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.
Some time between the years 964 and 988, a new title appeared on a document that was not specifically dated. A case was heard before the shire court and the witness to the . . . oath was the reeve described in the record as the "scirimannes". . . This recorded instance of an official title being linked to the jurisdiction of the shire was a decisive phase in the development of the word "Sheriff".
The next step . . . came with the term "sciresman" used to describe negotiations between Abbot Aelfhun and a man identified as a "scyresman" . . . The title identified an official delineation of a king's agent and an administrator within the shire.
During the reign of King Cnut (1017-1035) . . . the official royal title "scirgerfa" began. This was a combination of two Anglo-Saxon words and was indicative of the advanced status and responsibility of the High Reeve. The new title scirgerfa was soon adapted to common speech to scir-reeve, which ultimately became the word Sheriff.
While in Rome in 1027, King Cnut wrote a letter which formally identified the word sheriff. The letter in part read:
"I command all the sheriffs and reeves over my whole kingdom, as they wish to retain my friendship and their own safety, that they employ no unjust force against any man neither rich nor poor, but all men of noble or humble birth shall have the right to enjoy just law, from which there is to be no deviation in any way, neither on account of the royal favour nor out of respect for any powerful man, nor in order to amass money for me."
The letter shows that the word sheriff was used in its present form in 1027 relative to English maintenance and administration of the shires. It also shows a sense of noble justice by the king; that no man shall be held to a greater or lesser standard by their status or birthright. Further, it acknowledges that the government of the shires was blessed in the name of God and that the king was empowered by holy ordinance to rule the land through the administration of the sheriffs. Finally, the letter identified that the collection of taxes through the sheriff was a matter of law, not a matter of choice, and fully enforceable as well as unavoidable. . . .
When Edward the Confessor succeeded King Cnut in 1042, the sheriff was the custodian of all the shires within his reign. The sheriff had full authority to execute any and all of the king's commands. It was the sheriff's responsibility at this time to keep the king's peace, raise the hue and cry, and punish any violators. . . .
Beyond the considerable authority and power associated with the office of the sheriff, the financial rewards for the position were also high . . . A common form of extortion was known as the sheriff's "ale tax" . . . A sheriff would set aside the best barley, that he confiscated from the peasant farmers, then he would force the serfs to buy his ale at inflated prices. The sheriff would forbid anyone other than himself from brewing ale to insure his monopoly. . . .
To further complicate the situation, sheriffs were allowed to keep any sum they collected which was over the expected amount required by the king. This inspired sheriffs to gouge peasant taxpayers in a practice developed under Norman kings known as "farming" the shire. . . . Through the over charging of taxes, the sheriff could produce more income off the backs of the peasants than he could ever produce off the land.