The average Englishman is aware of only two sheriffs, the Wild West sort who wore a silver badge with “Sheriff” written on it and the Sheriff of Nottingham. For most of us, along with the fact that Bob Marley once sang a song about shooting the sheriff, that is the sum of our knowledge.
And even that knowledge is sketchy. Our information about American sheriffs comes exclusively from Hollywood and we have no idea whether Robin Hood’s nemesis was more or less cruel than the sheriff of Leicestershire or any other shire. In fact, our only intelligence about our most famous villainous official seems to be that he was a bad hat with a sword who tried to capture and kill our green-hooded hero, and when he failed to do so vanished from history with no other known accomplishments to his name. Furthermore, since his disappearance his office seems to have been wiped from popular culture.
In the following centuries there are no other stories about British sheriffs, good or bad. Whatever happened to them, one may ask. The answer is that they are still around and still sporting breeks and fancy ruffs. Only now he, or often she, is more concerned with rehabilitating the renegade rather than rounding him up and hanging him. In fact, the last time an English sheriff did anything more controversial than shake a minor Royal’s hand was in 1999 when the ubiquitous protester Swampy, other-wise known as Daniel Hooper, sat in a tree to complain about the building of a new runway at Manchester Airport. Legally, mainly because he and his fellow protesters’ feet were not on the ground, they could be evicted and arrested only by the local sheriff’s office, and duly were.
Randal Hibbert, the then undersheriff of Cheshire, was responsible for the enforcement of the high sheriff’s Writs of Possession in that case. The eviction lasted about five weeks but eventually 48 eco-warriors were removed. It all went fairly smoothly except for one incident where a protester fell off his rope walkway and had to be taken to hospital.
The high sheriff’s office today is mostly ceremonial. Almost the only official duty left is to look after visiting High Court judges and act as the returning officer in parliamentary elections. The rest of the work is as a figurehead for local charities, helping them to network and raise funds. “The modern sheriff retains links with the judiciary, fire service and police,” says John Lea, Cheshire’s high sheriff, who’s also the managing director of one of the last independent cereal makers and millers in the UK: Mornflake. He is the touchstone for a large number of groups and supports the charity Crimebeat, which helps keep the young off the streets. And he doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny.
High sheriffs are usually well heeled and well connected and come from various walks of life. “It is an independent, non-political role, free of all public expense,” says Andrew Slack, the high sheriff of Bedfordshire.
“My background is agricultural. I am a shooting and fishing man and I have a great affinity to the countryside, as do many high sheriffs. But my role as sheriff is as a figurehead, a networker and an ambassador for all that is good in the county. I have developed an initiative for young people in Bedfordshire to play cricket as part of Crimebeat; so far we have raised £21,500.”
Other recent high sheriffs include the television presenter Alan Titchmarsh (high sheriff of the Isle of Wight in 2008), who says, “It allowed me to put something back into an island that has given me and my family so much.” John Cullum, the high sheriff of Somerset, and father of jazz musician Jamie, says,”I’m doing it to be known as the high sheriff rather than Jamie Cullum’s dad. I’m doing it for the honour.”
Sheriffs, once known as shire reeves, have been around since the Saxons. It is said that the story of the high sheriff is the story of England itself. “He was the King’s fixer,” says Claire Hensman, a former high sheriff of Cumbria and a council member of The High Sheriffs’ Association. “He was the most powerful figure in the shire. He was the law and he had to collect the taxes. If he didn’t get enough he had to pay them out of his own pocket.”
In the 11th century, the Normans kept up the traditions of the post. The high sheriff, the King’s personal representative in any particular shire, judged cases, passed sentences and chased felons by raising a “posse comitatus” (a name abbreviated to “posse” several centuries later by US sheriffs), and loosely translated as “hue and cry”. It wasn’t a sought-after vacancy. It was often expensive; the incumbent was reviled by the local populace; and to avoid corruption the appointment was only for a year, which shows Hollywood’s take on the Sheriff of Nottingham’s years of persecution of Robin and his merry men to be false.
It was not long, however, before the exchequer took over tax collection and the sheriffs were left responsible for organising the local Assize Court, including looking after the High Court judge and his entourage, issuing writs and executing the sentences once they were pronounced. That included finding the hangman. “The undersheriff of Westmorland still has a letter from the famous 20th-century hangman Albert Pierrepoint,” says Claire Hensman. “It is a most creepy letter in which he is touting for business.”
Today there are 55 high sheriffs in England and Wales. They are recommended for the job by past high sheriffs (and the more permanent undersheriffs). The sheriff is usually a respected landowner, businessman or someone who has played a prominent part in the community. Their installation is still steeped in tradition. Three names are put forward, then written down on vellum. In a Privy Council meeting a year before the new sheriff takes office, Her Majesty The Queen pricks a hole in the vellum to identify her choice.
“The reason for pricking through vellum was that the choice was not always a welcome honour due to the costs the incumbent was likely to have to shoulder and the challenges faced in collecting taxes, particularly unpopular taxes,” says a representative from The High Sheriffs’ Association. “A mark with a pen on vellum (which is made from calf’s skin) could easily be erased but a hole could not be removed or repaired invisibly. The potential expense to the incumbent of becoming high sheriff was one of the reasons the role was for a single year only.”
Although high sheriffs today still receive no remuneration and no part of the expense of the year falls on the public purse, as well as organising vast charity events, they must be prepared to splash out on the uniform. And a cursory glance through The High Sheriff, the biannual magazine of The High Sheriffs’ Association, makes it plain that kitting oneself out is not a cheap amusement. The St James’s hatter Lock & Co, the Savile Row tailor Henry Poole and legal tailor Ede & Ravenscroft are among the prestigious advertisers in this publication, along with some notable portrait painters who can immortalise a high sheriff in all his finery: a black- or blue-velvet frock coat, steel-cut buttons, breeches, patent leather pumps, buckles, a cocked hat and a sword.
The sheriff’s return for all this expense is zilch. There is no gong at the end of the year, no sweetener or fancy letters after his name. The best he can hope for is a £5 attendance fee for sitting in court when the High Court judge is presiding, a fee most give to charity. “You’ve got to be able to fund yourself but it is a very rewarding year,” says Andrew Slack.
Tim Cox, a chartered surveyor and high sheriff of Warwickshire, says that while many high sheriffs are retired, others juggle their job with the role. “When the letter arrived on my doorstep four or five years ago, I didn’t know what it entailed,” he says. “I went into the job with my hand on my heart and now I thoroughly enjoy it. I have tried to raise the profile of unsung heroes and small charities… that are doing fantastic jobs all over the county. My surveying business is still my priority but it still allows me to get involved with many things.”
By the end of their year in office most high sheriffs are happy to call it a day. “It’s a great thing to do for a year but one is probably enough. Ten would be far too long,” says Andrew Slack. And John Lea agrees, saying, “A year seems a short time but you have a lot of contact with your predecessor and you can do a lot in that time.”
At the end of their year in office, the high sheriffs mothball their uniforms and go back to civvy street. There is no next step up, no more climbing the greasy civic pole. Though one or two high sheriffs go on to become deputy lord lieutenants, for most there remains only afeeling of anonymity and possibly melancholy that they are now yesterday’s men.
“When you become high sheriff you notice that the number on the back of your formal invitations (of which there are many) is usually 001 or 002,” says Cox. “But as soon as you are out of office those numbers drop back down to 387 or 388.”
At least now we know what happened to the Sheriff of Nottingham: after his single year in office he was so far down the list of invited guests that he was dropped by Middle Ages’ high society.