The High Sheriff today
The Office of High Sheriff is an independent non-political Royal appointment for a single year. Whilst the duties of the role have evolved over time, supporting the Crown and the judiciary remain central elements of the role today. In addition, High Sheriffs actively lend support and encouragement to crime prevention agencies, the emergency services and to the voluntary sector. In recent years High Sheriffs in many parts of England and Wales have been particularly active in encouraging crime reduction initiatives, especially amongst young people. Many High Sheriffs also assist Community Foundations and local charities working with vulnerable and other people both in endorsing and helping to raise the profile of their valuable work.
High Sheriffs receive no remuneration and no part of the expense of a High Sheriff’s year falls on the public purse.
The West Midlands
Although the County of the West Midlands has only existed since 1974, the settlements of the West Midlands have long been important centres of commerce and industry as well as developing a good local infrastructure. Coventry was one of England’s most important cities during the Middle Ages, with its prosperity built upon wool and cloth manufacture. Birmingham and Wolverhampton have a tradition of industry dating back to the 16th century, when small metal-working industries developed. Birmingham was also known for its manufacture of small arms, whereas Wolverhampton became a centre of lock manufacture and brass working. The coal and iron ore deposits of the Black Country area provided a ready source of raw materials. The area grew rapidly during the Industrial Revolution, and by the 20th century had grown into one large conurbation.
The West Midlands is divided into seven districts called metropolitan boroughs, these are: Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton have city status. The desire of the region’s people to seek and invent new products, services and innovations has driven success.
History of High Sheriffs
The Office of High Sheriff is the oldest secular Office in the United Kingdom after the Crown and dates from Saxon times. The exact date of origin is unknown but the Office has certainly existed for over 1,000 years since the Shires were formed.
The word ‘Sheriff’ derives from ‘Shire Reeve’ or the Anglo Saxon ‘Scir-gerefa’. The King’s Reeve was also known as the ‘High’ Reeve. Some Sheriffs led contingents at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans continued the Office and added to its powers. During the 11th and 12th centuries a High Sheriff’s powers were very extensive. For example, they judged cases in the monthly court of the hundred (a sub-unit of the Shire); they had law enforcement powers and could raise the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of felons within their Shire; they could summon and command the ‘posse comitatus’ – the full power of the Shire in the service of the Sovereign; they collected taxes and levies and all dues on Crown lands on behalf of the Crown and were in charge of Crown property in the Shire. In short, High Sheriffs were the principal representatives and agents for the Crown and were thus very powerful within the Shire.
Of the 63 clauses in the Magna Carta of 1215, no less than 27 relate to the role of the Sheriff and from 1254 the High Sheriff supervised the election to Parliament of two Knights of the Shire.
The Sheriffs’ powers were gradually restricted over succeeding centuries. Under Henry I their tax collection powers went to the Exchequer, which also took on the function of auditing the Sheriffs’ accounts. Henry II introduced the system of Itinerant Justices from which evolved the Assizes and the present day system of High Court Judges going out on Circuit. The Sheriff remained responsible for issuing Writs, for having ready the Court, prisoners and juries, and then executing the sentences once they were pronounced. It was also the Sheriff’s responsibility to ensure the safety and comfort of the Judges. This is the origin of the High Sheriff’s modern day duty of care for the well-being of High Court judges.
In the middle of the 13th century, more powers went to the newly created offices of Coroners and Justices of the Peace. Under the Tudors, Lord- Lieutenants were created as personal representatives of the Sovereign. Queen Elizabeth I is generally believed to have originated the practice that continues to this day of the Sovereign choosing the High Sheriff by pricking a name on the Sheriffs’ Roll with a bodkin. It is said that she did this whilst engaged in embroidery in the garden. Sadly, this is a myth since there is a Sheriffs’ Roll dating from the reign of her grandfather Henry VII (1485-1508) on which the names were pricked through vellum. A mark with a pen on vellum could easily be erased with a knife, but a hole in the vellum could not be removed or repaired invisibly.
By Acts of 1856 and 1865 all of the Sheriffs’ powers concerning police and prisons passed to the Prison Commissioners and local Constabulary and under an Act of 1883 the care of Crown Property was transferred to the Crown Commissioners. The Sheriffs Act of 1887 consolidated the law relating to the Office of High Sheriff and the Act remains in force to this day, though it has been amended a number of times.
The ceremonial uniform that is worn by male High Sheriffs today is called Court Dress. It has remained essentially unchanged since the late seventeenth century and consists of a black or dark blue velvet coat with steel-cut buttons, breeches, shoes with cut-steel buckles, a sword and a cocked hat. A lace jabot is worn around the neck. Today, lady High Sheriffs generally adapt the style of traditional Court Dress to suit their needs. Ceremonial uniform is worn at a wide variety of functions but when not wearing Court Dress, a High Sheriff will wear a badge of Office on a ribbon.
Duties and Responsibilities
Each High Sheriff will approach their year slightly differently depending on their particular skills, experience and their own areas of interest. The key objectives of the role can be summarised as follows:
- To uphold and enhance the ancient Office of High Sheriff and to make a meaningful contribution to the High Sheriff’s County during the year of Office
- To lend active support to the principal organs of the Constitution within their county – the Royal Family, the Judiciary, the Police and other law enforcement agencies, the emergency services, local authorities, and church and faith groups
- To ensure the welfare of visiting High Court Judges, to attend on them at Court and to offer them hospitality
- To support the Lord-Lieutenant on royal visits and on other occasions as appropriate
- To take an active part in supporting and promoting the voluntary sector and giving all possible encouragement to the voluntary organisations within a County.
High Sheriff’s Association West Midlands The History of the High Sheriff’s