Accountability of Sheriffs

Examination of Accounts

Accountability in the medieval Exchequer was centred around the formal periodic examinations of the sheriffs, who were the King's principal agents for the management and collection of the revenues of the various counties. The examination was essentially a confrontation, with the Barons of the Upper and Lower Exchequer and their army of officials on the attacking side, while opposite them, on the defending side, sat the sheriff who was accompanied by his clerks armed with the accounts, tallies, documents, and explanations that he hoped would secure the final acquittance, or quietus, on which his financial, or even physical, wellbeing depended. This could be a bruising encounter.

The post of sheriff, originally 'shire reeve', had grown in importance during centuries of Saxon administration and was central to the management of local government well before the Norman Conquest. William I was content to allow this established system to continue largely unchanged when he realized how effective the arrangements were in meeting his key objective of maximizing his revenues. One of his first moves was to secure the allegiance of his sheriffs by filling the posts with his Norman followers, thereby rewarding them for their part in his military victories. Only under Henry I were those of Saxon blood gradually allowed back into the fold, though later most of King John's sheriffs were of English heritage. The office of sheriff has always been a formal royal appointment, with the name of the chosen individual 'pricked' with a silver bodkin from a list of potential appointees submitted by the Privy Council. The process of 'pricking' is said to have originated with Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) who was one day embroidering in her garden when approached with the list and, unwilling to go inside, simply pricked the names of the new sheriffs with her needle.

The bulk of the King's treasure was originally stored at Winchester, where for a time extensive Exchequer hearings were held and, less frequently, at York. By the middle of the twelfth century the regular sessions were almost always held at Westminster. Richard Fitz-Nigel introduces the Dialogus 'sitting at a turret window overlooking the Thames'.[1] The Court of Exchequer originally operated within Westminster Hall itself but subsequently moved to adjacent buildings. The main location was on the east side of Westminster Hall, as part of a two-storey complex next to New Palace Yard and close to the medieval line of the Thames. The Upper Exchequer occupied the first floor and the Exchequer of Receipt was directly below. The Upper Exchequer later moved elsewhere while the Receipt continued to occupy buildings in this same location until the 1820s, in the process giving its name to a nearby coffee house.

The Exchequer year ran from Michaelmas to Michaelmas, that is from September to August, with various mid-term breaks and holidays. The broad pattern was for the sheriff or his representative to make a preliminary or interim settlement, or 'proffer', at Easter in respect of half the agreed revenue for which he was to be held directly accountable, with the full account at Michaelmas. This full account was set in hand by a formal 'Summons of the Pipe' issued by the officers of the Exchequer. The sheriff was always required to appear in person to obtain his final acquittance for the year. The imperious form of the official summons clearly underlined the direct personal nature of the sheriff's accountability, and the depth of his impending examination. He was summoned in the following terms:

Henry, King of the English, to such-and-such a sheriff, greeting. See that, as you love yourself and all that you have, you be at the Exchequer at such a place on the morrow of Michaelmas, or on the morrow of Low Sunday, and have with you whatsoever you owe of the old farm or of the new and in particular these debts underwritten (then listed). And have all these with you in money, tallies, writs and acquittances, or they will be deducted from your farm. Witness so-and-so, at such a place, at the Exchequer.33

The importance and authority of this summons was such that it could not be issued if sullied with any alteration or erasure. Any mistake in drawing it up required the preparation of a fresh writ. As the summons was an open document this also safeguarded its integrity against any attempted deletion or alteration by the sheriff. However, the Dialogus warned that it would be:

a proof of madness [for the sheriff] to expose himself wilfully to such grave risks, especially as he could not thus annul the debts to the King. For all the debts included in the summons have been previously noted and are kept on record; so that even with the sheriff's connivance, nobody could be freed from them by this method.34

The sheriff's appearance was not just a matter of form or procedural nicety. He was only too well aware that when he came before the Exchequer he was delivering himself into physical custody. He was detained at the King's disposal until he had satisfied the Barons of the Exchequer as to the full and proper discharge of his responsibilities. The wording of the summons was a firm threat to the sheriff: 'Your absence, whoever you are who receive the summons, unless it can be excused by necessary causes within the legal definition, will endanger your head.'35 Similarly, the writs issued for the recovery of the King's debts further emphasized that the sheriff was to pursue them 'on penalty of his body and goods and of the King's wrath'.

At his final account for the year, the sheriff had ranged around him the full forces of public accountability, with the formal examination being conducted by the Treasurer and other officials. The Barons of the Exchequer were also present to give final judgements as necessary. The sheriff was fully aware of his direct personal responsibilities and knew that he had to be well versed in all the financial details of his stewardship. He had to be ready with the answers and explanations on which his future position and personal safety depended. Failure to appear on exactly the due date, with all the appropriate documents, brought heavy penalties. These included seizure of his estates or imprisonment. Breaching the network of obscure Exchequer regulations, or too much hesitation or evasion in his responses, were also punishable by instant hefty fines, particularly if the barons hearing his account were in an unforgiving mood.

In many respects, in both form and substance but with less stringent penalties, there are clear parallels between this medieval tableau and the scene facing today's departmental accounting officers appearing before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The nervousness of some modern accounting officers was also shared by their medieval predecessors. One notable exception was the experienced Gilbert of Surrey, sheriff of Surrey, Cambridgeshire, and Huntingdonshire. Of his appearances at the Exchequer in the middle of Henry I's reign it was recorded that:

When the sheriffs from all over England assembled at the Exchequer they trembled to a man from their extreme fear, Gilbert alone arrived fearlessly and cheerfully and, when called by the receivers of money, came up to them straight away and sat down brisk and composed, the only one amongst them to be so.36

The central, though not necessarily the largest, part of the sheriff's accountability was the collection of rents and other payments due for the King's demesne lands and estates and other properties. Sometimes the sheriff paid these over on the basis of the individual rents collected, although until the later part of the thirteenth century they were more generally 'let to farm' to the sheriff at a composited fixed sum. The gross annual amount for which he was then accountable was the 'farm of the county' or ‘corpus comitatus'. Once he had delivered that predetermined sum he was free to pocket the often substantial difference between the actual rents he was able to extract and the amounts to be remitted to the Exchequer. It was this potentially lucrative arrangement that made the post of sheriff so financially attractive.

The arrangement didn't always work in the sheriff's favour. Sometimes the King would arbitrarily and without notice increase the amount of the farm because his funds were low or his expenses high or simply from envy of the rich pickings in the shires. For example, Henry II in the 1150s raised the farms of several counties by more than 50 per cent. Other monarchs followed suit and added annual increments as well. The sheriff could also suffer as a result of delays in adjusting his liability to take into account any lands sold off or otherwise disposed of by the King, or for various other reductions in the rents to be collected. Determined not to suffer financially, the sheriff promptly passed responsibility for countering the impact of these measures down the line to his underlings. Inevitably the extra funds were extracted forcibly from the defenceless peasants and other taxpayers. Some sheriffs also sold off parts of their 'farm' to other collectors who, in turn, extracted a further return. In these circumstances, the scope for oppression, bribery, and corruption was almost limitless.

Abuse of their position by the sheriffs and their officers was an ever-present reality throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the main period of their financial and judicial powers. Occasionally an upsurge of concern over shortfalls in the King's finances, or flagrant misappropriation or malfeasance, prompted remedial action against the sheriffs. Public reaction and opposition to particular taxes or arbitrary impositions could also bring matters to a head and prompt royal intervention. All taxes were naturally unwelcome but, by their nature or by the oppressive manner of their implementation, some taxes demonstrated a special capacity to provoke resentment and unrest. Poll taxes in particular were widely perceived as discriminatory and regressive and were one of the causes of the violent response of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381.

  • [1] Dialogus de Scaccario, p. 5.
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