Ancient History

The first mention of sheriff is found dated back to 600 B.C. in the Book of Daniel, which recounts the presence of the sheriff at the setting up of the golden image by the Chaldean King of Babylon, Nebuchadneszzar.

“...Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counselors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up. Then the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counselors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up; and they stood before the image...”

Medieval England

More than 1200 years ago, England was inhabited by a small group of Anglo-Saxons who lived in rural communities called tuns (later towns). These people were often at war. Sometime before 700 A.D., the Anglo-Saxons decided to systemize their methods of fighting by forming a system of local self-government based on groups of ten.

Each tun was divided into groups of ten families called a tithing. They elected a leader of each tithing called a tithingman. The tithings were also arranged in tens. Each group of ten tithings, one hundred families, elected its own chief called a gerefa (later shortened to reeve).

During the next two centuries, a number of changes took place in the tithing and hundreds. A new unit of government, the shire, was formed when groups of hundreds joined together (the shire is the forerunner of the county). Just as the hundreds elected a reeve, each shire had a reeve.

To distinguish the leader of the hundreds from the leader of the shire, the more powerful leader became known as the shire-reeve (later becoming sheriff - meaning the keeper or chief of the county).

English Sheriffs

Under England's King Alfred the Great, the sheriff was responsible for maintaining law and order within his county. However, every citizen's duty was to assist the sheriff in keeping the peace. If a criminal or escaped suspect was at large, it was the sheriff's responsibility to give the alarm, the hue and cry as it was called. Any citizen hearing the alarm was then legally responsible for helping to bring the criminal to justice. This principle of direct citizen participation survives today in the procedure known as posse comitatus or posse.

Originally, the tuns ruled themselves through the election of tithingmen and reeves. Over the years, the government became more centralized by concentrating the power in a single ruler, the king. The king distributed large tracts of lands to various noblemen who governed the lands with the king's authority. As such the noblemen appointed sheriffs for the counties that they controlled. In areas not assigned to a nobleman, the king appointed the sheriffs.

In 1066 A.D. the Normans from France defeated the Saxon King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. The Normans did not believe in local government and centralized their power. Rule was greatly consolidated under the king and his appointees. More than ever before the sheriff became an agent of the king. Among the sheriff's new duties was that of tax collector.

In 1215 A.D. a rebellion of nobles forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. This document restored many rights lost by the noblemen and guaranteed certain basic freedoms. The Magna Carta mentions the sheriff's role nine times, further establishing the importance of the office.

Modern Day

Over the next few centuries, the sheriff remained the leading law enforcement officer of the county. To be appointed sheriff was considered a significant honor. The honor was a costly one. If the people of the county did not pay the full amount of taxes and fines, the sheriff had to makeup the difference from his holdings.

Furthermore, the sheriff was expected to serve as host for judges and other dignitaries, providing lavish entertainment at his own expense. For these reasons, the office of sheriff was not often sought after. In fact, many well-qualified men did everything they could to avoid being chosen because being chosen sheriff meant he had to serve.