History of the Sheriff

  1. Origins of the Sheriff Role
  2. Sheriff Crosses the Atlantic
  3. The Modern Sheriff


More than twelve hundred years ago, the country we now call England was inhabited by small groups of Anglo-Saxons who lived in rural communities called tuns (a group of ten families). 

The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which was later shortened to reeve (group of 100 families). During the next two centuries, a number of changes occurred in there system which led to a new unit of government, the shire (groups of hundreds banded together), which is now known in America as a county. So to distinguish the leader of a shire from the leader of a mere hundred, the more powerful official name became known as a shire-reeve.

The word shire-reeve eventually became the modern word for sheriff (the keeper, or chief, of the county).

King Alfred the Great

In the year 871, under King Alfred the Great, the Sheriff was responsible for maintaining law and order within his own county.

Over the years as the country became more centralized the King distributed huge tracts of land to various nobleman who governed those lands under the King’s authority. The nobleman appointed the Sheriff for the counties he controlled and for those areas not given to noblemen, the King appointed his own Sheriff.

Other Kings & Evolution of the Role

In 1066, more than ever before the Sheriff became the agent of the King and his new duties was that of tax collector. This traces back to England before the Norman Conquest. During the reign of William the conqueror, the Sheriff had almost unlimited power. He was virtual ruler of the county, responsible for its revenues, military force, police, jails, courts and the execution of its writs. The importance of the office resulted not only from the scope of the Sheriff’s duties, but from his direct relationship to the central government. The Crown appointed English sheriffs.

In 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta. In the text of the Magna Carta it mentioned the role of the Sheriff nine times further establishing the importance of the office.

Over the next few centuries, the Sheriff remained the leading law enforcement officer for the county.