The Norman Sheriff

The Sheriff’s office under the Norman Kings fulfilled its duties of Saxon times, writes Irene Gladwin, and was awarded to the magnates among the Conqueror’s supporters.

The sheriff’s office passed into the Norman era with all the fundamental characteristics, functions and duties it had possessed under the Saxon kings. It suited William the Conqueror’s purpose well that the old-established forms of local government should be preserved without interruption for; it heightened the illusion that everything was normal, and that all that had happened was that he, the rightful heir, had at last entered into his inheritance.

Consequently, he retained the services of many former English sheriffs who were not actively hostile to his cause, such as Edric of Wiltshire, Tofi of Somerset, Toli of Norfolk and Suffolk, Elfric of Huntingdonshire and Aethelwine of Warwickshire. Wiggod of Oxfordshire was marked out for special preferment because he had been the first official of high rank to submit to William and had actively assisted him in the first crucial days after the Battle of Hastings.

Wiggod retained both office and lands, and even received further grants from the Conqueror. He survived the purge that followed the English revolts and was the only English sheriff to die a rich man in William’s reign. The remainder were dismissed and dispossessed, and Esgar of Middlesex, who had tried to bargain with William over the surrender of London, spent the rest of his life in prison.

William may have been prepared to retain some of the old English sheriffs in office indefinitely, but national risings which broke out in 1068 in Kent, Wales and the south-west, the appearance of the Danish fleet in the Humber, the massacre of the Norman garrison at York and Hereward the Wake’s stubborn resistance to Norman rule, showed William that his hold was still insecure and that every Englishman was a potential traitor to the new King.

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