A Potted History of "Sheriff" Seals


Sheriff seals have been a part of our collection for many years and over time, I have been increasingly drawn towards them.  So, I thought I would delve a bit into the history of the Sheriff title and how the position is shown by the ownership of a desk seal.

The word ‘Sheriff’ derives from ‘Shire Reeve’ or the Anglo Saxon ‘Scir-gerefa’. The King’s Reeve was also known as the ‘High’ Reeve. Some Sheriffs led contingents at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Normans continued the Office and added to its powers. During the 11th and 12th centuries a High Sheriff’s powers were very extensive. For example, they judged cases in the monthly court of the hundred (a sub-unit of the Shire); they had law enforcement powers and could raise the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of felons within their Shire; they could summon and command the ‘posse comitatus’ – the full power of the Shire in the service of the Sovereign; they collected taxes and levies and all dues on Crown lands on behalf of the Crown and were in charge of Crown property in the Shire. In short, High Sheriffs were the principal representatives and agents for the Crown and were thus very powerful within the Shire. 

Now, growing up as a child, I had the image of the "Sheriff of Nottingham" in my mind if you mentioned the word Sheriff and this brought up thoughts of a greedy, tyrannical evil-doer haranguing poor old Robin Hood who basically had a vendetta against this guy because of his position.  Of course, the position was not the problem but of the person himself.  However, having investigated more about the position and the amount of power that these guys wielded, I am not surprised that  the position was abused and Nottingham might well have portrayed a more typical Sheriff than I would like to think.......

Thankfully for the general population, the Sheriffs’ powers were gradually restricted over succeeding centuries. Under Henry I their tax collection powers went to the Exchequer, which also took on the function of auditing the Sheriffs’ accounts. Henry II introduced the system of Itinerant Justices from which evolved the Assizes and the present day system of High Court Judges going out on Circuit. The Sheriff remained responsible for issuing Writs, for having ready the Court, prisoners and juries, and then executing the sentences once they were pronounced. It was also the Sheriff’s responsibility to ensure the safety and comfort of the Judges. This is the origin of the High Sheriff’s modern day duty of care for the well-being of High Court judges.

In the middle of the 13th century, more powers went to the newly created offices of Coroners and Justices of the Peace. Under the Tudors, Lord- Lieutenants were created as personal representatives of the Sovereign. Queen Elizabeth I is generally believed to have originated the practice that continues to this day of the Sovereign choosing the High Sheriff by pricking a name on the Sheriffs’ Roll with a bodkin. It is said that she did this whilst engaged in embroidery in the garden. Sadly, this is a myth since there is a Sheriffs’ Roll dating from the reign of her grandfather Henry VII (1485-1508) on which the names were pricked through vellum.

The real reason for pricking through vellum was that the choice was not always a welcome honour due to the costs the incumbent was likely to have to shoulder and also the challenges faced in assessing and collecting taxes, particularly unpopular taxes such as Charles I’s demands for ship money in 1635. A mark with a pen on vellum could easily be erased with a knife, but a hole in the vellum (which is made from calf skin) could not be removed or repaired invisibly. The potential expense to the incumbent of becoming High Sheriff was one of the reasons the role was for a single year only.

By Acts of 1856 and 1865 all of the Sheriffs’ powers concerning police and prisons passed to the Prison Commissioners and local Constabulary and under an Act of 1883 the care of Crown Property was transferred to the Crown Commissioners.
So, the Sheriff position has a long and not always comfortable position and the seals that we have collected over the years, obviously, concentrate more on the more-modern than the very early sheriffs.  By far the most common feature of the sheriff seals is the image of a full frontal castle. The oldest one in our collection is the late 16th - early 17th century ivory half cut-away you can see in the image below which has a rather naive engraving of a castle together with initials either side and text below indicating the county to which it related; in this case LEIC stands for Leicestershire.  




In a similar vein, the rather beautiful c1800 silver and ivory seal show initials, the word SUFF. for the county of Suffolk and the family crest above for the title-holder.