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.