The History of the Office of Sheriff: Chapter 4
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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.
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By 1066, when William the Conqueror seized power, he replaced all of the existing sheriffs with his own loyal comrades in arms. When William conveyed the offices of sheriff to his Normans, he also bestowed to them the title "Vicomte," which added nobility to their positions. He allowed Vicomte sheriffs to build castles, a powerful symbol of privilege and a far greater honor than had ever been granted to prior Anglo-Saxon sheriffs. The castles were a sign of aggressive force. This fortification symbolism helped identify William as the incomparable authority in the newly conquered land.
The Mallet Family History site run by Bob Mallett of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, includes a page on William Malet, Companion of William the Conqueror. It reads, in part: William Malet, or Guillaume, as he may have been called, "Sire de Graville," came from Graville Sainte Honorine between Le Havre and Harfleur, in what is today the French province of Normandy. . . . The arms shown, likely carried by the Malets at Hastings, were used by many generations of the Malet family, both in England and in France, and can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry. William was made Sheriff of York and granted considerable lands in Yorkshire following the building of the first Norman castle there (the mound now supports 'Clifford's Tower') in 1068.

The most famous William the Conqueror sheriff was a man named William Malet, a ferocious warrior. During the Battle of Hasting his horse was killed from under him. Mounting a fresh horse, he continued leading the charge, killing the enemy along the way, to a Norman victory. William continued to use Malet to crush insurgent forces within his reign.. . . As a reward, William named Malet the sheriff of Yorkshire.

King William sought aggressive types for the office of sheriff whose ambitions were consistent with his. Those willing to squeeze the peasants to their maximum were the best qualified in William's eyes. He instituted the practice of selling the office to the highest bidder. This brought forth evil men willing to pay exorbitant prices for the office and then willing to do whatever it took to recoup their investment. . . No one spoke out for the peasantry because their only representative to the king was the very sheriffs embezzling them. The most notorious was Picot, Sheriff of Cambridgeshire. . . . Monks describe him as:

a hungry lion, a prowling wolf, a crafty fox, a filthy swine, a dog without shame, who stuffed his belly like an insatiable beast as though the whole country were a single corpse.

If events reduced production within the shires and thereby reduced the prosperity of King William, the sheriff was then forced to press the peasants even more to make up for the deficiency. In 1083, William levied the highest tax assessment of his reign to make up for the previous year's famine and low production. . . . To enhance their income, sheriffs commonly pillaged Church properties. . . .

The only coin in circulation in twelfth century England was the silver penny. It was the responsibility of the sheriff to police the silver content in the coinage. If the sheriff failed to see that the tender did not meet quality assurance in the amount of silver content versus the alloy percentage, he was held personally liable for the shortage. Because this burden was placed on the sheriffs in the area that effected them the most, their pocketbooks. . . .Enforcement of the matter was particularly unkind under the reign of King Henry II to punish offenders that circulated "bastard" coins. The first offense routinely resulted in the severing of a hand or castration. . . .

The coming of King John in 1199 brought about one of the most stirring periods in the history of the medieval sheriff. . . . As King John waged war against the Welsh, the French, and the Irish, he placed the emphasis upon the sheriffs to finance his wars. . . . Because of the sheriff's authority and ability to raise funds, the 13th century saw the sheriff as the most powerful administrative force in medieval England. . . .

King John personally knew every one of the 100 or so sheriffs that he appointed between 1199 and 1216. Some were his intimate friends and most trusted advisors. In contrast to the prior practice of King Richard, he appointed only two members of the Church to the post. He instead chose to select intense, secular men, with strong military backgrounds. . . . His deliberate selection of men of harsh demeanor . . . was considered by people of his time as a substantive answer for the difficult issues of the day . . . tough men for tough times. . . .

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Copyright © 1998, 1999 Harry C. Buffardi ©

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