By Dr John Godfrey DL
Caroline Nicholls, the current High Sheriff of West Sussex, and I are giving a talk at the Record Office on 26th February on The High Sheriffs of Sussex.
I shall be talking about the history of the office, using materials from the Record Office’s collections, and Caroline will be speaking about her year in office and what it means to be a thoroughly modern High Sheriff in the 21st Century. Our talks will be illustrated with images of documents and events.
The office of sheriff (shire-reeve) has Anglo-Saxon and Norman origins. Shires, or counties, are the oldest administrative units in England and the function of the early sheriffs of Sussex was to attend to the King’s interests in the county, mostly of a financial nature. They were required to collect income due to the Kings from rents, fines and fees and to account for it before the King’s exchequer.
They presided over the county courts, which were not merely courts of justice, but the deliberative body for the shire, somewhat like the modern county councils. An early document in the Record Office (Cowdray Mss 4935) relates to a case heard by the sheriff’s court in 1302 to test the claim of a young man, James de Bohun, that he was of full age (21) and entitled to his inheritance from his father, which was held in custody by the King because of his minority. As several witnesses gave evidence that he was indeed of full age, the court upheld his claim and he inherited the estate.
Members of well-known Sussex families occupied the office of sheriff over the years. Henry Goring, ancestor of Harry Goring, the current Vice Lord-Lieutenant of West Sussex, was sheriff in 1682, when his signature appears on a number of warrants issued in the King’s name, probably issued in connection with debt collection. Similar issues were dealt with in a sheriff’s quietus of 1762 relating to the seizure of land and property at Goring in final settlement of a debt of £751 (Par 177/7/6).
By the end of the 18th Century, the principal duty of the sheriff was to manage the conduct of the county assizes, normally held twice a year in Lewes. In a document of instructions to sheriffs (Par 200/26/1), the sheriff was advised to appoint a chaplain to preach the Assize Sermon, to employ a troop of bodyguards, known as javelin men, to protect the judges, and to make sure the judges were comfortably accommodated, fed and watered. This all cost Robert Aldridge, sheriff in 1828, £191.
These duties continue to this day, although their nature was changed as the result of the replacement of Assizes and Quarter Sessions by the Crown Court in 1972, and the enforcement of High Court writs was removed from High Sheriffs by the Courts Act 2003. Since 1974, there have been separate High Sheriffs for the two administrative counties of West Sussex and East Sussex.
The duties of the modern High Sheriff focus on law & order, crime & punishment, the work of the emergency services and the celebration of community life and service. Caroline became our High Sheriff in March 2018 and is in office for one year, so her time is running out. By March this year, Caroline (and her husband, David!) will have attended some 400 events all over West Sussex, and her talk will describe and illustrate the wide range of people she was met and places she has visited.
The office of High Sheriff continues to play a significant role in the life of our county and there is no doubt that the interest shown by Caroline and her fellow High Sheriffs over the years in the work of our judges, police and prisons and of voluntary organisations working in our communities is a great encouragement to people whose contribution to the common good might otherwise go unnoticed.
To book tickets for The High Sheriffs of Sussex, please call reception on 01243 753602.