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The History and Role of the High Sheriff of Berkshire

Dr Christina Hill-Williams

11 November 2014


Dr. Christina Hill-Williams gave a most interesting talk on The History and Role of the High Sheriff to the November meeting of the Wargrave Local History Society. Having served as the High Sheriff of Berkshire, Christina was able to give a personal and authoritative account. Christina began by explaining that the Lord Lieutenant of the county was the Queen's representative, whereas the High Sheriff was the Queen's representative in all matters to do with the law in the county. Although the Lord Lieutenant normally serves until the age of 75, the High Sheriff was a one year appointment - and is the older of the two offices, being the oldest secular office after the monarchy. The English has had a monarchy for over 2,000 years - early ones being sturdy warriors. The Romans received homage from British kings in 43AD, although they would not allow Queen Boudica to rule - leading to a rebellion, which she lost. The history of other early kings, such as King Lear, King Ludd or King Cole is rather shadowy. England was made of many kingdoms - of which Wessex was the most powerful. The first was Cerdic (who died in 534), from whom the various Athelstans, and Ethelreds were descended. The Scottish monarchy was founded somewhat later. Egbert was the first to rule all of England, and his grandson was Alfred - born at Wantage - who reigned from 871 - 901. Alfred divided Wessex into small parts, to be easier to control. Each part was called a shire - the word meaning 'portion of the kingdom'. Berkshire was the part of the kingdom which was a land of hills, Oxfordshire was the part where oxen cross a ford in the river, etc. To administer each shire needed someone in charge - and the word for a person with that kind of responsibility was a reeve - hence the person in charge of the shire was the shire reeve - the word later contracting to sheriff. Following invasions by the Vikings, Ethelred the Unready ordered the High Sheriffs of the counties to collect taxes, to pay the Danegeld (paid to the Vikings so that they would not savage the land). The High Sheriffs became the representatives of the king in the country (there having been no queens by then). The office of Lord Lieutenant was introduced by Henry VIII in the 1530s. The ancient role of High Sheriffs included the collection of taxes, to be taken to London. There they would be counted, on a table covered by a chequered cloth - hence the name of the exchequer. The High Sheriff had to keep a record of the money handed over, and the exchequer also had to have a record. The amount was marked onto a stick for each of them, and these had to match, or tally, hence tally sticks. A third role the High Sheriffs was to raise an army or militia for the king, and they also had to escort the monarch on their visits to the county, and similarly escort judges. When democracy came more into effect, they also added the role of returning officer for elections to their responsibilities, and have the duty to issue proclamations in the country for a new monarch when the previous reign comes to an end. The badge of a High Sheriff includes two crossed swords, one blunt for mercy and the other sharp for justice, reflecting their role in overseeing law and order. The first High Sheriff in Berkshire had been appointed before 1066, as the then holder of the post, Godric, died whilst fighting for Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The first lady to hold the office was in 1185 - although she assumed office by default. Her name is not known, just that she was the 'wife of Hugh of St German', and that she 'served in his stead in the last year of his office' - possibly whilst he was fighting in the Crusades. It was, however, to be 800 years before another lady was appointed as Berkshire's High Sheriff - Lady Elizabeth Godsal, from Twyford, in 1990. Most of the ancient functions of the High Sheriff no longer apply - they do not collect taxes or raise armies, for example, whilst the role of protecting the sovereign is dealt with by the Queen's security team - although the High Sheriff is invited to many royal visits. As Berkshire includes Windsor, State Visits may also be in the programme of events - during Christina's period of office she attended the State Visit of the President of India, for example. The booklet produced for participants on such occasions timed each stage - even to the opening of car doors - to a precise minute. One of the most important functions fulfilled by High Sheriffs now is that relating to the judiciary. They may sit with the judge in the High Court, and Christina had been involved in interviewing people applying to be magistrates. Visits to police stations and prisons, and other official bodies, like the Crown Prosecution Service, the Probation Service, Victim Support, etc are all part of the duties to be covered. In her 12 month term of office, Christina fulfilled over 350 engagements - an unpaid role, for which no expenses are reimbursed. She decided to adopt 3 'themes' for her year - to bring generations together, health (especially mental health), and the environment. The post of High Sheriff can never be allowed to be vacant. Every year a panel meets to decide who will hold the office in 4 years time. Nominees have to live in, or within 7 miles of the boundary, of the county, own land within it, and have their criminal record checked. Once nominated, each moves forward each year in succession - if a nominee is unable to take up their term of office, the next in order takes their place. When the time comes for them to take up the post, a roll of vellum with the names of all the people to be appointed is taken to the Queen for the 'Pricking Ceremony'. A bodkin is used by Her Majesty to make a hole against the name of each appointee - a process dating back to Queen Elizabeth I's time - or earlier. It is thought the process was devised to counter the possibility of an ink mark being later smudged out - once a hole was made in the vellum it could not be changed. Two letters of appointment are sent - one from Buckingham Palace and one from the Privy Council - for the new High Sheriff to 'take custody and charge of the county'. The swearing in ceremony that follows uses a very antiquated form of language, and the 'uniform' worn is that of Court Dress of the 19th century, complete with a hat with a feather in it. Christina ended by relating a visit to a primary school, when the Head had asked if she would wear her uniform, and hat, and badge. She was taken into the school hall, where lots of little faces were looking at her. The Head asked the children who the very important person was who was with her. After some time, one boy put up his hand. 'Henry the Eighth' he suggested. A little girl then put up her hand to suggest 'the Queen' - another boy was closest in thinking she might be the Mayor'!

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