Abuses of Office

Oppressing the peasants was something that did not bother the King or his officials. Abusing your accountability to the King himself was quite another matter. Periodic royal purges of corrupt, inefficient, or recalcitrant sheriffs were therefore hazards of the post. For example, when Henry II returned to England in 1170 from one of his long periods abroad he held a council at Westminster at the time of the sheriffs' Easter proffers and announced their entire dismissal pending full inquiry into their conduct. The resulting 'Inquest of Sheriffs', widened to cover all aspects of local administration and the work of all those handling public money, was conducted by independent barons over the next few weeks. Eventually, the evidence produced led to the permanent expulsion of twenty-two out of the twenty-nine sheriffs originally dismissed. The vacancies were then filled with selected Exchequer officials, whose financial skills during the rest of Henry's reign successfully built up the royal revenues.[1]

Despite the sanctions imposed and improvements introduced, the effects of occasional investigations diminished gradually over the years. By 1274 a rising tide of inefficiency and corruption had once more brought the royal finances to such a perilous level that, on his return to England after a four-year absence, King Edward I (1272-1307) was similarly forced to appoint a commission of inquiry into the discharge of the country's financial and judicial administration. This was known as the 'Ragman Quest' because of the ragged and dishevelled appearance of the commissioners' records as a result of their winter travels around the country.[2] Hundreds of sheriffs and other royal officials were criticized and charged with corruption and abuse of their position. Although this time there were fewer immediate and penal sanctions against individuals there were, for a period at least, some wider-ranging organizational and other benefits.[3]

Despite the uncertainties surrounding the post of sheriff, the financial rewards remained a magnet for greedy men. Accordingly, very large fees were paid to secure access to the personal profits to be made. The incentives to become sheriff of a rich and profitable county meant that the sums offered to secure the post were often several times higher than the amount of the annual farm. The worldly temptations of tax collection extended even to those senior members of the Church who 'loved their purse better than their bible'. In 1194, for example, the Archbishop of York topped all other offers with an enormous bid of 3,000 marks to become the sheriff of Yorkshire. He was the first archbishop to buy the position of sheriff, although several bishops had previously done so. In some cases the clergy's greed continued to outrun their honesty and they had to face the ignominy of being summoned before the Exchequer for failing for several years to pay the sums they had originally bid to become sheriffs. The Gadarene rush of the rich and powerful continued until the post of 'farmer' sheriff started to be phased out with the introduction of salaried 'custodian' sheriffs in the latter part of the thirteenth century.

A similar wide-ranging and oppressive system of tax farming continued in France until brought to a bloody end in 1791 during the Revolution. It was controlled by the Ferme Generale, a body of rich and powerful men who paid annual amounts to purchase from the government the power to impose and collect a wide range of dues and taxes. Heavy and increasing taxes and oppressive collection methods made them widely detested. Their most notorious imposition was the introduction of the gabelle, or salt tax, which was based on presumed rather than actual levels of consumption and set at artificially high levels. This and other taxes impacted particularly upon the poor, with the nobility, clergy, and other privileged groups being exempt.

During the Revolution the Ferme Generale was suppressed and its members arrested and sent for trial. A prominent and enthusiastic fermier was Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, whose energetic pursuit of enormous profits provided him with funds to pursue his research. His fame meant that Lavoisier became a special target of the revolutionary mob. Despite his many services to France, and the pleas of his friends, his taxation activities and the personal enmity of Jean Marat, whose scientific credentials Lavoisier had mocked, led to his execution during the Terrors in 1794. He went calmly to the guillotine, noting philosophically: 'It will save me from the troubles of old age, and I shall die in full possession of my faculties.' His death confirmed Edmund Burke's warning that: 'To tax and to please, no more than to love and to be wise, is not given to men.'[4]

As the gross amount of the sheriff's farm was largely fixed in advance and specified at the head of the summons, the immediate business of the Exchequer hearing was to identify and allow the various expenditures and expenses claimed by the sheriff to offset the amount for which he was formally accountable and, thus, after taking into account his Easter 'proffer', to arrive at the net sum to be remitted or the amount he was owed. Increasingly the sheriff was also held accountable for the collection of a range of other demands and impositions. These included the substantial sums from fines and fees arising from the King's prerogatives or imposed by the courts. There was also a wide range of casual revenues passing through the sheriff's hands. For all these 'foreign' amounts he was accountable in full and in detail, outside the terms of his farm. The range of financial matters enforced or otherwise handled by the sheriff was therefore extensive and complex. The rents from royal lands were only the starting point. These were constantly added to by estates that fell to the King by escheats, where owners died without heirs or were convicted of felony. Vacant churches, bishoprics, and abbeys could also come to the King. In principle the revenues from escheated estates and ecclesiastical property accrued only temporarily, yet they were often deliberately kept vacant for many years to enable the King to secure the income.

There were also reliefs and aids granted to the King for specific purposes, and general and special taxes such as scutage, carucage, and Danegeld. Fees, termed fines, were payable for many activities such as approving wardships and marriages, and granting charters. Fines, termed amercements, and other penalties were imposed not only for larger crimes but also for breaches of the multitude of rules and regulations surrounding everyday medieval business. Many of these impositions continued to reflect the dominance of agriculture in the economy. For example, the importance attached to protecting the royal forests and their hunting and other rights was reflected in 'assarts' and 'pru- prestures' imposed as financial penalties for infringing on the forests and clearing land for cultivation. Commerce was also being brought into the tax net, and charges linked with land and property were in time increasingly supported by taxes on income and chattels, based on various proportions of their assessed value. Aids of this kind were also particularly attractive to the King because large sums of cash could be realized relatively quickly.

Particular wealthy groups were also targeted. For example, heavy and wide- ranging taxes were levied on the Jews to such an extent that a special section of the Exchequer, the Scaccarium Judeorum, had to be set up to manage and account for them. The Jewish community and their businesses paid heavily for the King's special 'protection'. Individual wealthy Jews were also singled out. For example, the heavy taxes and other charges imposed on Aaron of Lincoln and the forfeiture of his estates led to a special sub-section of the Exchequer, the Scaccarium Aaronis, being set up to deal solely with his affairs.[5] The anti-Semitism involved was open and unambiguous. It was bluntly justified on the basis that: 'As they fleeced the subjects of his realm, so the King fleeced them.'42 Persecution, both physical and financial, continued until the Jews were expelled from England around 1290 when all their assets were promptly taken into the King's hands.

Throughout the Middle Ages the growing demands on the royal resources meant that the ingenuity of the King and his officials in devising new aids and taxes was almost endless. The array of taxes required a growing army of officials to administer and enforce them, and in time the sheriff was only one of the many administrators and collectors appointed to cope with the work. Customs officers in particular multiplied with the growth in international trade. In addition to the sheriff's tax-collection responsibilities, large profits arose from his judicial and enforcement functions within the Hundred and shire courts. These were a key part of his responsibilities and powers for several centuries until the legal system was reorganized and a separate and powerful judiciary introduced. The sheriff was also generally responsible for law and order within the county. In particular, he was empowered to call on citizens to form the posse comitatus, or 'force of the county', to pursue and arrest felons and other lawbreakers. When the post of sheriff was later exported to the American colonies these law-enforcement functions became predominant. The iconic Hollywood image of the western sheriff riding out after the bad guys at the head of the town 'posse' is therefore directly following medieval English precedent.

  • [1] Gladwin, 1974, pp. 78-80.
  • [2] See Gladwin, 1974 (Chapter VI) for details of the Ragman Quest.
  • [3] Gladwin, 1974, pp. 179-86.
  • [4] Edmund Burke, On American Taxation (1775).
  • [5] Madox, 1796, pp. 190-1. 42 Madox, 1796, Chapter VII.
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