THE SHERIFF’S DUTIES
The office of Sheriff goes back to Anglo Saxon times and is thought to have originated in the 10th century when they were called the scirgerefa. Before William the Conqueror invaded, the sheriff was Chancellor of the Exchequer, home secretary, secretary of state for defence, minister for agriculture and a host of other appointments all rolled into one great Crown office. There were no police, no judges or even magistrates, no inland revenue, no customs, and excise. The scir-reeve did it all. He had powers of arrest, he could raise armies, collect taxes and levies, and he presided over courts. He dealt with traitors, and generally supervised on the King’s behalf everything that went on in the Kingdom. With all this power many of the sheriffs were, as is recorded of a certain Godric, sheriff of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, "colourful old scoundrels.”
The days of the Saxon sheriffs became numbered as news was brought to King Harold that Duke William of Normandy had landed. Sheriffs from all the southern counties-Wiltshire and Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent, Middlesex and Berkshire-rode at the head of their levies of armed men to take up battle stations under the King’s standard-the Golden Dragon of Wessex.
After the terrible defeat at Hastings William the Conqueror gradually introduced his own men into the office of sheriff and William, ever hungry for gold and wealth instituted the practice of selling the office of Sheriff to the highest bidder. This brought forth evil men who were willing to pay exorbitant prices for the office and then do whatever was necessary to extort money from the English peasants to recover their investment. No one could do anything about it because their only representative to the king was the sheriff who was embezzling them. The most notorious was Picot, Sheriff of Cambridgeshire. The monks describe him as a hungry lion, a prowling wolf, a crafty fox, a filthy swine, and a dog without shame, who stuffed his belly like an insatiable beast as though the whole country were a single corpse.
These sheriffs were loyal to King William and he bestowed on them the title "Vicomte" which added nobility to their positions. He allowed Vicomte sheriffs to build castles and this was considered a powerful symbol of privilege and was a far greater honour than had ever been granted to the previous Anglo-Saxon sheriffs. The castles symbolised an aggressive subjection of the people and to enhance their income the sheriff’s commonly pillaged church properties perhaps explaining Robin Hood’s activities. (The Norman bishops were also guilty robbing the churches) and during William the Conqueror’s reign the sheriffs encouraged by the Conqueror exhibited unmentionable greed. Here are some of the things they would do:
1. 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 but where were the peasants to find even more money when the crops had failed?
2. But if the sheriffs collected more money than was required by the King they were allowed to keep it. Therefore the sheriff’s extorted money from the peasant taxpayers in a practice developed under the Norman kings known as "farming" the shire. In this way the sheriff could produce more income off the backs of the peasants than he could ever produce off the land.
3. One sheriff in the reign of King John raised money by kidnapping mistresses of the clergy, returning them to their monastic lovers only after a high ransom had been paid.
4. A common form of extortion was known as the sheriff`s "ale tax.” A sheriff would search out the best barley, confiscate it, brew the ale himself, then sell the ale to the peasant farmers and serfs at inflated prices and he ensured his monopoly by forbidding anyone else to brew ale.
The sheriffs had the power to dispossess and/or exile anyone caught poaching the king’s game. Other punishments included castration, being blinded, or having a limb amputated. Soon after the Conqueror’s death hanging was reintroduced and by 1826 there were over two hundred crimes punishable by hanging often for very trivial misdemeanours also the outlaw could be slain by the first person that chanced to meet him. This changed in the reign of Edward III when it was provided that non but the sheriff should be empowered to put an outlaw to death and anyone else doing so was guilty of murder.
The Bishops and Abbots were installed alongside the Sheriffs the either because they were of noble birth, or indomitable warriors, or could keep the countryside in order. Some were cruel and brutal, and a whole swarm of adventurers came over from Normandy to pounce upon the abbacies and other ecclesiastical offices in England using them as administrative centres where they could subjugate the people and raise taxes. Many became infamous for their wicked lives and gluttony.
One such was Walter-de-Grey who was illiterate but he paid ten thousand pounds to be elected to the post of Archbishop of York. No doubt he recouped the money by imposing harsh taxes on the English Saxons who were in subjection to the Normans. He is described as hard, austere, and with little pity or sympathy for the poor. In a time of famine the stewards of some of his manors informed him that he had a quantity of wheat stored up which was perishing from age and vermin. Walter-de-Grey ordered that his damaged grain should only be given to the serfs on the condition that they bond themselves after the next harvest to restore an equal amount of new grain.
But one of the worst was Thurstan who came over in 1083 and was appointed Abbott of Glastonbury. The first thing Thurstan did was to cut the monks rations, then he insisted in introducing novelties in singing which was repugnant to the monks who went on singing their usual Gregorian chants. Then he told them to alter other ancient customs, which they refused to do, so Thurstan in a rage went out of the chapter house and almost immediately returned with a company of armed men. The terrified monks fled to the church and took refuge in the choir stalls, fastening the gate after them. The soldiers began shooting arrows at the monks, some of whom were hit, other arrows went into the crucifix, and then the soldiers charged the monks with swords and lances. The monks defended themselves as best they could with wooden benches and candelabra, and even wounded some of the soldiers, but in the end, several monks were killed and at least eighteen wounded. A chronicler tells us that he could mention many occurrences throughout the land such as this, were the subject not too painful to pursue.
The picture of Padley Chapel in the Peak Forest illustrates the extent of the churches influence that went beyond county boundaries. The Diocese of Nottingham is a good example as it included the same region covered by the Sheriff of Nottingham which was Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Peak Forest including the chapel pictured here which is located midway between Curbar (pictured above) and Hathersage. The bishops and archbishops were mainly drawn from the nobility who were no stramgers to war and had no doubt killed many a foe in battle. They decreed that any priest ordained overseas who was found in the kingdom would be guilty of high treason and any sympathiser who was proved guilty of aiding and giving shelter to them should also be punished by death. In 1585AD two priests celebrated mass in the chapel. On 23rd July 1588AD they were both sentenced: “That you each be carried to the place from which you came, and thence be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, and there severally hanged, but cut down while you are alive; that your privy members be cut off; that your bowels be taken out and burnt before your faces; that your heads be severed from your bodies; that your bodies be divided into four quarters, and that your quarters be at the Queen’s disposal; and the Lord have mercy upon your souls.” On the morning of July 24th the gallows stood at St. Mary’s Bridge on the River Derwent, where a huge number of people gathered to witness the barbarous events. Nicholas Garlick was the first. Kissing the ladder before climbing up to take the rope, he scattered amongst the crowd a few loose leaves, on which he had written his profession of faith. Robert Ludlam spoke to the crowd as he awaited his fate with Richard Simpson. All three were cut down before they lost consciousness and were atrociously dissected while aware of their pain. Their heads and body parts were set on poles and erected on the bridge and other sites in the town. During the hours of darkness they were removed by sympathisers and given a decent burial in secret. Legend has it that the head of Nicholas Garlick was interred in Tideswell churchyard.
When we think of this and we read about Bishop Odo on the "Era" page and Thurstan on this page and again on the "Outlawry" page perhaps we can understand Robin Hood when he said to his men, “These bishops and these archbishops, ye shall them beat and bind; the high sheriff of Nottingham, him hold ye in your mind?”