The History of the Office

There have been High Sheriffs for at least 1,000 years.

The history of the office going back before the Norman Conquest.

It is the oldest Royal appointment.

The word ‘Sheriff’ derives from ‘Shire Reeve’ or the Anglo Saxon ‘Scir-gerefa’. The King’s Reeve was also known as the ‘High’ Reeve. Some Sheriffs led contingents at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans continued the Office and added to its powers. The original “Shire Reeves” were Royal officials appointed to enforce the King’s interests in a County, in particular the collection of revenues and the enforcement of law and order.

During the 11th and 12th centuries a High Sheriff’s powers were very extensive. For example, they judged cases in the monthly court of the hundred (a sub-unit of the Shire) and acted as law enforcement officers. They could raise the ‘hue and cry’ after criminals in the County and could summon and command the ‘posse comitatus’, the full military force of the County. Sheriffs are mentioned in 27 of the 63 clauses of Magna Carta of 1215 and were clearly fundamental to the running of the Shires. By 1254 the High Sheriff supervised the election to Parliament of two Knights of the Shire. In short, High Sheriffs were the principal representatives and agents for the Crown and were thus very powerful within the Shire.

From about 1300 their powers began to wane as more and more functions were centralised. Under Henry I, tax collection powers were passed to the Exchequer, which also took on the function of auditing the Sheriffs’ accounts. Henry II introduced the system of Itinerant Justices from which evolved the Assizes and the present day system of High Court Judges going out on Circuit.  Sheriffs, however, maintained responsibility for issuing Writs, organising the Court, prisoners and juries, and executing sentences once they were pronounced. It was also the Sheriff’s responsibility to ensure the safety and comfort of the Judges. This is the origin of the High Sheriff’s modern day duty of care for the well-being of High Court Judges.  In the middle of the 13th century, more powers went to the newly created offices of Coroners and Justices of the Peace. Under the Tudors, Lord- Lieutenants were created as personal representatives of the Sovereign.

The potential expense to the incumbent of becoming High Sheriff was one of the reasons the role was for a single year only, even so, it was a destested appointment to be avoided.  Queen Elizabeth I is generally believed to have originated the practice that continues to this day of the Sovereign choosing the High Sheriff by pricking a name on the Sheriffs’ Roll with a bodkin. It is said that she did this whilst engaged in embroidery in the garden. Sadly, this is a myth since there is a Sheriffs’ Roll dating from the reign of her grandfather Henry VII (1485-1508) on which the names were pricked through vellum.  With many wanting to avoid the appointment of High Sheriff, the pricking cermeony is in fact an early form of document security. A mark with a pen on vellum could easily be erased with a knife, but a hole in the vellum (which is made from calf skin) could not be removed or repaired invisibly. No matter how high the bribe, no official could disguise a hole pierced against the appointee’s name. The practice of the Monarch pricking the names of High Sheriffs survives to this day, taking place in the middle of March each year.

By Acts of 1856 and 1865 all of the Sheriffs’ powers concerning police and prisons passed to the Prison Commissioners and local Constabulary although they did have to attend hangings until 1965 when the practise was abolished.  Under an Act of 1883, the care of Crown Property was transferred to the Crown Commissioners.  The Sheriffs Act of 1887 consolidated the law relating to the Office of High Sheriff and the Act remains in force to this day, though it has been amended a number of times. It repeated that the Office should be held for one year only; that a Sheriff who was a Magistrate should not sit as such during the year of Office; and confirmed the historic process of nomination and selection by the Sovereign.

The ceremonial uniform that is worn by male High Sheriffs today is called Court Dress. It has remained essentially unchanged since the late seventeenth century and consists of a black or dark blue velvet coat with steel-cut buttons, breeches, shoes with cut-steel buckles, a sword and a cocked hat. A lace jabot is worn around the neck. Some High Sheriffs, which includes Charles Thwaites and Patrick Darling, wear their military uniform instead of Court Dress. Today, lady High Sheriffs generally adapt the style of traditional Court Dress to suit their needs. Ceremonial uniform is worn at a wide variety of functions but when not wearing Court Dress, a High Sheriff wears a badge of Office on a ribbon.