The Office of High Sheriff is the oldest continuous secular office under the Crown and can be traced back more than 1,000 years to the reign of the Saxon King ‘Ethelred the Unready’ (978-1016). It is the oldest official post in England and Wales.
High Sheriffs were appointed to act as the sovereign’s representative in their county and wielded extensive powers. They could raise the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of criminals and keep the King’s Peace by mobilizing the ‘posse’, the full military might of the county. Although they remain a symbolic representative of the Crown, many of their original powers are now vested in the Lord-Lieutenant, High Court judges, magistrates, local authorities, the Police, coroners and HM Revenue and Customs.
In ancient times, Sheriffs sat in judgement at trials and were responsible for general law and order. They were later required to collect unpopular taxes and were personally responsible for any shortfall, which is why the role was not always one to be welcomed by the incoming High Sheriff.
Sheriffs are mentioned in 27 of the 63 clauses of the Magna Carta (1215) and by the 13th Century were clearly fundamental to the running of the counties. By the 14th Century they had also become highly influential in choosing their county’s parliamentary representatives.
One of the more unsavoury duties of High Sheriffs was to organise and attend public executions and ensure they were properly performed. This duty continued until the abolition of the death penalty in 1965.
Over the centuries the role of the High Sheriff has gradually been redefined. The Sheriffs Act of 1887, still in force, consolidated the responsibilities of High Sheriffs and confirmed their role as the Sovereign’s representative in the county for all matters relating to the Judiciary and the maintenance of law and order, tasks today principally delegated to the Chief Constable of Police.
Following the Courts Act of 2003, the High Sheriffs’ ancient responsibility for the enforcement of High Court Writs was transferred to the newly appointed High Court Enforcement Officers.
Today, as well as their involvement with the judiciary and the offices of law and order, High Sheriffs perform a number of responsibilities including maintaining a ceremonial presence at official functions, attending Royal visits to the county, acting as Returning Officer for parliamentary elections, appointing an Under Sheriff and nominating a future High Sheriff.
The Office of the High Sheriff is an important part of English history, remaining in existence for more than 1,000 years and adapting to modern society needs. The High Sheriff of the 21st Century still fulfils the ancient role of supporting the shire, upholding its peace and loyalty to the Crown, and stimulating its communities to act in the furtherance of the good of everybody.
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