By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
The office of sheriff . . . was a development that began over 1000 years ago in England . . . simultaneously with the development of the local form of government [that] allowed early English people to be divided into smaller units subject to the considerations of a national interest and central authority of the king. The formation of the units was crucial to the central authority because the population was scattered and Saxon kings had no large standing armies, a centralized court system, or the ability to finance a government appropriately. The small unit management therefore became crucial to a national development of government.
In about the seventh century, groups were formed into "tuns" (later called towns), which were the basic unit of smaller society. Groups of ten families of freeholders or frank-pledges formed units called tens or tithings. The frank-pledges were persons that had to pledge surety to the sovereign against any infractions of good behavior for the benefit of the collective good of the group. Groups of ten tithing became an administrative unit known as a "hundred". Each hundred was responsible for the defaults of the individual freeholders or frank-pledges. The collective liability of the group made for a corporate form of government.
The social groups of these hundreds became useful for census and resource assessment. The hundreds became the basic unit of tax appropriation for the Crown and they provided for much of the development of English common law. The hundreds existed until the nineteenth century, when a more modern form of assessment and census taking developed. Indefinite numbers of hundreds existed throughout early English history.
Collectively, the hundreds formed into geographically based divisions known by the Anglo-Saxon word "scir", which means, "a piece shorn off". The word scir later became shire. Shires were originally not much more than forest clearings identified roughly by existing natural landmarks that formed their boundaries. The shires have appeared on crudely drawn maps and have been written about in English literature for more than ten centuries. Until 1972, there were forty-two such units in England, with twenty-four of them bearing the suffix shire. The earliest of these units to be so designated were Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Berkshire. In the year 871, King Alfred "shired" his entire kingdom in order to compile the units into a unified defense against the intrusion of the Danes.
While these shires were in the developmental and refinement stage, a custodian was chosen by the fellow members of the hundreds to be their "gerefa" or guardian. Later this title was to become known as "reeve". The combination of the unit known as scir or shire and the administrative title of reeve would eventually develop into the word "sheriff". With the exception of king, no English institution is older than this office. The earliest mention of a position somewhat like a sheriff was in the 970s during the reign of King Edgar. . . .
In order to receive protection from attacks of neighboring communities, the peasants had to pay an excise to the king to finance protective armies. . . .. In order to collect payments from the peasants, a reeve was appointed by the king to collect his recompense. The reeve had full authority from the Crown to force peasants to pay their due as well as having full administrative power over the shire. He could supervise the lives of the peasants and manage their daily existence in order to insure proper productivity from the land, thereby, insuring adequate payment to the king. . . .
The administrative service of the reeve transformed from a resource producing capacity to a position that involved community management. The reeve could enforce standards and customs of the community and he had total authority to enforce the "kings peace". . . . If the peace was not kept, or if order was not maintained by the reeve, he could assess penalties to the violators. Monetary levies could be made ranging from a man's "wergild", or price of his life, to lesser corporal punishments for minor violations. Portions of the fines collected were given to the victims, or the victims's family, after the king was given his due by the reeve. The assessments varied from shire to shire and by the demeanor and character of the reeve.
As the administration of the shires became more complex the reeves had less time to attend to their personal farming. Because of this, the reeves were excused from royal taxes in exchange for their administrative duties. They were also given the choice acreage for their use, and a greater portion of the land was given to the reeves than to peasants without status. Eventually, reeves were allowed to keep portions of the tax they collected as compensation. This was exclusive of the riches they were already skimming off the top for themselves before they remitted to the monarchy. There would have been little ability for the crown to keep track of the assessments, given the exclusive authority of the reeves. Generally, the monarchy was happy with what they received and were able to enjoy the financial benefits of the shires without the tiresome responsibility of tax collection and population management.
Some reeves specifically in charge of royal properties were known as "wic" or "port" reeves. They were distinguished from the reeves known as "tungerfan" reeves, who managed king's private estates. The wic reeve in charge of the fortified areas where the king and his family resided was not a peasant but a gentry member and a landowner in his own right. This upper class reeve was known as the "King's Reeve" or "High Reeve" and he was on the upper side of the social scale and part of the aristocracy.
As the scope of the monarchy grew with increased sophistication and became more complex, so too did the status of the king's reeves. The High Reeve shared managerial responsibility for the shire's administration with an ealdorman and the bishop. The ealdorman was in charge of the king's military and spent much of his time away fighting the king's battles. The bishop's responsibility was to attend to the king's personal needs. Consequently, the High Reeve had most of the day-to-day administrative responsibilities for the maintenance of the shires. It was the High Reeve that dealt directly with the people and became a permanent link between them and the Crown. The High Reeve had direct responsibility for fiscal matters and for police duties.
The High Reeve's police responsibility was to preserve the king's peace. He had authority to raise the "hue and cry" for the pursuit of thieves and other criminals. The hue and cry was a form of posse, in which once the shout was sounded that a crime such as robbery, theft, assault, or murder was committed; all that heard it were obligated and bound by honor to join the pursuit until the scoundrel was captured or the reeve called off the search. The first recorded involvement of the reeve in this law enforcement process was first chronicled in the tenth century, when King Aethelstan proclaimed:
"Each reeve is to help the next for the sake of peace of all, on pain of fine for disobedience to the king"
The most difficult of the reeve's duties was his judicial responsibilities. The king garnered considerable revenue from the fines imposed for breaking the peace. The Church too sought to preserve the peace by ruling against any form of trade on Sundays. The enforcement of Church laws was also the obligation of the reeve. The reeve had total authority over the Hundred Courts, which were held monthly. Because there were many hundreds in the shire the reeve delegated judicial responsibility to a bailiff, whom he appointed to preside over legal concerns. The courts ruled on issues of civil law as well as criminal matters. It was not uncommon for the courts to hear social gossip, business transactions, and land grants. Because the fine process brought enhancement to the king's treasury and the collection of fines ingratiated the reeve to the king, it became quite a litigious society.