The office of High Sheriff is the oldest continuous secular office under the crown, being at least 1000 years old. The original name given to the office holder was the ‘Shire Reeve’. This royal official was above local factions and therefore able to guard and enforce the Sovereign’s interests in the county.
They were also responsible for administering justice and responsible for collecting both taxes and rent. One of the main functions of the High Sheriff was to bring criminals to justice by raising the ‘hue and cry’. Another was to keep the Kings peace by raising the ‘posse comitatus’, the full military force of the county. In theory the posse comitatus can still be raised and during both World Wars the High Sheriff’s power to mobilise this was reinvoked in case of emergency.
Whilst the duties of the High Sheriff were once focused on representing the Crown for all matters relating to the judiciary, maintenance of Law and Order, and the collection of taxes, it has rightly adapted and moulded itself to fit the needs and requirements of the time.
Originally the office also held many of the powers now vested in the Lord-Lieutenant, High Court judges, police, magistrates court and Local Authorities, it is now largely a ceremonial role held for one year.
The traditional dress and regalia worn by High Sheriff’s today represent many of the foundations upon which much of our society is based. The sword carried is a symbol of the Queen’s justice; and the High Sheriff’s badge, displays not only the sword of justice, but also a separate blunted sword to represent mercy. To this day, the annual nomination of High Sheriff’s is made in a meeting of the Lords of the Council in the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice presided over by the Lord Chief Justice. The final selection is ratified when the traditional custom of the Sovereign ‘pricking’ the appointee’s name with a bodkin, a tradition said to have begun following an innovation by Elizabeth I who was said to be doing her needlework at the time.
Although largely ceremonial now, the High Sheriff still to this day remains the Sovereign’s representative in the county for all matters relating to the judiciary and the maintenance of Law and Order. Keeping these close links with our judiciary and Police forces remains pivotable to the role today, ensuring that the services have both the support and respect the communities that they help and protect.
The duties of the High Sheriff have been adapted and moulded to tackle the needs of each century.
In a period of huge social change, the High Sheriff of the 21st-century still fulfils the ancient role supporting the Shire, upholding its peace, encouraging loyalty to the crown and stimulating its communities in voluntary societies to work for the common good.
For further information and history of The High Sheriff, please click here.