What is a High Sheriff and what do they do….?

The Office of High Sheriff is an independent non-political Royal appointment for a single year.  There are 55 High Sheriffs serving the counties of England and Wales each year.  High Sheriffs receive no remuneration and no part of the expense of a High Sheriff falls on the public purse.

The position of High Sheriff has existed for over 1,000 years.  In Saxon times the ‘Shire Reeve’ was responsible for maintaining law and order and the collection of taxes within the county on behalf of the Crown.

Whilst the duties have evolved over time, they now principally consist of 5 functions.

  1. Upholding and enhancing the ancient office of High Sheriff
  2. Supporting the key constitutional bodies in the county –The Royal Family, the Judiciary, the Police, HM Prison service, other law enforcement agencies, emergency services, local authorities, church and faith groups
  3. To support the Lord- Lieutenant on Royal visits and other occassions
  4. Take an active part in supporting and promoting the voluntary sector and giving all possible encouragement to voluntary organisations in the county
  5. To ensure the welfare of visiting High Court Judges, to attend on them at Court and to offer them some hospitality

The High Sheriff is nominated by a committee which includes amongst others the Lord-Lieutenant, a Bishop, the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police, a Judge, ex High Sheriffs and Deputy Lieutenants. It is not a position you put yourself forward for.  The  nominations are then put forward to the Privy Council for the consideration of the Sovereign.  The selection of new High Sheriffs is made annually in a meeting of the Privy Council by The Sovereign in March, when the traditional custom of ‘pricking’ the appointee’s name with a bodkin is perpetuated.

In Oxfordshire, there are a number of formal High Sheriff events during the year of office.  The year commences in April with a Swearing-In ceremony held at the Crown Court and officiated by a senior Judge.  During the year the High Sheriff gives a Garden Party as a gesture of thanks to all those taking an active part in the life of the County. In early October a series of events take place to mark the start of the Legal Year.  The High Sheriff gives a Law Lecture held in the University of Oxford Examination School.  A distinguished speaker from The Law presents a talk to students and other guests on a topic of law.

Later in the afternoon there is a Glove Ceremony held in the Deanery at Christ Church.  This is an event which dates back to the C16th where the Lord Mayor of Oxford and the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University present a pair of white leather gloves to the Judge in Commission.  There is then a procession from the Deanery to Christ Church cathedral for the annual Court Sermon, an evensong with full choir with a distinguished speaker delivering a sermon and attended by both Town and Gown in full robes, gowns and mace bearers in attendance.

In addition the High Sheriff will attend many functions during the year in support of the law enforcement agencies, armed forces, Local Authorities and others.

The ceremonial uniform that is worn by male High Sheriffs today is called Court Dress. It has remained essentially unchanged since the late seventeenth century and consists of a black or dark blue velvet coat with cut-steel buttons, breeches, shoes with cut-steel buckles, a sword and a cocked hat. A lace jabot or white bow tie is worn around the neck.