Medieval Monday – There’s A New Sheriff In Town

One of the details in my Noble Hearts trilogy that makes them particularly susceptible to being compared to the Robin Hood legend is the presence of a sheriff.  Not to give too much away, but he’s the bad guy in The Loyal Heart and the good guy in The Faithful Heart.  Either way, the mere mention of a sheriff as being in charge takes people’s minds instantly to that best-known sheriff of all, the Sheriff of Nottingham.  But there’s a reason why I needed the character of a sheriff in my novels and why the author of the Robin Hood legend needed one in his.  It’s the very simple reason that if you lived in the medieval English countryside, the sheriff was in charge.

This was, of course, an evolution of government.  Way, way back in Anglo-Saxon England, long before the Norman Invasion, the countryside was divided into tiny little individually-owned properties known as manors or demesnes.  Manors were owned by a lord and worked by peasants who had feudal duties to that lord.  In these early days the lord would provide protection for the peasants on his land and the peasants would perform labor.  Easy.  And who was in charge of overseeing all of that work?  The reeve.

A reeve was basically someone chosen by the people to be an administrative officer.  Before the Conquest this more or less meant that he was in charge of seeing to the day to day organization of life and work on the manor so that the lord didn’t have to be bothered if he didn’t want to be.  There were several kinds of reeves too.  There were manor-reeves in charge of the manor, port-reeves in charge of port areas, town-reeves in charge of towns.  You get the idea.  And then there were shire-reeves.

The shire-reeve’s job was originally that of detecting and preventing crime.  His reach extended throughout the entire shire that he had been elected to serve.  It was an important position, one that demanded a man who was both competent and respected.  He held a great deal of authority within a shire, and yet he wasn’t necessarily a lord himself.

After the Conquest life in England changed.  As England made the transition into the High Middle Ages with its prosperity and stability, the jobs of the reeves changed as well.  On a manor the reeve continued to be in charge of day to day activities, but he also took on the major financial tasks of the manor.  He was responsible to making sure the manor’s produce was sold at reasonable prices, that taxes and fines were collected for the lord, and that all accounts were paid.  And yes, he was generally a peasant chosen once a year at Michaelmas to serve a year-long term.  Although quite frequently a good reeve could end up holding the position for life.

Chaucer’s Reeve was a seriously good guy

Now, multiply that new and highly responsible manor-reeve by an entire shire and you have the new shire-reeve … or sheriff, as the position came to be called.  This new sheriff was responsible for the administration of the shire as a whole.  He was responsible for financial and governmental transactions throughout the entire area of his shire.  He was also still responsible for detecting and preventing crimes, and for doling out justice for those crimes.Of course, by this time the sheriff wasn’t a peasant elected by his peers to serve a limited term.  The sheriff was usually someone much more important, a landowner appointed to the position.  Of course you could also buy the position of sheriff too, like Hugh Nonant bought his three sheriffdoms of Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Staffordshire in the late 1180s.  Incidentally, Hugh Nonant was one of Prince John’s supporters during the time that Richard was away on his crusade and in captivity, and he was tried and punished along with John when Richard returned in 1194.  So the originator of the Robin Hood legend wasn’t just making up the idea that a sheriff here or there supported the prince over the king.

The fact of the matter is, the sheriff of any given shire was a crucial figure in shaping the law and government of that shire.  Robin Hood’s author didn’t make that up, Disney didn’t make that up, and I didn’t make that up either.  But sometimes a boring administrative fact of history becomes so romanticized that we mistakenly believe it must have been a unique creation of an author looking for a villain.  If that were the case, I’m surprised we don’t have more congressmen villains in modern novels!

So when you find yourself reading The Loyal Heart and being tempted to think “Hey, Buxton seems an awful lot like the Sheriff of Nottingham,” stop to consider that he might, in fact look much more like Hugh Nonant instead!  And Buxton’s successor as sheriff….  Well, I won’t give that one away.  You’ll just have to read the book.

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One thought on “Medieval Monday – There’s A New Sheriff In Town

  1. Good explanation on the origin of sheriffs – carried on in our society. Now, they are elected, but as for buying the position today? Well, we know about those politicians. Nothing changes. 🙂

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