its own. The closest we can get, geographically, is Sir John Sammes, who was High Sheriff in 1606, and whose monument is in Little Totham Church. His father, also John, who had purchased the manor of Little Totham and Goldhanger in the early 1590s, lived at Langford Hall.  Young John was born in about 1576, and made a good marriage to the daughter of Sir John Garrard, a wealthy haberdasher, alderman, and Lord Mayor of London; he served as a soldier in Ireland and was knighted in 1599. He avoided being appointed sheriff in 1601, but did not escape in 1606; while in office he was fined £100 by the Court of Wards for negligence in executing process, thus demonstrating why he had previously been reluctant to serve.

Little Totham Hall.
The painted brick range to the right is probably part of the house built by Sir John Sammes.

Sammes went on to hold many other public offices in Essex, including as a Justice of the Peace, and was elected M.P. for Maldon in 1610 and 1614 (this brief account of his life is based on the excellent History of Parliament website). At about this time he rebuilt Little Totham Hall, next to All Saints Church, of which only a fragment now remains; the expense of the house (said to have cost him about £1,400) put him badly in debt, and he fled to the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) to escape his creditors. Some time after 1625 he was appointed governor of the Dutch town of IJzendijke, where he died and was buried, but the date of his death is not known.

The monument at Little Totham, on which he appears in armour, is really the tomb of his widow Isabel, who died in 1633, and commemorates also their son Sir Garrard, who had died in 1630.

Dogs and more

John Doubleday chatting to Cressida Dick before the unveiling.

It seems to be almost mandatory for High Sheriffs to have a dog (or two), but we are temporarily without one. However, this week more than made up for that lack, first with the unveiling on Friday 12 April of the National K9 Memorial in Oaklands Park, Chelmsford. This is a national memorial to police dogs, for which Paul Nicholls QPM, a former Essex police dog handler, has been planning and campaigning and fundraising for about thirty years. The actual memorial, a bronze statue of a handler with two dogs, is the work of Great Totham sculptor John Doubleday, and seems likely to become a firm favourite with visitors to the park, especially as it is a very child-friendly size. The memorial was blessed by the Bishop of Chelmsford and unveiled by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, in front of a crowd that included representatives of police forces (and their dogs) from across the whole country. From various speeches made, and a demonstration by Essex Police, it was interesting to learn about the contribution that dogs make to policing, often at the risk of their own lives, and to see the wonderful bond that exists between the dogs and their handlers. It is a very special relationship, not least because the handlers know they are sending their dogs into situations where they may be injured or even killed, and the dogs will defend their handlers and other officers with all that it takes.

A fine bit of Essex farmland, with walkers (and dogs).

The next day found Lucy and me in the company of many more dogs, this time accompanying their owners on the annual walk that raises money for the Essex Rural Fund, under the aegis of the Rural Community Council of Essex. This well-established event is organised by David Boyle, vice president of the RCCE, who plans the route, and Nicholas Charrington, chairman of the RCCE, who ferries the walkers around in the Layer Marney Routemaster (this week, looking especially glorious having just been repainted) and organises sausages and soup for lunch. This year we started at Byham Hall, Little Maplestead, where we left our cars and were taken in the bus to Hedingham Castle. From here, after a talk on the castle from Jason Lindsay, we walked back to Byham Hall via Great Maplestead (stopping at the church to pay homage to Sir John Deane, High Sheriff 1610–11) and Little Maplestead churches. After lunch we walked to Hill Farm, Gestingthorpe, where Ashley Cooper showed us the site of the Roman villa discovered and excavated by his father, and the museum that he created in the farmhouse and outbuildings. The weather was a bit mixed (including a hail shower) but the countryside universally glorious, in a part of the county that can seem really quite remote.

Monument in St Giles, Great Maplestead, to Sir John Deane of Dynes Hall, who was High Sheriff of Essex in 1610–11 and died in 1625/6.

Two other events this week that I was fortunate to attend highlighted the achievements of people rather than dogs. On Tuesday there was a ceremony at Chelmsford City Racecourse at which John Jowers, Chairman of the County Council, paid tribute to a diverse collection of voluntary organisations who have received grants from the County Council’s Essex Fund, administered by the Essex Community Foundation; and on Friday evening Lucy and I attended the Mayor of Chelmsford’s Community Evening at Hylands House, a reception and dinner for people nominated by Chelmsford City Councillors in recognition of their contribution to the community. It is a lovely way to show our appreciation and thank people for what they do, and Yvonne Spence, whose term of office comes to an end in a few weeks, said it was for her the highlight of the mayoral year. Both events demonstrate what an enormous part voluntary bodies play in our communities, and how much we depend on those who work so hard to keep them going.

The Declaration itself

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.

Promising to behave myself.

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.]

The Declaration Ceremony


From left to right: HHJ Seely, the Revd Faye Bailey, Roger Brice (Under-Sheriff), HHJ Lodge, HM Lord-Lieutenant of Essex, James Bettley, Martin Stuchfield, Bryan Burrough, HHJ Gratwicke, HHJ Leigh, and four Lord-Lieutenant’s Cadets.

The High Sheriff is appointed when The Queen pricks his or her name in a meeting of the Privy Council – in my case, on 13 March.  But he does not actually assume office until he makes his Declaration. The only stipulation is that this must be before a High Court judge or a magistrate. It can be done anywhere and no one else need be present, so it would be perfectly possible to do it in your kitchen at home, but for those who enjoy a bit of ceremonial that would be missing a good opportunity.

Sheriffs Act 1887

In the distant past the Declaration no doubt was made in the incoming High Sheriff’s residence. In the 20th century the ceremony seems to have normally taken place at the Under-Sheriff’s office, when it must have been a relatively modest occasion. More recently, one or other of the courts in Chelmsford has been used, but since 2015, when Vincent Thompson made his Declaration, the venue has been the Council Chamber at County Hall.

The Council Chamber, County Hall, Chelmsford

The Council Chamber provides a very fitting setting for a County event. It was opened in 1938, part of extensions to County Hall designed by the County Architect, John Stuart, with the national expert for such buildings, E. Vincent Harris, brought in to design the important ceremonial rooms. What makes the Council Chamber special are the decorations, paid for by Councillor W. J. Courtauld (High Sheriff 1921–22). These include two large maps of the county (in 1576 and 1938), and portraits of famous Essex men and women, all painted by Henry Rushbury. Others commemorated on the walls and in stained glass include former High Sheriffs Sir Anthony Cooke of Gidea Hall (1544–45), Edward North Buxton (1888–89), and Andrew Johnston (1880–81, and first chairman of Essex County Council 1889–1916).

The Order of the Ceremony is that that the Lord-Lieutenant opens the proceedings and orders the reading of the Royal Warrant appointing the incoming High Sheriff. This is done by the Under-Sheriff. The incoming High Sheriff makes his Declaration, and the outgoing High Sheriff reports on his year of Office. He then presents the Staff of Office to his successor (who is by now no longer incoming, but in office), who appoints his Under-Sheriff. The High Sheriff may of course appoint whomsoever he wishes to the post, but it would be a brave High Sheriff who did not re-appoint the existing Under-Sheriff, whose knowledge and experience is invaluable. The Under-Sheriff in turn makes his Declaration, which is very similar to the High Sheriff’s. The High Sheriff appoints his Chaplain, who reads a prayer. The Lord-Lieutenant then closes the ceremony.

On Monday 8 April I did of course re-appoint Roger Brice as my Under-Sheriff, and as my Chaplain I appointed the Revd Faye Bailey, who until recently was Assistant Curate at The Ascension with All Saints, Chelmsford, but on 28 March was installed as Team Rector of the parish of Becontree South. The attesting magistrate was my colleague Martin Stuchfield, and the line-up on the bench included four circuit judges: Their Honours Charles Gratwicke (Honorary Recorder of Chelmsford), John Lodge, Jonathan Seely, and Samantha Leigh. The meat of the ceremony is the outgoing High Sheriff’s report, and Bryan Burrough delivered a well-balanced reminder to those present of all the good things that are being done in the County to improve the lot of its residents, and of the things that still need to be done. Without those who work in the public service, whether paid or as volunteers, society as we know it and perhaps take for granted simply could not continue to function, and it is one of the High Sheriff’s most important roles to see that they receive recognition and our gratitude.

Passing the baton…

How many High Sheriffs of Essex have there been?

839? Or 830? Or, perhaps, 802? It all depends what and how you count.

Officially, I am the 839th High Sheriff. This is based on R. B. Colvin’s The Lieutenants and Keepers of the Rolls of the County of Essex (1934), which included a list of sheriffs up to 1933. The names of those who have held office since 1900, supplied by the office of the Under-Sheriff, can be found on the website of the High Sheriffs’ Association.

Colvin’s list for the years up to and including 1832 was taken from the List of Sheriffs for England and Wales from the earliest times to A.D. 1831, published by the Public Record Office in 1898, which can for the most part be considered definitive: more reliable, for example, than the list to be found in Philip Morant’s History and Antiquities of the County of Essex, which goes up to 1768. However, the PRO list includes fifteen names between 1191 and 1224 that ‘are those of Under-Sheriffs, or others who rendered Sheriffs’ accounts at the Exchequer, widows and executors excluded.’ They should not, therefore, be included in the total number of sheriffs.

On the other hand, the PRO list was only as good as the known sources available at the time, and further research has since been carried out by Judith A. Green into the early years of the shrievalty, up to 1155, after which there are reliable and near-continuous records in one form or another. This was published in 1990 under the title English Sheriffs to 1154 as a supplement to the PRO list. The PRO listed seven sheriffs of Essex for the period in question; Professor Green was able to raise the total to fourteen (one identified only by the initial ‘N’), as well as a possible seven others – but we had better leave those out of our calculations.

A recount of the names in the PRO list, less the names of under-sheriffs etc., plus the additional sheriffs identified by Professor Green, gives a total of 642 sheriffs up to 1832. Add the names of those who have held office since 1833, and the total comes to 830 (including the present incumbent).

But – and this is a story full of buts – the PRO list includes a number of sheriffs who were appointed but did not serve. Thus we find that in 1702 Robert Breedon was appointed on 1 January, Thomas Webster on 12 January, and Peter Whitcombe of Great Braxted on 19 January. This accounts for three entries in the PRO list, but as Breedon and Webster were immediately replaced they should not count towards the total number of those who actually held office.

All Saints, Great Braxted. Peter Whitcombe was Lord of the Manor from 1692 until his death in 1704; Morant describes him as a ‘Turkey-merchant’, meaning that he traded at Constantinople rather than sold turkeys

The situation is further complicated by the fact that in the Middle Ages a number of sheriffs served more than one separate term. Before 1258, there was no limit on the time a sheriff might remain in office: in 1204 Matthew Mantel and his heirs were appointed sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire in perpetuity, although in fact he seems to have thought better of it and held office for only three and a half years.  It is not always immediately apparent that the same person was appointed on separate occasions, because their names are given differently: Nicholas Clericus, appointed in 1168, is presumably the same as Nicholas Decanus, appointed in 1164, apparently the only example of an Essex sheriff who was in Holy Orders.

Even after the reforms introduced in 1258 theoretically limited sheriffs to a single, twelve-month term of office: Sir John de Coggeshall, for example, served in 1334–9, 1343–8, and 1351–4.  Sir Henry Tey served in 1488–9 and 1500–01, Sir John Wentworth in 1543–4 and 1553–4, and Sir Arthur Harris in 1573–4 and 1586–7. Theoretically this is still possible: the Sheriffs Act 1887 allows for reappointment after a gap of three years, if there is ‘no other person in the county qualified to fill the office’.

The 18th-century dovecote at Great Codham Hall. The house itself dates back to the 14th century, probably built by Sir John de Coggeshall who died in 1361.

With all these variables, it might seem impossible to arrive at a definitive figure, and the question with which we started perhaps needs to be framed more precisely as ‘how many people have served as High Sheriff of Essex?’, counting those who served more than one term, consecutively or not, only once; not including those were appointed, but did not actually serve; but not forgetting those who replaced sheriffs in mid-term, usually as a result of death in office (or, in the case of poor John Bayard in 1256, ‘became a lunatic’). This gives a total of 802 individuals, although even so there may be some double counting of sheriffs in the Middle Ages who had the same name but were sufficiently far apart in the list to suggest that they were not the same person.

By my reckoning (and I’d welcome comments and corrections) that makes me either the 830th, or the 802nd, High Sheriff of Essex.