So What About The Sherriff

A few facts about ‘The Sherriff’ and his duties – maybe he is not quite
as bad a character as Robin Hood would have you believe…

Our sport is ancient and is the source of a number of legends none better known or more enduring than good old Robin Hood whose exploits have, over the centuries, been portrayed and enhanced by just about every type of media coverage that has ever existed.

Robin and his merry men are always represented as being the force for good, while generally the villain of the piece is the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, whose main role appeared to be unjustly suppressing, taxing and punishing the population under his jurisdiction. But in reality, was the Sheriff really as bad as he was portrayed and what do we know about the ancient office of Sheriff?

The word Sheriff derives from Old English – ‘Scir Gerefa’ or ‘Shire Reeve’. The Reeve was the officer and representative of his Lord. His duties may have been confined to his Lord’s manor where, as the Manorial Reeve, he would have been responsible for organising the daily work and ensuring that people were at their work.

The Lord’s officer and representative in the town was known as the Port Reeve his duties lay in the town collecting taxes and administering his Lords affairs.

The Shire Reeve (Sheriff) had responsibility for the Shire which in Anglo-Saxon England was the main unit of local government and was divided into smaller administrative units called Hundreds or Wapentakes originally presided over by an Earldorman until the 10th century when the chief administrator became the Sheriff. It was not until after the Norman conquest that the name County was given to the Shires.

This then was the Sheriff’s domain if he governed it under the terms of the oath which had to be sworn by the holder of the office then a very different picture of the Sheriff emerges.

The oath required the Sheriff to :
· Serve the King loyally
· To do right to rich and poor alike and not to omit this for love, hatred, fear or covetousness
· To take nothing by occasion of this jurisdiction either by himself or others, except only for meat and drink brought to his table and that for one day only.
· To have not more than five horses in the place where he lodged by reason of his office.
· To lodge with no one who had less than forty pounds value of land. Nor any religious house which had less value than a hundred marks in land and rents.
· Not to lodge with any of these more than once in a year, or twice at most, and then only with the prayer and consent, not drawing this into a precedent.
· Not to take presents or anything else worth more than 12 pence.
· In any case where it be expedient to lodge there longer, not to have more bailiffs than were needed to maintain his office and these persons whose trustiness could be vouched.
· Finally – To farm (rent) to no one the Counties, Wapentakes, Hundreds and other bailiffs of the realm.

The duties of the Sheriff were :
· To superintend revictualment of the castle.
· To expel intruders into Manors with Posse Comitatus.
· To provide funds for the siege of a castle.
· To summon twelve men of the county to attend justice.
· To enquire into the capture of the King’s officers by rebels.
· To maintain the peace of the realm with Posse Comitatus.
· To attend the King.
· To arrest rebels with Posse Comitatus.
· To grant administration of estates.
· To enforce observation of the great charter.
· To summons complainants to the King’s Courts
· To send revenues of Counties, Wapentakes, Demesnes to the King.
· To summon tenants in chief, Burgesses and Knights of the Shire before the justices in eyre.
· To send Knights to confer with the King.
· To elect Coroners.

Posse Comitatus translates to the ‘Power of the County’, it was the equivalent of the Saxon Hue and Cry calling on individuals to do their civil duty.

If the Sheriff operated to the conditions of his oath and observed his responsibilities then a very different picture to the one we are used to emerges

I hope this outline of the facts surrounding the duties and responsibilities of the Sheriff will not detract from your enjoyment of those marvellous and villainous enactments of the Sheriff of Nottingham by those actors who have portrayed him over the years.

The Antient Silver Arrow