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.
King John set out on a military effort to regain territories in France. . . . He blamed his lack of success on his barons . . . . The barons in turn had grievances against John, stating that his monarchy was unregulated by law. The baronial opposition was originally intended to restore affairs to the previous ways of Norman Kings William I, William II, and Henry I. . . . A charter was framed by Stephan Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, which set forth points of law and attempted to reform specific abuses. The Church was joined by secular forces, which also had demands that were much different than cleric requirements. After concessions were made on both sides, a document of law was created to prevent taxes from being levied without common consent of the kingdom (an early form of "no taxation without representation") and legal reforms requiring due process. This document was Magna Carta, which came out in its final form in 1215. The charter was to become a major foundation for the supremacy of law and the predecessor of future legal documents of legal principle. . . . According to Irene Gladwin:
the spirit of the sheriff and his office permeated Magna Carta from start to finish and considered in this aspect alone it is the finest example we possess to prove the importance of the sheriff's role in the governance of medieval England.
Twenty-seven of the sixty-three clauses in Magna Carta dealt directly with issues of the sheriff. Some articles mentioned the sheriff specifically and others referred to the office in phrases that used language such as: "our officials," "our constables," or "other Royal officials." Of five clauses mentioning the sheriff specifically by title, four were aimed to rectify or reform a particular abuse of the office. One clause demanded that the sheriff be responsible to make compensation for the destruction or damage to land in his care and that the assessment for the recompensation shall be based, not upon the judgment of the king, but by "two lawful and discreet men". The sheriff was forbidden, in the document, from holding lawsuits that should otherwise be held by royal justices. The document limited the authority of the sheriff to seize possessions, unless there was a royal warrant allowing for and directing such a seizure. Further, the sheriff was restricted from taking horses or carts from freemen, without their consent. . . .Clause forty-eight dealt directly with a process for holding the sheriff accountable for abuse of his power and states:
All evil customs relating to forests and warrens, foresters and warreners, sheriffs and their servants and the wardens of river banks are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights and within forty days of their inquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably.
By 1258, barons were faced with continuing issues involving sheriffs and their abuse and misuse of power. Magna Carta was a fitting start for outlining general provisions that restricted their exploitation of the office but more definitive rules were needed. Reformation of the position occurred under the inspired leadership of Simon de Montfort. Simon, the Earl of Leicester, introduced a set of idealistic views on politics and government known as the "Provisions of Oxford". The Provisions created a formal council of baronial advisors to the king and established a permanent set of rules that were to have a profound effect on the office of the sheriff. The intent of the reformation movement was to restore confidence in the government and allow for a complaint process for persons effected by the wrongdoing of the sheriff or other official. Rules initiated in the Provisions created long-term reform in the office. The Provisions spoke loudly and clearly:
Let there be provided as sheriffs loyal people and substantial men and land tenants so that each there be a vavasour (feudal tenant just below the rank of baron) of the same county as sheriff, to treat the people of the county well, loyally, and rightfully.
The proclamations of the "Provisions of Oxford" stressed that a sheriff be required to take an official oath of office and swear to required and just service before God. The clause reads:
Know that we have made each of our sheriffs swear this oath, that he will serve us loyally, and will do right to all people according to their power which he has from his office and that he will not fail from love nor for hate, nor fear of any, nor greed, as well as and as soon to do speedy justice to rich as poor.
The Provisions required that the sheriff not receive anything from anyone except food and drink in the amount to sustain him for one day. Additionally, the sheriff was forbidden from receiving any gift from a constituent with a value over one shilling. He could not lodge in a subject's house more than twice in a year's period, and then only on invitation, not demand. The reformation forbade him from seeking lodging from poor persons or at religious houses. As well as defining a code of conduct for the sheriff, the Provisions applied to any employee or servant of the sheriff. The Provisions and the contained oath applied to issues that would prevent abuse of power, misfeasance, or malfeasance in office. The acts of the Provisions have survived throughout the centuries and are still used in their general form today to provide an oath and a code of conduct for English public officials.
The Provision set term limits for the office of sheriff. Prior to the document, sheriffs served at the pleasure of the king and could hold the office as long as it pleased the king. The Provisions still allowed for the appointment of the sheriff to be made by the king, but a phrase was added to allow for the continuance of the office to "be approved by the counsel and provision of the Magnate's Council." The authority of the king to continue the appointment was thereby limited to a renewable approval of an additional body of government.
There was another clause in the "Provisions of Oxford" that prevented a sheriff from charging fees. This clause required the Crown to pay a salary or compensation for the services of the sheriff. This took the burden off the constituency from the sheriff being able to use extortionate practices to enhance his income and placed the onus back on the king as his employer. This was perhaps the most unpleasant of the Provisions for the monarchy because up until this time the financial burdens of the office fell primarily on the peasants. Any conditions that depleted the finances of the Crown was always met with resistance in medieval England.
By 1261, King Henry III had acquired enough support to override the "Provisions of Oxford" and he announced them to be revoked. The Council of Barons was dismissed by Henry III and so too were all the sheriffs that had been appointed by the barons or with baronial approval. King Henry III then replaced them with men of his own choice who were not subject to any outside approval. . . .
In 1263, Simon de Montfort lead a Baron's War against the king [Henry III] for the benefit of restoring the "Provisions of Oxford." With a coalition of barons and representatives of the towns, including support of some radical groups from London, Simon won a sensational victory at Lewes in 1264 that in effect made him the ruler of the country. Nonetheless, in 1265, he was defeated and killed by the king's son (later Edward I) at Evesham. Peace was declared in 1267 and King Henry III continued to appoint sheriffs to the office as he saw fit.
With the overthrow of the "Provisions of Oxford" and a loss of needed reform to the office of sheriff, the position was again to return to corruptive influences and unprincipled procedures. . . .
The period involving the reigns of three Edwards (1272-1377) was a time marked by unparalleled violence and crime. Continuous wars and recurring truces left bands of unemployed mercenaries that moved about the kingdom preying upon helpless villages. The problem became so prevalent that the "Statute of Winchester", in 1285, dedicated much of its language to the growing crime problem. This document specifically directed sheriffs to take up hue and cry against this scourge. . . . The "Statute of Winchester" required sheriffs to keep arms and horses at the ready for this purpose. Also, by this law, sheriffs were required to interrogate any strangers in their shires and to arrest persons that failed to join the call of the hue and cry.
By the mid sixteenth century, the creation of the Lord's Lieutenant was yet another blow to the authority and power of the sheriff. This newly formed position superseded the military authority of the sheriff within the shire. Though the position was not specifically created to overthrow the sheriff from power, it did bring realization during times of serious domestic crisis that the sheriff was incapable of recruiting the local gentry to support the king's military causes. As time went on the Lord's Lieutenant generated duties other than military. He became vested with the power to enforce domestic laws, thereby further cutting into the sheriff's authority.