Thursday, 16 April 2015

The Sheriff Rides Out: by Sue Purkiss

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a service in this tiny church in the Kent countryside. It's called St Botolph's, and it's in the grounds of Lullingstone Castle. It was a vile day with strong winds, scudding black clouds and heavy showers. Some of the ladies were dressed in wedding-type clothes, with smart dresses, fascinators and high-heeled shoes, which must have sunk into the lawn which had to be crossed to reach the church.



But we weren't there for a wedding. We were there to witness the installation of a friend of ours, William Alexander, as High Sheriff of Kent. Sheriffs - originally 'shire reeves' or 'scir-gerefa' - have existed since Saxon times. (There's one in my book about Alfred the Great, Warrior King - though I have to confess that at the time of writing it, I didn't make the connection between 'shire reeve' and 'sheriff'.) The office of High Sheriff was created in  992, in the time of Aethelred the Unready (or more accurately, the 'Unraed', meaning badly-advised.) By coincidence, I've just been reading about Aethelred. Unready or ill-advised, he certainly wasn't the best of kings, to put it mildly. Perhaps he thought up the idea of having a High Sheriff for each county as a last desperate effort to create a bit of law and order in a country which had, under his rule, become chaotically dangerous.

Whatever the reason, he created the office - and it's now the oldest secular office under the Crown. Then, the High Sheriff was the chief executive in each shire. He was responsible for administering agriculture and collecting farm rents, as well as for dispensing justice. He could raise the hue-and-cry to hunt down felons, and he could summon - wait for it - the 'posse comitatus': the full power of the shire, to fight in the service of the sovereign. (Who knew sheriffs and posses weren't invented in the Wild West?)

The office of High Sheriff has changed; many of its powers have been lost since the Middle Ages. But it's not purely ceremonial; lasting for a year, it's an apolitical appointment which brings with it the ability to do a tremendous amount that is useful: to play a supportive role in relation to public sector and voluntary agencies and their efforts in relation to crime reduction and social cohesion.

So, back to the little church. We all waited expectantly. Trumpets sounded. Then along came the procession - which was just about as long as the church itself. There was the present High Sheriff. There was the Chief Constable. There was the Lord-Lieutenant. There were two judges, one of whom, in a long wig, robe and knee breeches, looked as if he'd walked straight out of a Dickens novel. There were chaplains and church-wardens. And there was the High Sheriff Elect, looking a picture in black velvet and snow white ruffles, with silver buckles on his shoes and a sword at his side. Marvellous!

William Alexander, lavender farmer and High Sheriff of Kent

William had to swear a magnificent oath full of sonorous phrases, the gist of which was: 'In all things I will well and truly behave myself in my office.' He was presented with his badge of office, and then he spoke about what he hopes to achieve in his year - because, aside from all the ceremonial things he or she has to do, a high sheriff these days is expected to take on a project of some kind, usually to do with the justice system. William is interested in the rehabilitation of prisoners, particularly focusing on improving literacy and educational standards. (Sadly, I don't think he'll be allowed to charge all over Kent leading a hue-and-cry or a posse comitatus. But you never know.)

He also read extracts from the Magna Carta (of whose 63 clauses, 27 relate to the office of Sheriff) and from the Charter of the Forest. I'd never heard of this before, but apparently it was much more to do with the rights of the common man, as distinct from the rights of the nobles.

I'm fascinated by the Dark Ages anyway, and this felt like a visceral link back to an England (scarcely then an England, let alone a Britain) of over a thousand years ago. It felt archaic, but still important. It was like being a tiny part of a long, long story. It was a privilege to be there.


10 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating! How do you get this job? :-)

Clare Mulley said...

What a wonderful occasion to witness, all the more so for your insights. I loved learning the rather unexpected origin of sheriff and posse - thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

That sounds a most wonderful experience for you - and for the new Sheriff of Kent, too, and power to his project.

carol drinkwater said...

I would love to know how a sheriff is chosen? I assume the post is only open to men? I would applaud loudly if all politicians had to swear they would behave themselves while in office! Lovely, Sue.

Joan Lennon said...

What a great guy! And however he was chosen, well done for the choosers!

Sue Purkiss said...

No, there are lady sheriffs, too, Carol! The next one's a woman - there was some discussion about how to adapt the suit for her! If you google 'High Sheriff' or 'shrievalty' you'll find lots more info - basically you have to be asked.

Ann Turnbull said...

This is fascinating, Sue. And I'm making notes from it, because the office of Sheriff and the posse comitatus are on my current research list. What a wonderful occasion to have attended!

Sue Purkiss said...

Glad to be of service, Ann!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I really enjoyed this post, Sue. I, too, didn't make the connection between 'shire reeve' and sherrif - so I'm pleased to learn that - it's my new bit of knowledge for the day!

It all sounded wonderful - in a ever so slightly batty English way - and such fun.

Lydia Syson said...

Revelatory! Have sent on to my twins who are off to a geography field trip there next month…thank you!