The ancient role of High Sheriff, in a modern society.
Every year, like other counties, Suffolk and Norfolk have a new High Sheriff. In April, James Bagge from Stradsett, was appointed to Norfolk, and Geoffrey Probert, from Bures, to Suffolk. A Royal appointment, this is an unpaid, unelected, non-political position, that lasts for twelve months. Apart from attending Royal visits to their county, and supporting High Court Judges and the judiciary, both new High Sheriffs have definite ideas of how they will use their year in office.
So, what is a High Sheriff and what is his or her role in 2017? How relevant is a position that dates back 1000 years? There are 55 High Sheriffs in the UK, with the position dating back to Saxon times, when they were appointed by the King as his representative. Their role then was to collect taxes and ensure law and order in a shire, or county. It is the oldest secular position in Britain, after the Crown.
In the 11th and 12th century the power of a High Sheriff increased greatly and they “judged cases in the monthly court of the hundred (a sub-unit of the Shire); they had law enforcement powers and could raise the ‘hue and cry’ in pursuit of felons within their Shire” (High Sheriffs Association.)
Gradually, however, their power decreased as King Henry I gave tax collecting powers to the Exchequer and King Henry II introduced itinerant judges. Over the centuries more of the Sheriffs’ powers have been transferred to others and now, apart from the ceremonial Court Dress, still worn by most High Sheriffs, one other tradition remains. Even today the names of the new High Sheriffs are pricked onto vellum, by the Queen, a practice that began with Henry VII so a reluctant incumbent could not erase their name.
It is a costly business being High Sheriff as it is unpaid and no expenses are claimable either! So why should anyone want to take on the role in 2017?
Unlike most High Sheriffs, James Bagge, the High Sheriff of Norfolk, is spared from wearing Court dress as he wears his military uniform instead. Like others across the country, when not in uniform a High Sheriff will wear a badge of Office on a ribbon.
Do most Norfolk people understand what a High Sheriff does?
“Certainly, all the people involved in the civic circles and the judges, constabulary, and the military are very welcoming and supportive. You might have thought they would say, ‘oh no here comes another High Sheriff!’ but not at all, they are very enthusiastic.
“Then, when you go to support a charitable cause or people doing good work, they feel extraordinarily excited and privileged to have you come along. They don't know a lot about High Sheriffs, and you get asked a lot of questions about what you do, but they seem very happy and grateful that you have. It’s not about you personally, but the Office itself.”
James also mentioned that one unexpected role he undertook in his year was as the Senior Returning Officer in the county, with the right to attend the announcement of who had been elected. He had never been to an election count, and the surprise election announcement meant that now he has!
Geoffrey Probert, the High Sheriff of Suffolk, looks splendid in his Court dress which his family call his “panto outfit”. He recalls buying it from a second-hand website for High Sheriffs outfits,
“I went to meet the previous owner, and he was –shall we say - a little shorter and wider than me, so we’ve had to pull it in and stretch it out! It was the cheapest one available though...”
Indeed it can prove to be an expensive year for a High Sheriff. With no pay, nor expenses allowance, and a full diary of appointments and engagements, it would be easy to assume that it is only the wealthy from high society who are invited to take on the role, and are able to accept.
Geoffrey corrects me, however, noting that
“When I was nineteen I went to work as a volunteer at Stradishall when Idi Amin threw the Asians out of Uganda and they were welcomed to the UK, at Stradishall. When I met today’s High Sheriff of Bedfordshire I discovered that he was one of those many Ugandan Asians who were sent over in 1972 and have since made a brilliant contribution to this country. So High Sheriffs come from a fairly diverse background- although they do need to be able to afford a gallon or two of fuel for the car… but I wouldn't like you to think they are all frightfully rich.”
Unlike James, Geoffrey does not come from a legal background. He worked for Unilever, the global company that makes many of the brands found in supermarkets right around the world- brands like PG Tips, Persil washing power, Ben & Jerrys ice-cream & Dove beauty products.
“I spent thirty years of my life travelling the world, seeing it from the inside, working with people from the country. In another life, we also have a family farm in Bures in Suffolk, which I have run for many years.”
Geoffrey also has family links to the role,
“My father was High Sheriff in 1980, my Great Grandfather did in in 1925 and I have various ancestors in Monmouthshire, which is where the Probert’s originally came from, who were also High Sheriffs, so it is slightly in the blood. I am passionate about Suffolk, and I am very honoured, in a small way, to be able to give something back to Suffolk”
Do Geoffrey and his wife Nella, like James and his wife Victoria, also experience a warm welcome when on a visit?
“There is something about the office, it’s neutrality and that it is the longest office we have in this country. People know that you are trying to help, and it opens doors that are often shut to others. I have seen a lot of the county in just my first few weeks, from a pupil referral unit to a Police Investigation Centre and Suffolk’s Regimental Museum, and from a charity supporting victims of sex abuse to a brewery and the biggest container port in Britain, at Felixstowe.”
Geoffrey has identified several projects for his year in office including highlighting the hidden needs in the county, encouraging befriending of the lonely, and he is working with Suffolk’s law firms as he wants to encourage more people to leave money to Suffolk charities in their will.
Why is it still important to continue the long tradition of High Sheriffs?
“An important part of the role is about being the cheer-leader for the voluntary sector,” explained Geoffrey, “and I think it is a role where you can help to make connections between the voluntary, statutory and private sectors, and maybe make the county work that little bit better. In the end, the principal role of the High Sheriff is saying ‘thank you’ to all the wonderful people you meet in all three sectors.
The role of High Sheriff may date back to Saxon times but the need to support and encourage volunteers is vital and with James on Twitter and Geoffrey having a Facebook page, in some ways it is all very 21st century!
This article first appeared in Suffolk Norfolk Life Magazine in July 2017