Heritage: Procession that has roots in medieval prayers for justice

High Sheriff procession from Cutlers Hall to Sheffield cathedral
Lord Mayor Cllr Denise Fox and Cllr terry Fox
High Sheriff procession from Cutlers Hall to Sheffield cathedral Lord Mayor Cllr Denise Fox and Cllr terry Fox

High sheriffs who now look after judges and royalty were once hated and powerful tax collectors – and some were happy to break the law themselves.

A formal procession that dates back to the Middle Ages took place at Sheffield Cathedral at the weekend.

Julie MacDonald, High Sheriff of South Yorkshire  Picture: Marie Caley NDFP Duffy MC 3

Julie MacDonald, High Sheriff of South Yorkshire Picture: Marie Caley NDFP Duffy MC 3

The South Yorkshire Legal Service involved civic dignitaries, judges, magistrates and other members of the legal profession, who processed across to the cathedral from the Cutlers’ Hall.

In the Middle Ages, when the courts were held in Westminster Hall, London the legal year began with a service in Westminster Abbey, where the judges would pray for God’s guidance.

The tradition of a service in Westminster Abbey in early October continues to this day.

Legal services are now held in every county of England and Wales,although not all are in October.

In his shire, the sheriff was all powerful – and not always popular!

In South Yorkshire, the Service is held on the Sunday before Palm Sunday.

The legal year is divided into four terms – Michaelmas (October-December), Hilary (January-April), Easter (April-May), and Trinity (June-July).

The service usually takes place in Sheffield Cathedral but, in recent years, it has sometimes been held in Doncaster Minster.

The High Sheriff of South Yorkshire attends the service as their role involves support for high court judges, as well as attendance at royal visits in the county.

High Sheriff procession from Cutlers Hall to Sheffield cathedral

High Sheriff procession from Cutlers Hall to Sheffield cathedral

They are also expected to make a meaningful contribution to their county during their year of office.

The office of high sheriff is the oldest secular office in the United Kingdom after the Crown and dates from Saxon times.

The exact date of origin is unknown but the office has certainly existed for more than 1,000 years.

The word ‘sheriff’ derives from ‘shire reeve’. Each shire had a shire reeve and he was the king’s direct representative.

High Sheriff procession from Cutlers Hall to Sheffield cathedral
Mounted police officers flank the doors to Sheffield cathedral

High Sheriff procession from Cutlers Hall to Sheffield cathedral Mounted police officers flank the doors to Sheffield cathedral

He was responsible for enforcing the king’s justice and for collecting taxes.

In his shire, the sheriff was all powerful – and not always popular!

Of the 63 clauses in the Magna Carta of 1215, no less than 27 relate to the role of the sheriff.

Until 1962, there was just one High Sheriff for the whole county of Yorkshire and we are fortunate to know the names of all those who have held office since 1066 – and what a varied lot they were.

There are some very famous names – Geoffrey Plantagenet, for example, one of Henry II’s illegitimate sons who was also Archbishop of York, despite not being an ordained priest, and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who was Charles I’s closest advisor and who lived at Wentworth Woodhouse.

One Yorkshire High Sheriff was a friend of Geoffrey Chaucer and another took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Then there are those who led what may best be described as a ‘colourful’ life – their ‘misdemeanours’ include assault, housebreaking, embezzlement, scandalous behaviour and even murder.

Sir William Griffith (1473) murdered one of his neighbour’s servants and Sir Jonathan Jennings (1689) killed a man in a duel.

Sir Robert Constable, who was High Sheriff in 1462, owned a pirate ship that regularly attacked Scottish shipping.

During his year of office in 1068, William Malet was responsible for the fire that destroyed York and allowed it to be seized by the Vikings.

And then there was Sir Robert Stapleton who, while he was High Sheriff in 1581, discovered the Archbishop of York in bed with the wife of the landlord of the Bull Inn in Doncaster – and he proceeded to blackmail the Archbishop.

Following on from the local government reorganisation in 1974, Yorkshire has had three high sheriffs serving North, West and South Yorkshire.

The first female High Sheriff of South Yorkshire was Joy Powlett-Smith in 1981-2.

Since then there have been eight more, including Dr Julie MacDonald, who was due to hand over the office to Stephen Ingram today.

The high sheriff’s badge of office depicts crossed swords, which are the swords of justice and the sword of mercy – the latter has a broken tip.

The royal crown signifies the appointment of high sheriffs by royal warrant, while the roses represent England and the leeks Wales.