The fourteenth-century sheriff : English local administration in the late Middle Ages

The fourteenth-century sheriff : English local administration in the late Middle Ages

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The fourteenth-century sheriff : English local administration in the late Middle Ages

By Richard Gorski

PhD Dissertation, The University of Hull (1999)

Abstract: The purpose of this thesis is to examine the sheriffs appointed in fourteenth-century England, the period identified by both Stubbs and Maitland as having witnessed the shrievalty’s final emasculation. This thesis is not a continuation of Morris’ work on the sheriff, and neither is it directly concerned with the shrievalty’s role in English constitutional history. Morris was a historian of administration rather than administrators. He excelled at unravelling the minutiae of procedure and the day-today routine of shire affairs. It is, of course, impossible to divorce officials from their work. Sheriffs appointed during the fourteenth century were a direct reflection of what the office entailed and its perceived place in the framework of shire administration: thus, Maitland’s ‘decline and fall of the sheriff’ left the office in the hands of Cam’s ‘country squire’.

However, the emphasis of this thesis is on the sheriff rather than the shrievalty. Sheriffs were a numerically select group, but who were they? Why were they appointed? What qualities, if any, set these men apart from their peers? Prosopography, rather than procedural history, holds the key to these problems and in terms of its methodology this study owes far more to McFarlane than it does to Morris.

In 1925 William Morris expressed a hope that the later medieval English sheriff would find ‘a careful historian’ to ‘patiently tread the maze of official record’ and so extend his own work on the shrievalty beyond the reign of Edward I. Shortly before his death in 1946, Morris himself laid the foundations for such a study by writing a piece on sheriffs in the opening years of Edward III’s reign. Fifty years on, much of Morris’ work on the sheriff stands intact. He found the origins of the office among the Anglo-Saxon gerafan or reeves, a group of uncertain authority and territorial jurisdiction, but with a blend of military, judicial and fiscal functions characteristic of their Norman, Angevin and later medieval successors. Though there is no evidence to pinpoint exactly when the reeve became a scirgerafa, a sheriff, Morris clearly regarded the late tenth century as a watershed: ‘With the person who in the reign of Ethelred, if not earlier, appears in the alderman’s absence as the leading lay official in the shiremote begins the recorded history of the sheriff as differentiated from that of the king’s reeve.’

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