The role of Sheriff pre-dates the Norman Conquest, and the word derives from the Old English “scir-gerefa”1 , a “scir” being an administrative area. The “Shire Reeve” was appointed by the Sovereign to be responsible for keeping the peace throughout a shire or county. The word Sheriff has been in use since at least 1055, and was used by King Cnut when he sent friendly greetings to “Aethelwine the Sheriff” at Canterbury.
The monarch appointed the Sheriff, in a process which involved “pricking with a bodkin” a list of preferred nominees. The Sheriff held two jurisdictions, one civil and one criminal. The former was mainly about land, with the Sheriff responsible for maintaining defined boundaries of an area. This was normally done by “perambulations” of the boundary, with the Sheriff usually on horseback. Boundary divisions between Shires, Counties and individual settlements were literally a matter of life or death, as a stranger crossing a boundary without announcing his presence could be put to death – hence the danger implied in the phrase “overstepping the mark”!
The Sheriffs were also responsible for all military matters in a Shire, until the Tudor monarchs created the role of Lord Lieutenant, who took over this function.
By the reign of Henry I the Sheriff had become the pivot of the English legal system, but due to ambiguities in the role, and the great power wielded by certain individuals, the legal authority to try serious cases was gradually lost, and completely so by the end of the 13th Century. Clause 24 of Magna Carta prohibited the Sheriff from hearing pleas to the Crown.
The main duty of the Sheriff then became to raise revenues for the Sovereign, by managing the fee farms, but not all revenues were passed to the Crown, and some families of the Sheriff became suspiciously rich!
The role of the City or Town Sheriff was created in the 14th Century and arose from a conflict of interest between existing counties or shires and the increasingly important cities and towns, which had created in effect new jurisdictions. The Oaths of Investiture are full of exhortations to maintain the Sovereign’s laws, many expressed in language which seems nowadays to be truly arcane. Many Sheriffs ran prisons and supervised executions, and welcomed judges who arrived for the Assizes. They would, therefore, have presided over or attended infamous trials, such as those for witchcraft or heresy, and supervised the carrying out of what we would think of today as barbarous punishments.
The Sheriffs also inspected the City plate, enforced market regulations and maintained parish and town boundaries. There are cases of there having been two or even four Sheriffs, with responsibilities over different parts of the same town. All towns with Sheriffs had Courts of Quarter Session. Charters were granted in which the towns or boroughs were created as Counties in their own right. The city or town Sheriff was not appointed directly by the Crown, but by the burgesses and later the city or town councils.
These towns were referred to as “The Town and County of…or the “City and County of…” and were then known as “Counties Corporate.”
The 1888 Local Government Act created “County Boroughs” and some Counties Corporate became part of the administrative structure of the county in which they were situated. By this stage the role of City or Town Sheriff had become largely ceremonial.
The 1972 Local Government Act, which came into effect in 1974, formally abolished Counties Corporate – with the right to appoint a Sheriff being retained at local discretion. The fifteen cities and towns which now retain a shrievalty thus uphold a tradition which has its origins many centuries ago.
City and town Sheriffs give precedence to the mayor, and many a town clerk has had to spell out that the sheriff must NOT step in front of the mayor or attempt to dominate proceedings. Sheriffs know, however, that their office long predates that of mayor, and exercise restraint!
Peter Barrett – March 2014 (Sheriff of Lichfield 1996)