consolidated by The Sheriffs Act 1887, which is still in force. High Sheriffs
represent the Sovereign in their counties in upholding all matters relating to
the Judiciary and maintaining law and order.
Their responsibilities conferred by the Crown through warrant from the Privy
Council can be summarised as:
- attending Royal visits to the county;
- attending on High Court Judges on circuit and ensuring their well-being;
- acting as returning officer for parliamentary elections;
- proclaiming the accession of a new Sovereign and maintaining the loyalty of
subjects to the Crown; and
- appointing an Under Sheriff and carrying out various ceremonial functions.
Following the Courts Act 2003, the High Sheriff’s ancient responsibility for the
enforcement of High Court Writs of Execution, via Under Sheriffs and executed by
the Sheriffs’ Officers, was transferred to newly appointed High Court
Today High Sheriffs aim to support voluntary and statutory bodies engaged in all
aspects of law and order. They take a special interest in the activities of such
statutory bodies as the Police, the Prison Service, and the Probation Service.
Under the Criminal Law Act 1826, they are required to give monetary awards to
people who, in the opinion of Judges at a criminal trial, have been active in
the apprehension of specific offenders.
To assist High Sheriffs in their task, the High Sheriffs’ Association of England
and Wales was founded in 1971. Its principal aim is to develop the unique role
of the High Sheriff to the benefit of the community, and to protect, promote and
sustain the ancient Office and its traditions. The Association sponsors two
charities: National Crimebeat, which supports and encourages young people to
involve themselves with crime reduction initiatives and to create safer
communities; and DebtCred, a financial literacy project aimed at equipping young
people with basic money management skills in preparation for their lives after
school. The Association encourages High Sheriffs to participate in Citizenship
Ceremonies in their counties, welcoming new British subjects as they make their
The outward symbols of the shrievalty are anciently ceremonial and heraldic. The
badge of the Association was granted by the Earl Marshal to mark the official
millennium of the office in 1992, and may be worn and used by High Sheriffs. It
is illustrated at the top of this page and is described as "Two swords in
saltire Argent hilts pommels and quillons Or that in bend couped at the point
charged upon an Oval Azure environed by a Wreath composed of Oak Leaves Gold
with in chief and in base a Tudor Rose Gules upon Argent barbed and seeded
proper and in the flanks two Leeks in saltire also proper the whole ensigned by
the Royal Crown proper".
If in possession of a personal coat of arms, High Sheriffs generally use this as
their identifying ‘badge’ for the year, although some counties have a shrieval
coat of arms or badge, which, with the Association's badge, may be used
alternatively or as well. Traditionally male High Sheriffs officially wear court
dress, or the uniform of one of the armed services, a Crown appointment or a
Deputy Lieutenant, if so entitled; ladies have more scope for their imagination,
usually basing their costume on court dress.
The Office is independent, non-political and unpaid, which enables the holder to
bring together a wide variety of individuals and office holders. As volunteers
themselves, High Sheriffs can recognise and encourage the thousands of people in
their counties who involve themselves in all aspects of voluntary and charitable
It has been said that the story of the High Sheriff is indeed the story of
England itself. The post has developed over its 1000 years or more of continuous
existence and devotion to the Crown, with duties of the High Sheriff being
adapted and moulded to today's needs. While the 20th century witnessed many
difficult social and environmental changes, the High Sheriff of the 21st century
still fulfils the ancient role of supporting the shire, upholding its peace and
loyalty to the Crown and stimulating its communities to act in the furtherance
of the good of everybody.
An unpalatable duty was the witnessing the death penalty, which High Sheriffs
had to ensure was performed properly. Note: capital punishment was abolished in
1965, but the death penalty may still be invoked on three particular counts: an
act of treason, arson in Her Majesty's dockyards, and unlawful carnal knowledge
(outside marriage) of the Sovereign's eldest daughter.