When I sit down to write these columns, I usually have no idea what I’m going to write about until I read the column that Dad wrote in the corresponding week 40 years ago. Often, at the very point I think inspiration has left for its holidays, I see or hear something that ends up being the pivotal subject of the column.
Today, I experienced such a moment after reading Dad’s piece from 8th April 1978 in which he talked about the April weather, albino people (following on from his mention of albino blackbirds a couple of weeks before), the annual influx of migrating birds, clouds and the custom of ‘pricking the sheriffs’.
I was undecided as to what to plump for, until I opened my iPad and there on the open BBC iPlayer app was a programme called ‘The sheriffs are coming’. It was a sign.
The word sheriff immediately conjures up two images for me, a Wild West cowboy with a star-shaped badge, and the actor Alan Rickman, whose portrayal of the embodiment of evil that was the Sheriff of Nottingham in the 1995 film ‘Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves’ was so memorable.
Today there are two distinct categories of sheriff in our country. Those featured in the BBC programme are officially High Court Enforcement Officers and are tasked with collecting money or goods in respect of a debt. They are authorised by the Lord Chancellor, but privately employed, unlike bailiffs, who are salaried civil servants. Debts below £600 can only be recovered by bailiffs, and debts over £5,000 can only be recovered by sheriffs.
The second category is now mainly a ceremonial role to represent the Crown at county level and are known as high sheriffs. City sheriffs have largely disappeared, apart from in London where there are two.
The original sheriff is possibly the oldest official role in the country, and the name derives from ‘shire reeve’, meaning the governor of a shire or county. ‘Reeve’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘reeafan’ which was a levy or seizure. We don’t know for sure when the first shire reeve appeared, but we do know that Alfred the Great (871-901) appointed men to this role. They were the king’s representatives at a local level and executed writs on his behalf. They collected rents and taxes and were responsible for keeping the peace, which also led to them assuming responsibility for prisoners. This made them very powerful and some, like the supposedly merciless Sheriff of Nottingham, abused this power.
To counter the problem, a new official, the ‘coroner’, was installed to oversee all the sheriffs (although clearly they have a very different role today!).
It is the duty of the incumbent high sheriffs to nominate successors. Formal nominations take place at the High Court in London on November 12th and is presided over by the Lord Chief Justice. This is followed by the ‘pricking of the sheriffs’ by the Sovereign in March (I bet you’ve been thinking that was a typo!).
The list of nominees is put on to a vellum (calf skin) scroll which is 15 feet long by a foot wide and, as in centuries before, the Queen chooses her high sheriffs using a silver bodkin, which is a large sewing needle, to prick a hole in the scroll over the selected nominee’s name.
There are a couple of explanations for this rather odd method of choosing. I do like my dad’s, where he explains that it dates back to the time of Elizabeth I. She was sewing in her garden when the time arose to choose her sheriffs. The scroll was brought to her, but she had no pen, so consequently used a bodkin from her sewing basket.
The second (possibly more plausible) reason I found on the high sheriffs’ official website (highsheriffs.com). Apparently not all the nominated sheriffs welcomed the role due to the high expenses they incurred, and the challenges of calculating and collecting taxes. So to stop them trying to remove their names, a hole was made in the vellum which could not be removed, nor sewn up without being noticed.
This year’s ceremony took place at Buckingham Palace on 14th March where Simon Wrightson was succeeded as High Sheriff of North Yorkshire by Chris Legard, of Scampston Hall near Malton, who will officially assume his duties this month.