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   Chapter 14 THE ENGLISH COUNTY AND ITS OFFICERS (1600-1650)

The American Nation: A History — Volume 1: European Background of American History, 1300-1600 By Edward Potts Cheyney Characters: 18234

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The ordinary Englishman in the seventeenth century had much more to do with local than with national government. Only a few score men served the king as ministers, councillors, or judges; only a few hundred attended Parliament; while as lords lieutenant, sheriffs, justices of the peace, constables, church-wardens, mayors, aldermen, and in other capacities of local and limited but real power, many thousands must have taken a part in public affairs. National government was remote from the ordinary man; local government came close to him. The political institutions which surrounded him on all sides, insensibly controlling every action and forming the world to which his outward life conformed, were familiar to him and affected his habits and ideas, whether he remained at home or emigrated to the colonies, far more directly than did the political institutions of the nation.

The oldest, most stable, and most important unit of local government was the shire, or county. The conspicuous official and historic head of the county was the sheriff. As Camden says, "Every year some one of the gentlemen inhabitants is made ruler of the county wherein he dwelleth." [Footnote: Camden, Britannia (ed. 1637), 160.] Though no longer relatively so powerful as in the Middle Ages, his position was even yet one of much dignity and importance. On occasions of public ceremony he had an imposing personal retinue, carried a white rod of office, and wore official robes. [Footnote: King, The Vale-Royall, 40; North, Examen, quoted in Dict. Nat. Biog., XII., 121.] Richard Evelyn, when sheriff, "had one hundred and sixteen servants in liverys, every one liveryed in greene sattin doubliets; divers gentlemen and persons of quality waited on him in the same garbe and habit." [Footnote: Evelyn, Diary, 1634.] William Ffarrington, sheriff of Lancashire in 1636, kept up the following household: a steward, a clerk of the kitchen, two yeomen of the plate cupboard, a yeoman of the wine-cellar, two attendants on the sheriff's chamber, an usher of the hall, two chamberlains, four butlers and butler's assistants, eight cooks, five scullions, a porter, a baker, a caterer, a slaughterman, a poulterer, two watchmen for the horses, two men to attend the docket door each day by turns, twenty men to attend upon the prisoners each day by turns- altogether a household of fifty-six servants. [Footnote: The Shrievalty of William Ffarrington, 17 (Chetham Society). This reference and a number of those which follow I owe to the industry and good scholarship of Mr. Charles Burrows, a young man of great promise, who, after studying at the universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, and beginning the preparation of a thesis on the Subject of this chapter, went abroad for further study and died in 1902.] With the need for such official outlays, it is no wonder that a long series of statutes should have provided that the sheriff should be one who had land in the county "sufficient to answer king and people." [Footnote: 9 Ed. II., st. 2; 4 Ed. III., chap, ix.; 5 Ed. III., chaps, iv., xiii., xiv.] In fact, he was usually a knight or a man of such rank as might be made a knight. A list of the sheriffs of the county of Chester during the reigns of James I. and Charles I. shows twenty-three knights and twenty-three without title, but presumably of equal rank in society. [Footnote: King, The Vale-Royall, 233.] Many of the best-known men of this period, such as Sir Thomas Wentworth, Sir Ralph Verney, Sir William Selby, and Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, afterwards earl of Shaftesbury, acted at various times as sheriffs of their respective counties. They were direct successors of Chaucer's Franklyn, of whom we are told, "A schirreeve had he been." With some exceptions, such as those cities which had their own elective sheriffs, and those pairs of counties which were conjoined under one sheriff, each shire had one sheriff, appointed in the following manner: every year, on November 1, a special meeting of the Privy Council was held at the exchequer, a number of the higher government officials being especially required to be present; here a list of three persons of distinction from each county, qualified to fill the office of sheriff, was made up and submitted to the king, who "pricked" one from each three; the men thus chosen were then bound to seek letters-patent, and take their oaths as sheriffs for the ensuing year in their respective counties. [Footnote: Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, chap. xxiv.] By law the same man could not be appointed for two successive years. [Footnote: 14 Ed. III., chap, vii., etc.] This was probably a welcome restriction, as the appointees bore somewhat unwillingly the burdens and expenditures of the office. [Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report VII., App., 3-9, 25.] In 1630 we find Sir Francis Coke writing to ask Sir J. Coke "to keep my loving neighbour and friend Edward Revell of Brookhill from being sheriff this year";[Footnote: Ibid., Report XII., App. I., 414. ] and in 1663 Evelyn enters in his diary, "To court to get Sir John Evelyn, of Godstone, off from being sheriff of Surrey." [Footnote: November 6, 1663.] It is true that the office brought with it many small fees. A long list of customary payments for the issue of various writs and the performance of various services by the sheriff is given in the manuals of the time. [Footnote: Greenwood, The County Court, 183.] On the other hand, the fees payable by the sheriff to the officials of the exchequer on his appointment and discharge, [Footnote: Ibid., 122.] the expenses of his office, and the requirements of his position for social expenditure were very considerable, and the comment of a contemporary law-writer was, no doubt, in most cases, justified: "But the sheriff is at much more charge, which is laid out and is disbursed during his sheriffwick, as experience will inform him."[Footnote: Greenwood, The County Court, 187.] Another burden of the sheriff's office was enforced residence in his own county during his term of service. The records are overspread with fines for the violation of this requirement and with requests for dispensations from conformity to it.[Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report VII., App., 5; Rushworth, Historical Collections, II., App., 27, Deputy Keeper of the Public Records, Reports, XLIII.,151; Cal. of State Pap., Dom., 1628-1629, pp., 396, 403, etc.] A personage in an old play says of the ladies of his time, "I think they would rather marry a London jailer than a high-sheriff of a county, since neither can stir from his employment." [Footnote: Wycherly, The Country Wife, act iv., sc. 1.] The title high-sheriff, frequently used instead of the simple term sheriff, had no especial significance and was probably suggested by a desire to discriminate him from the under-sheriff. The exacting duties of the office led the sheriff very frequently to appoint, at his own cost, such a subordinate and to empower him to perform such services as could be legally transferred to another. He was usually a man of some position, "learned somewhat in the law, especially if the sheriff be not learned himselfe." [Footnote: Smith, Commonwealth of England, book II., chap. xvii.] He was a source of considerable expense to his superior, an estimate of annual cost made in 1628 amounting to 352 Pounds 18s. 6d. He relieved the sheriff, however, of his more onerous and invidious duties. North declared that "Clifford and Shaftesbury looked like high-sheriff and under-sheriff. The former held the white staff and had his name to all returns, but all the business, especially the knavish part, was done by the latter." [Footnote: Examen, 8, quoted in Dict. Nat, Biog., XII., 113.]

The duties of the sheriff were many and varied; some of them old judicial and administrative functions, others new and irregular services demanded of him by the innovating Tudor and Stuart sovereigns. Every month he must hold a county court, at which were brought suits for debts of less than forty shillings, suits for damages, for breach of contract, for non-payment of wages, for not returning borrowed or pledged articles, and a hundred other petty causes. [Footnote: Fitzherbert, Natura Brevium, 28 d, etc.] In this court also, and at some other times and places, he must proclaim certain ancient statutes and new laws and ordinances for the information and warning of the people.

The county court as a judicial body was, in the seventeenth century, a waning institution, its competence and functions becoming rapidly obsolete; but occasionally it awakened suddenly to life, took on a new aspect, and became of unwonted importance. This occurred when a summons was issued for a new parliament, for the county court was the electing body of the knights of the shire, and to the next session after the writs for the parliament had been issued came the gentry and freeholders of the county to elect their representatives. [Footnote: Dalton, Officium Vicecomitum, chap. xcii.] There was often a great concourse and much excitement, and the petty disputes of poor suitors an

d the labors of obscure officials were for the time completely superseded. The sheriff, as presiding official at this election, as the returning officer of the elected members, and as the official charged with levying money for the payment of their wages and expenses, had an active and influential connection with the choice of members of Parliament. A long series of statutes checked the abuses connected with this influence; but even yet the sheriff exercised some power over the selection made, especially when he was a man of large influence in his county apart from his office.[Footnote: Ibid.]

There was great irregularity in the process of election. Sometimes the members were elected by acclamation, sometimes by show of hands, sometimes by a poll, one voter after another expressing orally his preference. The election should, by law, be held between eight and eleven o'clock in the morning, but a sheriff sometimes postponed the election, or refused to acknowledge the candidate insisted on by the electors, or threw out votes which he claimed were not properly given, or closed the election when his preferred candidate was in an advantageous position. The journals of the House of Commons are filled with reports of contested elections, and sheriffs are repeatedly found kneeling at the bar of the House to receive censure or pardon for such offences.[Footnote: Commons Journals, I., 511, 556, 801, 854, 884, etc.]

A period of scarcely less responsibility for the sheriff was the semi- annual assizes, when the judges in their robes, on their circuit, with all the dignity of the judicial representatives of the crown, visited the county.[Footnote: Rushworth, Historical Collections, I., 294.] It was the duty of the sheriff to see that grand and petty juries were ready to perform the services required of them by these judges, and to carry out the mandates and judgments of the court. These judgments, which he had to execute either in person or by his under-sheriff or bailiffs, varied in character from the serving of writs or levying upon property for debt to the infliction of the death penalty. [Footnote: Greenwood, 133; Fortescue, De Laudibus Legum Angliae, chap xxiv.] The sheriff had also the supervision of the jail and the appointment of jailers. His presence at the two assizes of the year was considered one of his most fundamental duties, and heavy fines were imposed when occasionally a sheriff was absent from his post at that time. [Footnote: Rushworth, Historical Collections, II., App., 27; Cal. of State Pap., Dom, 1628-1629, p. 396.] He not only met the judges with his retinue and furnished them a guard, but feasted them and acted as a sort of local host to the circuit court so long as it was in session in his county.

Closely analogous to this duty of the sheriff was the requirement that he should be present, provide jurymen, and carry out the behests of the justices of the peace at their quarter-sessions; but the justices were, like himself, local officers belonging to the county, not visitors from the capital, so that their sessions had little of the ceremony and excitement of the assizes; and, in fact, the sheriff was usually represented there by the under-sheriff acting as his deputy. [Footnote: Lister, Two Earliest Sessions Rolls of West Riding of Yorkshire, 1597- 1602, III., 28, 44, 64, etc.]

In addition to these and many less conspicuous regular duties the sheriff in the early seventeenth century was utilized from time to time by the central government in irregular and somewhat questionable services. When James revived the distraint of knighthood it was the sheriffs who were required to make out lists of all who had 40 Pounds a year of lands or rents and to order them to appear at court and receive knighthood. When Charles I. revived the imposition of ship-money it was to the sheriff of each county that the writ was sent, stating the amount to be paid by his county and ordering him to arrange with the lower officials for its assessment and collection.

The patriotic resistance of Hampden found a parallel in the passive opposition of some of the sheriffs to this demand upon them. On June 30, 1640, the King's Council wrote to the sheriff of Huntingdonshire: "We have read and considered of your letter of the 24th of the present, wherein we perceive that you have been rather industrious to represent the difficulties which, as you say, you find in the execution of his majesty's writ, than circumspect or careful, as you ought to have been, in overcoming and removing them,… and we cannot but make this judgment upon your proceedings, that instead of doing your duty in person and compelling others subordinate to you to do theirs, you endeavor to make excuses both for yourself and them." [Footnote: Rushworth, Historical Collections, I, 1203.]

Alongside of the sheriff at the head of the shire was another officer, the lord-lieutenant, whose position, although but recently attained, was in some ways more conspicuous and in certain exigencies more powerful than his. No statute or other formal action provided for the original creation of the lord-lieutenancy, and it is probable that Henry VIII. simply began the habit of delegating his military power in the shires to such officers. Early in the reign of Edward VI., October, 1549, they are mentioned as existing in the counties, and by 1600 their office was fully established.[Footnote: 3 and 4 Ed VI, chap v, in Statutes of the Realm, IV, 107.]This position was usually held by the greatest nobleman with estates in the county, and he appointed as his deputies various knights and gentlemen of high position; as when, in 1626, the duke of Buckingham was lord-lieutenant of Bucks, and Sir Edward Verney and five others were his deputies in that county. Although purely honorary, the appointment was one of much dignity and responsibility in military matters.

It was the duty of the lord-lieutenant in times of peace to see that the musters of the trained bands were regularly held, that the militia- men had their arms, and that men of higher rank who owed military service to the crown were prepared to perform it; in time of war to levy, muster, and train soldiers, fix the quotas of the hundreds and townships, see to the payment of troops, the collection of horses, and equipment generally, until the recruits were actually handed over to their officers. It was also their duty to see that the beacons were kept in order. The lords-lieutenant must be present, by an order of 1615, nine months in the year [Footnote: Cal. of State Pap., Dom., 1611-1618, p. 337.] in their counties; but there was no such rigorous requirement of constant residence as in the case of the sheriff, nor was the appointment restricted to a single year.

Such an official as the lord-lieutenant was not likely to be left unburdened with other duties when the government was struggling to obtain the enforcement of its laws, and, as a matter of fact, functions quite unmilitary were imposed upon him. In 1637 the council orders the lords-lieutenant of six of the eastern counties to assist in the better enforcement of the acts for the drainage of the marshes. [Footnote: Cal. of State Pap., Dom., 1637, p. 92.] In 1621 they are to investigate frauds of his majesty's carters. [Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report VII., App., 670.] They are asked to help collect subsidies and benevolences, to search for popish recusants, to oversee ale-houses, slaughter-houses, and the assize of bread and ale, to assist in the administration of poor relief and the suppression of vagrancy. [Footnote: Chetham Society, Lancashire Lieutenancy, I, Int., 19; Camden Society, Verney Papers, 37, 88.] In 1619 the Lords of the Council write to the lieutenant of Surrey asking him to urge co-operation in a lottery for the success of "the English colonies planted in Virginia, to accept the sums adventured, and to report to the treasurer and council of Virginia." [Footnote: Hist. MSS. Commission, Report VII., App., 670.] Much less dignified in position than either the lord- lieutenant or the sheriff, and yet filling an old and important office, was the coroner. He was elected by the freeholders of the county in the county court, and his oath was administered by the county clerk. He was, therefore, more distinctly local and representative than the other county officers, who were appointed by the crown; and as a result he was the only officer whose office did not terminate with the death of the king. Notwithstanding the generality of duties indicated by his name, "custos placitarum coronae," his functions were few beyond the fundamental duty of investigating sudden deaths and binding over for trial such persons as were indicated by the jury through which he made his inquest. [Footnote: Smith, Commonwealth of England, book II., chap. xxiv.] Under some circumstances the coroner took the place of the sheriff, and in general his position looked back to a time when it was of greater significance than it had become in the seventeenth century. [Footnote: Greenwood, The County Court, 258.]

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