What was a Sheriff?
The word comes from the two words ‘Shire’ and ‘Reeve’. A Reeve was an official position which began in Saxon times, when the reeve was empowered to hold court and try local civil and criminal matters.
After the conquest they were appointed for every shire, and therefore the name became Shire Reeve or Sheriff.
Sheriffs in Norman times
In Norman times the Sheriff was an important royal official. His responsibilities included keeping the Kings peace, holding court (the County Court) and arranging for the annual shire payment to the King (of which no doubt he collected more than he paid).
The office was held at the kings pleasure, and Sheriffs were drawn from the ranks of barons, royal administrators and the local gentry.
Pluralism and the sheriffs office
The same person could be sheriff of more than one country. For example Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire traditionally went together as did Norfolk and Suffolk, and Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.
Where a sheriff held more than one post, this often also meant that the county courts were held together. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire for example had a common county court.
Occasionally a man could hold multiple Sheriff posts, such as Hugh of Buckland in the reign of Henry I who was sheriff of eight counties. However this was rare.
Henry I was renowned for ‘raising from the dust men of common stock’ and many of these became sheriffs, as did many of his household officers.
When choosing their sheriffs, Kings had to be careful to strike a balance between choosing men who had sufficient standing to allow them authority over the local landed and military aristocracy, and creating officials with so much power that they became entrenched and unaccountable.
In particular, from the Kings point of view, it was important that the office did not become an inherited one, as this would weaken his control. In a few cases this did happen, for example in Gloucester from about 1070 the office was held in one family for some 70 years, and over powerful officials was a particular problem in the troubled reign of Stephen. However Henry II ended all that, as we shall see later.
The office of Sheriff is still with us today, and the Sheriffs office now enforces ‘writs of execution’ issued by the High Court.
And in the time of Cadfael
Readers of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels will have an idea of how the system worked in the reign of King Stephen. Cadfael’s friend Hugh Beringer of Maesbury becomes deputy Sheriff of Shropshire in the second book, One Corpse Too Many, and then Sheriff later in the series.
In the books, we see how he has responsibility for dealing with law and order issues in his shire as well as having to travel periodically to meetings called by the sovereign. However it was unusual for sheriffs to have quite so much help from the Benedictine brotherhood …
Later we will be seeing more of the Sheriffs duties as we look at the various legal procedures.