THE SHERIFF’S DUTIES
The office of Sheriff goes back to Anglo Saxon times and is thought to have originated in the 10th century when they were called the scirgerefa. Before William the Conqueror invaded, the sheriff was Chancellor of the Exchequer, home secretary, secretary of state for defence, minister for agriculture and a host of other appointments all rolled into one great Crown office. There were no police, no judges or even magistrates, no inland revenue, no customs, and excise. The scir-reeve did it all. He had powers of arrest, he could raise armies, collect taxes and levies, and he presided over courts. He dealt with traitors, and generally supervised on the King’s behalf everything that went on in the Kingdom. With all this power many of the sheriffs were, as is recorded of a certain Godric, sheriff of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, "colourful old scoundrels.”
The days of the Saxon sheriffs became numbered as news was brought to King Harold that Duke William of Normandy had landed. Sheriffs from all the southern counties-Wiltshire and Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, Middlesex and Berkshire-rode at the head of their levies of armed men to take up battle stations under the King’s standard-the Golden Dragon of Wessex.
After the terrible defeat at Hastings William the Conqueror gradually introduced his own men into the office of sheriff and William, ever hungry for gold and wealth instituted the practice of selling the office of Sheriff to the highest bidder. This brought forth evil men who were willing to pay exorbitant prices for the office and then do whatever was necessary to extort money from the English peasants to recover their investment. No one could do anything about it because their only representative to the king was the sheriff who was embezzling them. The most notorious was Picot, Sheriff of Cambridgeshire. The monks describe him as a hungry lion, a prowling wolf, a crafty fox, a filthy swine, and a dog without shame, who stuffed his belly like an insatiable beast as though the whole country were a single corpse.
These sheriffs were loyal to King William and he bestowed on them the title "Vicomte" which added nobility to their positions. He allowed Vicomte sheriffs to build castles and this was considered a powerful symbol of privilege and was a far greater honour than had ever been granted to the previous Anglo-Saxon sheriffs. The castles symbolised an aggressive subjection of the people and to enhance their income the sheriff’s commonly pillaged church properties perhaps explaining Robin Hood’s activities. (The Norman bishops were also guilty robbing the churches) and during William the Conqueror’s reign the sheriffs encouraged by the Conqueror exhibited unmentionable greed. Here are some of the things they would do:
1. If events reduced production within the shires and thereby reduced the prosperity of King William, the sheriff was then forced to press the peasants even more to make up for the deficiency. In 1083, William levied the highest tax assessment of his reign to make up for the previous year’s famine and low production but where were the peasants to find even more money when the crops had failed?
2. But if the sheriffs collected more money than was required by the King they were allowed to keep it. Therefore the sheriff’s extorted money from the peasant taxpayers in a practice developed under the Norman kings known as "farming" the shire. In this way the sheriff could produce more income off the backs of the peasants than he could ever produce off the land.
3. One sheriff in the reign of King John raised money by kidnapping mistresses of the clergy, returning them to their monastic lovers only after a high ransom had been paid.