General history
The office of sheriff


Institute of Historical Research



Edward Hasted

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'General history: The office of sheriff', The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1 (1797), pp. 168-176. URL: Date accessed: 16 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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The office of sheriff

IT has been already observed, that the Saxons, when they divided this realm into provinces, (called in their language shires, and in Latin, comitatus, i. e. counties,) framed the government of them from the antient constitution of the Romans, from whom it was derived to them by their German ancestors, (fn. 1) in conformity to which, they constituted certain of their chief men to preside over their shires, whom they denominated in their own language, ealdormen, (and in Latin, comites and confules.) King Alfred, for the more ready administration of justice, allowed these ealdormen, or counts, to make deputies, who were called vice comites, or viscounts, and in their own tongue, sheriffs, i. e. the shyrereeve, from the Saxon word gerefa, or gereva, i. e. provost, præfect, or steward, to distribute justice to the people in their provincial, or county courts. This office of sheriff is supposed, by the best authorities, to have been constituted by that king, when he new modelled this realm into different shires and provinces. That it was in being soon after may be learnt from Ingulphus, p. 876, where, in a grant of king Edric to Crowland-abbey, about the year 984, mention is made of this vice-comes, or sheriff, among his other ministers; and afterwards in this subscription—Ego Alfer vicecomes audivi. In the same author, p. 912, edit. Franckf. one Normannus is mentioned as vice-comes, or sheriff to Edric Streon, ealdorman, or earl of Mercia, who lived about the year 1007. The office of vice-comes is mentioned likewise in the laws of king Edward the consessor. (fn. 2) These ealdormen, or, as they were afterwards called by the Danes, eorlas, (from which name is derived that of our modern earl) in process of time, either by their ceasing to be officiary, and becoming merely titular; or, by reason of their high employments, and attendance on the king's person, not being able to transact the business of that county, were, by his approbation, freed from the trouble, and the sheriff, who was before only a deputy, and subordinate to the earl, as the earl was to the king, became the king's immediate officer in his respective county, transacting all the king's business in it: for though the earl reserved the honour to himself, yet the whole labour was laid on the sheriff, who, notwithstanding he is still called vice-comes, is entirely independent of, and in nothing subject to the earl, the king, by his letters patent, committing custodiam comitatus to the sheriff alone. (fn. 3) They were usually men of high rank and great power in the realm, having one or more counties committed to them by the king at his pleasure, either in custody or at a ferm certain. To them the king usually committed (together with the counties) his castles and manors lying within their bailiwick. They provided the castles with ammunition and other necessaries, and they stocked and improved his manors; in short, the sheriff was the king's farmer, or bailiff, and the collector of all his rents and revenues within his district. (fn. 4) As such he is called by Ethelwerd, exactor regis, i. e. the king's receiver, and by others, questor provinciæ. His duty was then, as it still is, to do the justice of his county, and to keep the public peace, of which lie is within it the principal conservator, in aid of which he has the power of raising the posse comitatus; and as keeper of the king's peace he is, both by common law and by his commission, during his office, the first man in the county, and superior in rank to any nobleman therein. As to his judicial capacity, he hears and determines all causes, not exceeding forty shillings value, in his own court, called the county court, of which more has been mentioned before, and he has also a judicial power in several other civil cases. In his ministerial capacity, he executes writs and processes, proclaims statutes, returns juries, and makes return of writs for electing knights of the shire, &c.

In whatever manner the sheriffs might have been appointed or chosen before the Norman conquest, it is certain, from that period they continued to be appointed by the king at his pleasure, till the latter end of the reign of king Edward I. who, by statute in his 28th year, granted the election of sheriff to the people of each county, if they list, as the statute says, excepting in those where the shrievalty was hereditary, as it still continues to be in the county of Westmoreland. Notwithstanding which, king Edward II. continued to appoint sheriffs in several counties, where, I suppose, the people did not list to elect them; and in those which did choose them, those popular elections grew so tumultuous, that they were put an end to by the statute of 9 Edward II. which enacted, that the sheriffs should from thenceforth be assigned by the chancellor, treasurer, and judges, as persons in whom that trust might be with confidence reposed, from such as had sufficient lands in the county to answer the king and his people. By the statutes of 14 Edward III. 23 Henry VI. and 21 Henry VIII. the chancellor, treasurer, president of the king's council, the chief justices, and chief baron, are to make this election, and that on the morrow of All Souls, in the exchequer; and the king's letters patent, appointing the new sheriffs used commonly to bear date the 6th day of November, and the custom now is, and has been, at least ever since the reign of Henry VI. for all the judges, together with all the other great officers, to meet in the exchequer chamber on the morrow of All Souls yearly, (which day is now altered to the morrow of St. Martin, by the last act for abbreviating Michaelmas term) and then and there propose three persons to the king, who afterwards appoints one of them to be sheriff. But though this is the general practice, yet frequently, for parti- cular reasons, the king omits appointing any one of the three persons so proposed, and some time after, by the sole authority of the crown, appoints one not nominated to him as above, who is called from thence a pocket sheriff, a custom of some time standing, and uniformly continued at this day. Sheriffs, by virtue of several old statutes, are to continue their office but for one year; and yet it has been said, that a sheriff may be appointed durante bene placito, or during the king's pleasure, and so is the form of the royal writ; therefore, till a new sheriff is named, his office cannot be determined, unless by his own death, or the death of the king. And by the statute of I Richard II. no man, who has served the office of sheriff for one year, can be compelled to serve the same again within three years after. (fn. 5) The under-sheriff usually performs the duties of the office, a very few only excepted, where the personal prefence of the high-sheriff is necessary; for which purpose there is a large indenture signed and sealed between him and his under-sheriff at the time of his entering on his office. The principal personal attendance which is required of the high sheriff of this county is twice a year, at the assizes and general goal delivery, held at the county town of Maidstone, to which he comes on the commission day in great parade of equipage, with his under sheriff, bailiffs, and other officers, and remains there attendant on the judges, and business of the assizes, till the whole is finished, and the judges have left the town; when he too departs home, leaving the execution of the criminals, and such matters, to the under sheriff and his officers.

In Hilary term next after the sheriff is out of office, he and his under sheriff are sworn to yield and give a just and true account to the king, and his officers, in the exchequer of the king's debts, wherewith he is charged by the green wax of the exchequer, and other particulars which have happened within the compass of his office, and of all other profits whatsoever, due and belonging to the king, and chargeable to him to answer for; after which he leaves the farther trouble in passing his account to the care of his under sheriff. The transacting of which, and obtaining the sheriff's quietus, or discharge, became so troublesome and expensive, from the delays made by the officers concerned in it, and the variety of fees demanded by them, that the legislature thought it necessary to pass an act in the 3d year of George I. not only for his greater ease in the execution of this office of sheriff, but for the ascertaining the fees to be paid by him in suing out his patent, and passing his accounts, and the preventing the officers and clerks from retarding and hindering the passing of them; and the inrolment and delivery of his quietus in due time; and for establishing a new oath of office, in the room of the old one; and as the profers payable at the exchequer by the sheriff remained then the same as they antiently were, though many of the rents and premises, out of which they were payable, were alienated from the crown, the lord treasurer, and great officers of the exchequer, were enabled, at the request of the sheriff, to reduce and settle the same to such sums as they should think just and reasonable, with regard to the amount and value of such rents and certainties at present in the county, which, when so settled, were to be the profers payable by the respective sheriff.

The fees allowed by the above act to be taken of the several sheriffs by the officers and clerks in the exchequer and chancery, amounted all together to the sum of four thousand pounds or thereabouts; and as it was justly thought unreasonable, that the sheriffs of this kingdom, who were obliged to take upon them that troublesome and expensive office for the service of their country, should pay so large a sum themselves, an act passed that year, for setting apart the sum of four thousand pounds yearly in the exchequer, for paying the expences they were at in suing out their patents, passing their accounts, and obtaining their quietus, according to the several proportions therein recited, in which the sum allowed to the sheriff of Kent is one hundred and eight pounds ten shitings; notwithstanding this allowance, the expence of serving the office for this county generally amounts to about three hundred pounds.

There are many instances of the great nobility of the kingdom, women as well as men, being in early times appointed to this office, and among them are several archbishops and bishops, as may be seen in the rolls of those times, For example, earl Gospatrick bought the sheriffwic of Northumberland of William the Conqueror; Robert earl of Leicester had the county of Hereford granted, by king Stephen, to him and his heirs; king Richard I. gave the sheriff-wick of Yorkshire to the highest bidder; William, bishop of Ely, the chancellor, offered the king for the sheriffdom of the counties of York, Lincoln, and Northampton, fifteen hundred marks in hand, and one hundred more increment, or increase, for those counties above the usual ferm every year of each; Geoffrey, archbishop of York, offered the king for the sheriffdom of Yorkshire, only three thousand marks, and one hundred more increment, upon which he was made sheriff of that county. (fn. 6) Henry III. by his letters patent, committed the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk to Hubert de Burgh, chief justicier of England, during pleasure, and commanded all persons therein to be intendant and respondent to him as the king's bailiff and sheriff; and in all letters and precepts directed to the sheriff, there was an injunction for all archbishops, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, bishops, barons, &c. to assist him in the execution of them, which shews the great extent of his authority; but since the constitution of the office of lord-lieutenant this has been omitted, and his power much abridged. (fn. 7) The same king, by letters patent, committed the county of Southampton to Peter, bishop of Winchester, and in the 3d year of that king he was accounted as sheriff of the same. (fn. 8) Queen Isabel had the sheriffwic of Cornwall several years before, as well as after her husband, king Edward II.'s death. Margaret, widow of Edward earl of Cornwall held this office in the county of Rutland the last five years of king Edward I. and as many of king Edward II. It is said that she was sheriff fourteen years, as was her husband, Edmund earl of Cornwall, son of Richard, king of the Romans, from the 17th to the 28th, and in the 30th of that reign, but it is not mentioned of what county. (fn. 9) And after the next three years Margaret, the wife of Piers Gaveston, earl of Cornwall, answered to king Edward II. the profits of that county. Elizh, countess of Salisbury, had the county of Wiltshire committed to her the 21st of king Henry III. Each of these having her shire clerk, or substitute under her. King Henry III made his son, prince Edward, the five last years of his reign, sheriff of Bedford and Buckingham. The Black Prince was often sheriff of Cornwall under king Edward III. and prince Henry, in the life-time of king Henry IV. was sheriff of the same. (fn. 10) William earl of Salisbury was sheriff of different counties for several years during the reign of king John. The earls of Warwick were often sheriffs of the counties of Warwick and Leicester, under king Edward III. and of the county of Worcester most part of that reign. Ralph earl of Chester, was sheriff of that county the 1st of king Henry III. and of Lancashire in the 2d year of the same king. Walter, archbishop of York, was sheriff of Nottingham in the 54th and 55th of king Henry III. Hilarius, bishop of Lincoln, was sheriff of Lincolnshire from the 9th to the 13th of that reign; and Hilarius, bishop of Chichester, was sheriff of Sussex and Surry in the 8th year of king Henry II. There are many more instances of earls, archbishops, and bishops, being sheriffs of different counties; but those mentioned above are sufficient to shew the dignity and eminence this office was held in. Before the reign of queen Elizabeth, as may be seen by the above account, some counties were joined with others lying next to them, for the ease of the service of the sheriff; as Sussex and Surry, Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset, Hants and Wilts, Warwick and Leicester, Norfolk and Suffolk, Essex and Hertford, Nottingham and Derby, Oxford and Berks, Bucks and Bedford, Cambridge and Huntingdon; since which, by reason of the increase of gentry able to bear the office in them, they have been separated, each county in the realm having now a distinct sheriff to itself, excepting the two last mentioned. (fn. 11)

King Henry VI. in his 18th year, made this title of vice-comes or viscount, honorary, and made it a degree of state among the peers of this realm, by creating John lord Beaumont, Viscount Beaumont, which name and title of viscount, though it is the same word as, both in Latin and French, denominated our officiary sheriff, yet it has not the least connexion with it, being merely honorary.

I shall now give a CATALOGUE of the VICECOMITES or SHERIFFS OF KENT, as they are registered in the Pipe rolls, and other records and evidences.


1 See above, p. xlvi.
2 See Wilkins, p. 205, and Seldon's Titles of Honor, p. 762.
3 Blackstone's Com. vol. i. p. 339.
4 Madox's Excheq. p. 634 and 643.
5 Madox's Excheq. p. 638. Blacks. Com. vol. i. p. 340 et seq.
6 Madox's Excheq. p. 634. 635.
7 Philipott, p. 17.
8 Madox's Excheq. p. 636.
9 Philipot, p. 17. Spelman, in his Glossary. p. 555.
10 Philipot, p. 18.
11 Act 8th and 13th Elizabeth.