AN ICONIC ROLE FOR A MODERN PUBLIC FIGURE
By Shropshire Historian Vivien Bellamy
The word ‘sheriff’ instantly evokes the lawless Wild West or, closer to home, the outlaw world of Robin Hood.
As far as Shropshire’s medieval history is concerned, where law and order were often threatened, these ideas are not too wide of the mark.
Today, however, the High Sheriff has a chance to do good in more positive ways.
The King's Enforcer . . .
The role of the ‘shire reeve’, the king’s appointed representative, emerged in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the tenth century and represents the oldest local-government post in England.
Responsible for law and order across the county, this semi-military figure wielded enormous, life-and-death power for many centuries. But it was a power repeatedly challenged by the ability of both felons and rebels to melt away into the hostile hill country of Wales.
Banditry was rife, and during the thirteenth century the Welsh march was bedevilled by bitter wars. Until Tudor times, the western edge of Shropshire, with its romantically beautiful wooded hills, merged into a wild, independent region ruled by Welsh princes and their successors, the powerful marcher lords.
It was not until the 1530s, when Wales was united to England and remodelled along English lines, that the border was finally defined—with counties and sheriffs on both sides.
The English king needed to ensure that his principal agent was a tough and loyal operator, preferably one of the group of powerful barons who dominated the Welsh march. During the twelfth century, the Shrievalty, as the post is termed, was passed from father to son through one such local dynasty.
This was the FitzAlan clan, lords of the marcher areas of Oswestry and Clun and, later, Earls of Arundel. The family’s founder was a Breton knight, Alan Fitz Flaad, whose military efforts on behalf of Henry I were rewarded by the gift of lands in Shropshire.
His eldest son, William FitzAlan, was made sheriff of Shropshire in 1137. William’s grandson, John Fitzalan (1200−1240), exemplifies the period’s changing alliances in a region where control of territory could shift rapidly from England to Wales and back again.
In 1216 John FitzAlan’s stronghold of Oswestry supported the independent Welsh princes and was consequently attacked and burned by King John. Later John FitzAlan changed sides and fought for King Henry III against the Welsh.
Duties Legal and Financial
The post of sheriff was an onerous one that included accounting for the monarch’s income from his estates and the consequent duty of collecting these funds. The worst experience of tax collection must have been during the run-up to the outbreak of the Civil War in the 1630s. The sheriff was expected to collect the detested ‘Ship Money’ for King Charles I, while he attempted to rule the country without Parliament. Many in Shropshire refused point-blank to pay.
Much of the routine legal duty of the sheriff’s office came to be done by his under-sheriff, who would normally be a local solicitor, and the High Sheriff’s duties became more and more ceremonial, although there have been instances in other parts of the country where the High Sheriff, or his under-sheriff, has been the official responsible for, say, removing protesters from countryside designated for controversial developments.
Until the 1960s, the High Sheriff, who in earlier centuries had been keeper of the county gaol, remained responsible (either personally or through his under-sheriff) for hangings, and until 1971 he had to arrange the empanelling of juries.
The High Sheriff Today
Those appointed to the post have traditionally been members of the landed gentry. More recently the net has been cast somewhat wider to cover those with long-established commitment to the county.
The most distinguished High Sheriff of Shropshire in the twentieth century was probably Lt.-Gen. Sir Oliver Leese, who had taken over command of the Eighth Army from Montgomery in 1943. Committed to public service in Shropshire from 1947, he was ‘pricked’ (i.e. appointed from three names submitted to the monarch) High Sheriff in 1958.
A long overdue change came in 1997 when the first woman High Sheriff of Shropshire, Lady Forester, of Willey, was pricked. “It was a magical year”, she recalls, “I was able to raise funds for St. John’s Ambulance, a charity dear to my heart, but, as a one-off for Shrewsbury Prison, we provided kitchen equipment for inmates keen to learn to cook.”
Shropshire remains a rural county. Its people maintain a deep attachment to its beautiful and varied countryside and to preserving the best in its long traditions. This is particularly vital at a time when tourism is becoming ever more important to the county’s economy.
The role of High Sheriff, which might appear anachronistic, is here an important and iconic one. It connects the modern lives of Shropshire’s people to an ancient past and celebrates their present. The shrievalty, with its high public profile and involvement with royal visits to the county, offers its incumbent a chance to engage productively in improvements to many aspects of the county’s life while carrying a banner for this county’s unique character.