Past Master Patrick Burgess MBE, was recently declared High Sheriff of West Sussex for 2013-2014 and here he explains more about this office, its history and his duties.
“Over the years, a number of members of our Livery have been appointed by the Queen to be High Sheriff in their county.
The office of High Sheriff dates from AD 900 or thereabouts – in Saxon times.
The origin of the name is itself Saxon: a reeve was a kind of agent or deputy. Most thanes and Lords of the Manor had one for their own lands and affairs; they would often preside, instead of their Master, at Manorial Courts and so on: a combination of land agent, farm manager and local policeman and local Magistrate. The later Saxon Kings, as the country got more settled and organised, appointed similar officials to manage their affairs in each county: the shire-reeves.
Sheriffs were the Crown’s personal representatives around the country. They enforced law and order, they protected the Judges when they came visiting from London, they watched over the Sovereign’s lands and property in the Shire, they enforced fines and seizures, (organising the bailiffs to do so), they could mount a posse (originally the “posse comitatus”) and they collected the taxes. The proceeds of the latter they had to take up to Westminster each new year (starting on Lady Day) to the Court of the Exchequer where the Chancellor of the Exchequer collected the money and the Judges decided disputes – and levied fines on Sheriffs who didn’t produce enough (assessed by reference to the returns in the Domesday Book, and so on).
The office was therefore very onerous and people sought to avoid it if they could. To prevent them alleging that they hadn’t actually been chosen, even if their name was on the Roll (list), the Monarch took to pricking the parchment against each name at the Privy Council meeting when they were appointed. That meeting still occurs in February each year and the Queen still pricks the list with the same silver bodkin (needle) as has always been used.
But that is only after each candidate has appeared before the Lord Chief Justice in his Court – Court No 1 – in the Royal Courts of Justice, sitting with two other senior Judges as “Lords in Council.” This takes place the previous November, when the names of the candidates are announced to the Judges by the Queen’s Remembrancer who reads from the initial list of those “in nomination.”
What happens then is that a Warrant arrives from the Privy Council, at which point each new High Sheriff has to appear at the principal Court of his county (usually the old Assize Court) and swear his Declaration (and oath of office) before the High Court Judge who is the presiding Judge in that part of the country.
It’s then immediately down to work! Besides maintaining relationships with the Judges, and sitting in Court occasionally, there is a busy round of visits to the police, and other public services (Fire Brigade, Coastguard, Lifeboats, St John Ambulance, and so on), the presentation of awards and medals to members of those services and offices, and also to local Reserve units, and many visits to, and meetings with, charities and third sector bodies in the county (known, for this purpose, as the Sheriff’s “bailiwick”).
The office has modernised itself over time, especially in relation to encouragement of charitable and voluntary work, but is still old-fashioned in a number of ways, including the 18th Century Court costume, which is the High Sheriffs’ uniform, and some of the old terms still used: as an old friend remarked to me the other day, they don’t talk a lot about “shrievalty” in John Wayne films!
In my case, I have been set a good example by my predecessors who’ve been very helpful and supportive and who have set an inspiring example of what can be done – I think they’ve averaged about 300 engagements each year, all in support of the Crown and those working for good in our society. And all High Sheriffs will tell you at the end of their year of office what a humbling experience it has been to spend a year with so many extraordinarily dedicated and hardworking people running charities and community projects and so on across their bailiwick.
So our thousand year old office is still lively and kicking. Many of our duties, though they are still contained in the wording of the Oath we take, have been delegated on our behalf to others – the Chief Constable, in particular, and the Courts Service. Others of our duties have actually been transferred away altogether – some to the Lieutenancy (Lord Lieutenants were introduced by Henry VIII but only given precedence over High Sheriffs in 1906), and some to HM Revenue and Customs.
But the last part of our Oath, remains the crucial bit: “I will…in all things well and truly behave myself in office for the honour of the Queen and the good of her subjects.”
High Sheriffs are very conscious that the Office we have been confirmed in is an honour, but not an honorific. Our chief power lies now, of course, in moral suasion more than in mounting a posse. Each one has his or her own approach to shaping their endeavours to produce a practical result from their efforts, but let me just say there are two sides to the coin of Justice: (Justice being the principal thing with which we are associated): on the one hand there is law and order, on the other, compassion and succour for those among us who are the underdog, the underprivileged – and the under-appreciated: compassion, as well as discipline, must be a High Sheriff’s watch words!
In recent years, my own conversation has – no doubt to the exasperation of my family – been littered with two themes: the importance of reinforcing common values to keep society together, and the importance of instilling a sense of hope in everybody to keep us all on the rails; the one, Aristotle, of course, the other, St Paul, (or the Psalmist, if you prefer).
All High Sheriffs loyally and enthusiastically dedicate themselves to serve their County and the Crown in their year with something like these two ends (common values, and a sense of hope) in view – but also, in the process, hoping to make it fun!
Photos copyright Edward Reeves, Lewes