Problems of Policing the country: The Inquest of Sheriffs, March 1170.

Edward IV is certainly one of the greatest English monarchs; but not quite in the class of King Henry II, and I now turn to the 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs.

In my blog entry of February 2011, I tried to demonstrate how significant was Henry II’s 1166 Assize of Clarendon in the development of English Common Law. This Assize listed the duties of the sheriffs, Henry II’s principal law officers. The sheriffs were given the power to enter any land (or property) in pursuit of fugitives, a remarkable privilege. They were also encouraged to co-operate with sheriffs in neighbouring counties to arrest fleeing suspects. This enhancement of sheriffs’ powers  was necessary to ensure that the criminal law was properly obeyed; but it also ran the risk of making the sheriffs too powerful, thereby possibly jeopardizing their honest enforcement of the law in England.

After Henry II had secured acceptance of the Assize of Clarendon in February 1166, he then immediately departed from England to his French territories, where he remained for four years. This four year sojourn in France should not surprise us. Henry II was, after all, ruler of a large Western European Empire, and he therefore had to see that all his possessions were correctly governed. Even so, there is clear evidence that some unscrupulous sheriffs had taken advantage both of Henry’s absence, and also of the powers vested in them by the Assize of Clarendon, to feather their own nests, at the expense of the smooth working of the law in England.

Straightaway after his return to England, in March 1170, Henry II acted with the vigour that was the hallmark of his kingship. Responding to growing complaints against the activities of the sheriffs, Henry set up a commission of inquiry into the administration of the sheriffs throughout England. This commission, popularly known as the ‘Inquest of Sheriffs’, was another Angevin landmark in the development of English Common Law.

Determined to get at the truth of the accusations against the misconduct of his sheriffs, Henry required that all witnesses to the commission, barons, knights, and freemen, would “speak the truth concerning that which shall be asked of them on behalf of the lord king, and that they will not conceal the truth out of love for any man, or from hatred, or for bribe or reward, or from fear or from any promise or for any cause.”  What a tremendous requirement for the witnesses! It still underpins the entire conduct of government commissions, even to this day. The key word summing up this requirement is honesty.

Section 1 of the commission’s terms of reference summed up its real purpose:-

  • “In the first place, let inquiry be made concerning the sheriffs and their bailiffs as to what and how much they have received from each hundred [unit of local government] and from each vill and from each man, since the lord king crossed over to Normandy, by reason of which the land and the people have been oppressed.” In short, the commission was to investigate the extent of the sheriffs’ corruption between 1166 and 1170.
  • If some corrupt sheriffs had panicked at the prospect of having to explain their conduct, and had accordingly tried to make restitution, it would do them little good. Section 10 of the commission’s terms of reference stated: “And let inquiry be made whether the sheriffs or any of their bailiffs, or the lords of the vills or their bailiffs, have restored any of the things which they have taken, or have made any peace with their men, since they have heard of the coming of the lord king, in order to prevent any complaint thereof reaching the lord or his justices.” Section 10 recalls the hasty measures of restitution made by certain MPs after the parliamentary expenses scandal was revealed during the last parliament by the press.

As a result of the Inquest of Sheriffs, 21 of the 28 sheriffs were removed, an amazing total. We know precisely who remained as sheriffs after the Inquest, and who were removed, as the individual names of all the sheriffs still exist. New sheriffs included Hugh of Buckland, appointed Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. He was a fairly humble knight who held just one knight’s fee from the Abbot of Abingdon, and had declared his knight’s plot of land in an earlier survey of Henry II, the 1166 Cartae Baronom (Survey of English knights – like the recent census!).  Another fairly modest northern family, the Estoutevilles,  also benefitted from Henry II’s changeover of personnel. Robert of Estouteville became Sheriff of Yorkshire, and his brother Roger was appointed Sheriff of Northumberland. It was a wise move, both brothers valiantly defended North England in the Scots invasion of northern England in the Great Rebellion against Henry II in 1173-1175. The Estouteviles commanded the English Army at the Battle of Alnwick in 1174, even capturing King William ‘The Lion’ of Scotland. At the other extreme, some of the newly appointed sheriffs were clearly wealthy. Alfred of Lincoln, newly appointed Sheriff Dorset and Somerset, was a powerful Tenant-in-Chief, who had been assessed for the comparatively large total of 25 knights in the 1166 Cartae Baronum. It seems that Henry quite rightly was not too concerned about the background of his new sheriffs: it was their merit that mattered.  Finally, it is probably the case that some at least of the sheriffs who were removed in 1170 may have been  more  guilty of misdemeanour than outright corruption. A case in point is the removal of Ranulf de Glanville as Sheriff of Yorkshire (who was replaced as sheriff by Robert of Estouteville). Ranulf was not locally born in Yorkshire, and this may have possibly counted against him in the Inquest. His removal in 1170 was only temporary. In 1175, he was restored to the Shrievalty of Yorkshire, after proving his loyalty to Henry II at the battle of Alnwick. But this was restoration to the shrievalty was the prelude to even greater things. Ranulf rapidly rose through the ranks in Henry’s ‘civil service’, and by 1180 had reached the dizzy heights of Justicar of England. Even so, one suspects that the majority of the 21 ejected sheriffs paid the price for gross inefficiency, or gross corruption, or perhaps even both.

What, then, is the overall importance of the 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs in the development of English Law?

Policing was probably as problematic in 12th century England as it is in 2011. Like the modern day police, the 12th century sheriffs had to steer a difficult course between upholding the rigors of the law and trespassing on individual rights. We have seen in the recent London demonstrations how difficult it can be for the police to maintain law and order in the face of anarchist violence; without resorting to over-zealous policing. At the same time, society must remain vigilant against the threat of possible corruption by a minority of unprincipled law enforcement officers. The supreme importance of Henry II’s 1170 Inquest of Sheriffs was in its effective declaration of the primacy of the executive over the law-enforcement officers. We take it for granted that the police in our country  are responsible to the people they serve, whether at national or local level. It is Henry II that we must thank for helping to make this possible.

The Doc will now set a fairly straightforward question:-

Where in the United Kingdom do sheriffs still officiate in the law enforcement process?


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Filed under Angevins, British Kings and Queens, Criminal Law, English Common Law, Henry II, History, Law degree courses, Medieval History, Police, Sheriffs

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