The History And Duties Of a High Sheriff – High Sheriff John Holt — 7th September 2015.

John Holt is the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire.  This is a high and very ancient office in the ser­vice of the Crown.  His talk gave some of the his­tory of the office and his per­sonal exper­i­ences during his year so far as High Sheriff.

John dis­played an illus­tra­tion of the High Sheriff of Bristol around 1100a.d. in which the symbol of two crossed swords is dis­played and this symbol is still in use today.  One of the swords is sharp and rep­res­ents the Crown’s justice and the other is blunt to show mercy.  Also in the illus­tra­tion is a smal­ler person with a sceptre on the left side and a large man with an even larger axe on the right.  A sceptre denotes del­eg­ated author­ity and an axe denotes the right to use force.  At this time a major duty was to over­see the exe­cu­tion of sen­tences given by High Sheriffs and later given by trav­el­ling judges based in London.

The word “sher­iff” is a con­trac­tion of the term “shire reeve”. The term, from the Old English scīrgerefa, des­ig­nated a royal offi­cial respons­ible for keep­ing the peace (a “reeve”) through­out a shire or county on behalf of the king.  The office is called a shriev­alty.  A shire was an area of land hous­ing one hun­dred fam­il­ies.

In the time of King Ecgbert, the Sheriff was a prin­cipal rep­res­ent­at­ive of the Crown and besides provid­ing sol­diers to fight for the king, he would col­lect taxes, be a Judge in the Court of Hundreds and look after Crown prop­erty.

Sheriffs became very power­ful and wealthy often by over taxing the popu­lace.  In King John’s reign a Sheriff hit upon the idea of cap­tur­ing the mis­tresses of the Clergy and hold­ing them to ransom for the Crown’s cof­fers.  John gave him a thou­sand pound reward!

Since Henry II’s time when Assize Courts were cre­ated, the Sheriff must pro­tect and enter­tain the judges.  Today his uni­form is sim­ilar to that used in the eight­eenth cen­tury.  There are now 5 main duties:

  1. Uphold and enhance the office of High Sheriff.
  2. Support by mean­ing­ful con­tri­bu­tion to the prin­cipal organs of the con­sti­tu­tion includ­ing the Royal Family, the judi­ciary, the police & other law enforce­ment agen­cies, Local author­it­ies, all recog­nised church & faith groups.
  3. Assure the wel­fare of vis­it­ing High Court Judges.
  4. Support and encour­age the vol­un­tary and char­ity sec­tors of our soci­ety.
  5. Support the Lord Lieutenant on royal visits.


Stumperlowe Probus may not be wiser but It’s cer­tainly much better informed thanks to such a good talk by John Holt who made space in such a full diary to give us his time.