The Office of High Sheriff

by James Bettley

‘It is an honour to have been Sheriff, but being it is very troublesome.’

François de la Rochefoucauld, 1784

The role of High Sheriffs in England and Wales is now largely ceremonial. Their principal official responsibility is to receive visiting High Court judges, and to sit with them in court for one or more days; and, unofficially, to ensure their well-being while on circuit, and offer hospitality to them. They are the Returning Officer for parliamentary elections in certain constituencies, and they proclaim the accession of a new monarch.

Beyond that, the role of the High Sheriff is varied and constantly evolving, as it has been for more than a thousand years. The office of sheriff is the oldest secular office in the kingdom. The original ‘shire reeves’ were royal officials appointed to enforce the monarch’s interests in a county, in particular the collection of revenues and the enforcement of law and order. The first recorded sheriff in Essex was Leofcild, sheriff in 1042 or 1043 during the reign of Edward the Confessor. For most of the Middle Ages, up to 1567, Essex shared its sheriff with Hertfordshire; many neighbouring counties were joined in this way because of the difficulty of finding enough suitable people to undertake the task.

In 1258 it was decreed that sheriffs should only serve for a single year, and although this was not strictly followed for some years it eventually became established and remains the case today. Records are incomplete, particularly for years up to 1155 and during the Civil War and Commonwealth, but, allowing for those who served for longer than one year or had more than one term of office, some 804 individuals have served as sheriff of Essex (or Essex and Hertfordshire), of whom seven have been women.

The duties of the sheriff were gradually eroded during the Middle Ages, with the introduction of Itinerant Justices (forerunners of Circuit Judges) in the 12th century, the creation of Justices of the Peace and Coroners in the 13th century, and the office of Lord-Lieutenant in the 16th century. In the 19th century, the introduction of police forces removed the sheriff’s powers concerning police and prisons, although he remained responsible for overseeing executions until the abolition of the death penalty in 1965 (the last hanging at Chelmsford was in 1914). Sheriffs continued to play an important part in the running of the Assize Courts, until they were replaced by the current Crown Court system in 1972, but they still retain close links with the judiciary and host the annual Justice Service at the beginning of the legal year in October.

A great part of the High Sheriff’s year is taken up with supporting and encouraging those engaged public service and the voluntary sector, particularly in connection with law and order, public safety, and crime prevention. As the office is independent and non-political, High Sheriffs are well placed to bring together a wide range of people within the community they serve. In Essex, the High Sheriffs’ Fund (administered by the Essex Community Foundation) makes grants to voluntary organisations and groups to support initiatives concerned with community safety in the county, and the High Sheriff is also able to make a personal award of a certificate to individuals, often unsung heroes within small voluntary groups, who have made an outstanding contribution in some way.

The ceremonial role of High Sheriffs may include supporting the Lord-Lieutenant on the occasion of royal visits to the county, presenting Court Awards  to people who have been active in the apprehension of offenders, and attending Citizenship Ceremonies. On such occasions the High Sheriff wears Court Dress, based on the style of the mid-18th century and laid down by the Lord Chamberlain in 1869. It is similar to the clothes worn on ceremonial occasions by QCs and by officers of the Houses of Parliament (such as Black Rod), but in black or black-blue velvet with bright cut steel buttons and a dress sword. (Lady sheriffs have more freedom in devising an appropriate outfit, and do not wear a sword, although some have a sword which is carried before them on ceremonial occasions.)

The office of High Sheriff is unpaid, except for a nominal court attendance allowance. The sole legal requirement for appointment as High Sheriff is to own property in the county. Future High Sheriffs are selected by county nomination panels and in November each year three people are nominated for the coming years and their names are read out in the Lord Chief Justice’s Court in the Royal Courts of Justice. This Roll of High Sheriffs in Nomination is presented to the Queen in Council the following March, when she ‘pricks’ the name of the High Sheriff for the ensuing year. Tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth I originated the practice of pricking names with a bodkin when the Roll was brought to her while she was engaged in embroidery. In fact there is a Roll from the reign of Henry VII where the names are pricked through vellum; this was the securest way of proving that someone had been selected, because ink can be relatively easily removed from vellum, whereas a pin hole is permanent. Many of those selected to serve as sheriff tried to avoid doing so, as many of the tasks were unpopular and the year in office inevitably resulted in great personal expense; pricking left no room for argument.