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County History

The office of High Sheriff of Durham has a distinctive history deriving from the special status of Durham as an episcopal county palatine until 1836. The palatinate was a liberty within the royal county of Northumberland, whose separate legal status emerged in the early twelfth century. By 1293 the bishop could claim that from time immemorial (in law 1189) the sheriff of Northumberland held no jurisdiction in his liberty, and did not make proclamations or arrests there. The office of a separate sheriff of Durham is first documented in the mid twelfth century, from which time at the latest the bishop had asserted his right to appoint his own man. 

The medieval sheriff in Durham held the same legal and fiscal responsibilities as the king’s sheriff elsewhere. He presided over the county court, where at first all cases were heard. When in Durham, following the realm as a whole, the bishop established commissions of assize and gaol delivery (and later commissions of the peace), the county court lost its criminal jurisdiction and the sheriff his role as a judge. However, he became responsible for convening and administering those courts, arresting felons by raising ‘hue and cry’, bringing them to justice and enforcing penalties. He was responsible for arraying and calling the bishop’s tenants to arms in the case of an emergency (summoning the posse comitatus – the able men of the county), which happened frequently in the period of the Anglo-Scottish wars from 1296.

Sheriffs elsewhere were also responsible for collecting ancient royal revenues in their counties, converted by the thirteenth century into a farm, or fixed annual sum. In Durham the sheriff collected similar revenues due to the bishop as well as the annual free rents paid by his tenants in chief. In Durham, unlike royal counties, the office of sheriff was combined with that of escheator, responsible for inquiring into the inheritances of such tenants, evaluating their estates on death, dealing with wardships when the heir was a minor and escheats (in the case of no heir) when they reverted to the bishop. 

From the very beginning the sheriff of Durham was usually, as elsewhere, drawn from the ranks of the leading county gentry. The office was both an honour and a source of income, though not all occupants were honourable. Sir William Claxton of Horden, for instance, sheriff 1416-20, was probably dismissed because of his treatment of his wife whom he abandoned for his mistress (the abandonment was the scandal), exacerbated by embezzlement. Occupants such as Claxton notwithstanding, over the centuries the status of the office was enhanced. A document in 1605 referred to the then holder as plain Mr Sheriff; during the reign of Charles II, after the Restoration of the monarchy, a successor was styled High Sheriff, a form of address that seems to have been standard by the eighteenth century, and which clearly distinguished him from his deputy, the under sheriff. The under- sheriff, invariably a man with legal training, did most of the work. He employed a team of bailiffs and constables to carry out his duties. Constables, for instance, were responsible for delivering felons to the county gaol under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, there to await trial. 

The biggest difference between Durham and most other counties was that whereas elsewhere, as a result of opposition to the crown’s centralising ambitions, the office became an annual appointment, in the palatinate the term of office remained at the pleasure of the bishop. As the bishop’s officers, sheriffs were thus not pricked as elsewhere. This continued beyond the parliamentary act of 1536. The act substituted writs in the king’s name for the bishop’s in the palatinate, but in other respects made no difference to the structure of the courts, the nature of the law administered and the role of legal officers such as the sheriff. Indeed by the end of seventeenth century it had in effect become an office for life and a sinecure. In the eighteenth century, following the Hanoverian succession, it was to all intents and purposes the hereditary office of three generations of the Williamsons of Whitburn (from 1723 to 1810). During the interregnum (1649-60), when the palatinate was temporarily abolished, the office had been an annual appointment, which it became again when the palatinate was finally dismantled in 1836, and has been ever since. By the middle of the nineteenth century leading industrialists and professional men began to be appointed and the first woman served in 1974-5.

By the late-twentieth century the office was largely ceremonial. Over the years the duties of office had gradually been removed. They were at first augmented in 1673 when Durham was enfranchised and elected its first members of parliament; the sheriff then, as elsewhere, took on the role of returning officer for the county MPs. But at more or less the same time the office of escheator was abolished when an act of parliament finally removed all the feudal income of the crown. The sheriff remained, however, the chief law enforcement officer and convener of the courts throughout the eighteenth century. Expenses claimed from the crown (and frequently unpaid) in the eighteenth century for the costs incurred in running the gaol, came to be known as the Sheriff’s cravings. With the development of modern policing in the nineteenth century he lost his powers of arrest and surrendered control of the county gaol. However, one duty remained until the abolition of capital punishment; the responsibility to deliver the writ from the Home Office authorising an execution and the requirement to witness the execution. The last hanging in Durham occurred in 1958, though by that date the under sheriff carried out the unpleasant duty. 

Today the High Sheriff attends the Lord Lieutenant on royal visits to the county and acts as host for High Court Judges when they are on circuit. Supporting the Crown and the judiciary remains a central element of the role. He gives backing and encouragement to the police and emergency services, to the probation and prison services and to other agencies involved with crime prevention, especially among young people. Particular focus is given through the annual High Sheriff's Awards in Durham Castle to The Durham Agency against Crime, Crimestoppers and National Crimebeat and the High Sheriff plays an increasingly active role in promoting the voluntary sector and lending active support to local authorities, all recognised church and faith groups and the armed forces.

Emeritus Profesessor, Teesside University
January 2012


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