Sponsor Post: ERMS Group – Role of Sheriff in Medieval Times



ermsBy Leslie Zeder

The Role of Sheriff in Medieval Times

Let’s take a look at the role of Sheriff in Medieval Times and pick through the evidence of the existence, or non-existence of peace bonded Medieval weapons.  For much of the Medieval Period, the title of Sheriff came with great responsibility and a range of powers, but as the Middle Ages wore on, the duties, powers and responsibilities of the role changed, and the level of prestige associated with it diminished.

Early Beginnings…

Keeping the peace in Medieval England was no small feat.

In 871, under King Alfred the Great, ruler of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, the Sheriff’s duties revolved around maintaining law and order within their own shire (aka county) with the assistance of the local citizens.

However, as the years passed and England became more centralised, the King gifted massive tracts of land to various noblemen who governed their appointed shire/s under the King’s authority by installing their own Sheriff to maintain law and order.

If a nobleman controlled more than one territory, their chosen Sheriff would keep the peace throughout each of the nobleman’s shires. For those lands not distributed to noblemen, the King would appoint his own Sheriff.

The Sheriff’s Expansion of Powers

In 1066, the Normans seized and centralised all power after William the Conqueror’s victory at the Battle of Hastings during the Norman Conquest of England. Control of the kingdom fell to the French King and his appointees which prompted the expansion of the Sheriff’s powers and the elevation of the position’s status to the right hand of the King.

The separation of ecclesiastical courts from the secular courts under King William saw the role of Sheriff raised to supreme guardian of the Sheriff’s appointed shire/s and president of the local court/s, with duties expanded to tax collection.

As agent of the King, the Sheriff would convene and lead military forces, carry-out written commands, and (only during the 1st century after the Norman Conquest) preside as judge over civil and criminal cases.

The Diminishing Powers of the Sheriff in Medieval Times

When Henry II took over the throne (1154 to 1189), the duties and powers which came with the office of Sheriff were wound back as the growing jurisdiction of the ‘King’s Court’ severely curtailed the Sheriff’s authority and control.

The position thereafter was still of great importance, but its scope was limited to investigating alleged crimes from within the confines of the Sheriff’s shire/s – conducting preliminary examinations of the accused, trying lesser crimes, and detaining alleged perpetrators of major crimes.

The sway the Sheriff once held over the King’s dominion was now pared back in practice, but the importance of the role was still acknowledged, its significance recognised 9 times in the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215 – the famous charter which forms the cornerstone of the British constitution.

During the next few centuries, the role of Sheriff in Medieval Times remained the leading law enforcement position within the shire/s.

As the Late Medieval Period came to an end around the 15th century, giving way to the Tudor reorganisation of local government during the 15th and 16th centuries, the role was further reduced to carrying-out largely ceremonial duties.

Peace Bonded Medieval Weapons – Fact or Fiction?

Though Medieval festivals across the world have embraced the peace bonding of weaponry for safety and security reasons, the existence of the custom during Medieval Times is up for debate.

Peace bonded weaponry did exist in 17th Century Japan, applying to samurai katana swords, and a few historical references to peace tied/knotted weapons point to their presence during the Renaissance, but the same cannot be said about historical literature concerning the Medieval Period.


What is a Peace Tie

A peace tie/bond/knot consists of long strands of hardened leather which secures a weapon at its hilt to the wearer’s belt or sheath. It is meant to offer a weapon’s owner a few more seconds to think things through while untying the binding, as well as giving guards the advantageous position against aggressors, as a guard’s weapon was always free for unsheathing.

Learn More

If you’d like to find references to the custom, read from page 184 onwards in The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England by H. E. Davidson.

Abbey Medieval Festival Safety & Security

Despite the doubt surrounding the use of peace bonds during the Medieval Period, there is no disputing that the practice has been adopted by modern Medieval festivals, fairs and expos across the globe, with the security and safety aspects of such events handled not by an appointed Sheriff, but usually by external operational emergency, public safety and risk management consultancy companies.

The leading Australian provider of operational risk, safety and emergency advisory services, ERMS Group, have been taking care of ensuring the safety of Abbey Medieval Fest guests since 2005.

Would you like to Bring Medieval Weaponry?

All festival attendees who would like to bring Medieval weapons into the Abbey Fest grounds must submit a Non Reenactor Weapon Permit Application for approval   For more information on the process for applying for a Non-Reenactor Weapons’ Permit click the link HERE