The History of the Office of High Sheriff

There have been High Sheriff’s for at least 1,000 years.  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.

High Sheriff’s had extensive powers. They judged cases in monthly courts 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 throughout Magna Carta 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. 

From about 1300 their powers began to wane as more and more functions were centralised.  The Exchequer was established to administer tax collection and to audit the Sheriff’s accounts.  A system of itinerant Justices and Assizes was set up.  Sheriff’s, however, maintained responsibility for issuing Writs, having ready 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.  Further changes came with the creation of Coroners and Justices of the Peace and the establishment of Lord-Lieutenants as the personal representatives of the Sovereign.

Tradition says that Queen Elizabeth I originated the practice of appointing High Sheriff’s by pricking their names when the Roll was brought to her while she was engaged in embroidery.  Sadly, this is a myth since there is a Sheriff’s Roll from the reign of her grandfather where the names are pricked through vellum.  This is in fact an early form of document security.  Sheriff’s had to collect unpopular taxes, and could be personally liable for any shortfall.  There was therefore an incentive to try to avoid appointment.  No matter how high the bribe, however, no official could disguise a hole pierced through the vellum against the appointee’s name.  The practice of the Monarch pricking the names of High Sheriff’s survives to this day.

In the 19th century, the Sheriff’s responsibilities for police, prisons and Crown property were transferred to statutory bodies.  Their surviving powers were codified in The Sheriff’s Act of 1887.  This Act, with subsequent amendments, remains in force to this day.  Among other things it confirms the historic process of nomination by the Sovereign.

Today,as well as their involvement with the judiciary and the offices of law and order, the responsibilities conferred upon High Sheriffs by the Crown through warrant from the Privy Council can be summarised as follows:

  • Attending Royal visits to the county
  • Attending to High Court Judges on circuit and ensuring their well-being
  • Acting as Returning Officer for parliamentary elections
  • Proclaiming the accession of a new Sovereign and maintaining the loyalty of subjects to the Crown
  • Appointing an Under Sheriff and carrying out various cermonial functions
  • Nominating a future High Sheriff