Shire Reeve: You Know Him Today as The Sheriff

We can trace the title of “Shire Reeve”, back to the Anglo-Saxon period of English history.

Historically, the Reeve was the title given to a man who was the representative of the King in a town, city, or a shire. His role was as a tax collector and an enforcer of the king’s laws. The name has evolved to what we know today as sheriff.

The word sheriff brings a certain western swagger to mind. A grizzled veteran tasked with the unenviable role of bringing some degree of law and order to some anarchic Arizona town in the late 19th century. However, while the word does indeed refer to the oldest law enforcement position in the United States, its etymology stretches back to at least Middle English in the 9th century – perhaps even further.


As with many words with distant origins, the basis for the word sheriff is complicated and more than a little confusing. It appears in a text over 2,000 years ago written as we see it today.

Yet, the combination of two words that created the modern meaning of ‘keeper of the county’ certainly didn’t arrive until roughly 1,000 years later.

Today’s Use

Today, the use of the word sheriff varies greatly across English-speaking countries. It’s most common in the United States, where it refers to an elected official who typically serves as the county’s chief civilian law enforcement officer.

In Canada, sheriffs are defined as “peace officers” charged with tasks such as courtroom security, post-arrest prisoner transfer, serving legal processes and executing civil judgements.

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In South Africa, sheriffs are responsible for serving court processes such as subpoenas and summonses, while in Australia, a sheriff’s role changes slightly depending on which state you’re in, but is typically part of the Courts and Tribunal Services.

While in the UK, the role of the sheriff also changes depending on where you are. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a sheriff is a ceremonial county or city official, while a sheriff is a judge in Scotland.

In the Republic of Ireland, sheriffs work similarly to bailiffs, as well as acting as returning officers in public elections, and executing tax certificates. 

Sheriffs through History

The role of sheriff is probably the oldest law enforcement office known within the common-law system in the United Kingdom. The title was famously held by Robin Hood’s arch nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham, who bled the people dry in service of the corrupt and brutal King John.

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In reality, no such title has ever existed, and the mythical tale was probably based on one or a composite of several men who held the position of High Sheriff of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests sometime in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The image of the sheriff undoubtedly took a battering during this period, particularly under the reign of King John, but for centuries it had been a title associated with dignity and trust.

These ‘peace officers’ had long been responsible for enforcing the King’s orders, but their duty as tax collectors, often to prop up Royal ambitions abroad, eventually made them unpopular.  

2207 BC

Yet while sheriffs in name may only have appeared in the 9th century, the concept of law enforcement that fell outside the army had been used for over 4,000 years.

As long as the law has existed, rulers have sought to entrust certain men to enforce them, and this is broadly where we get the idea of the sheriff that we still use today.

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The first to implement clear rules that we would consider laws was Lipit-Istar, the King of Isin in 2207 BC, followed by the Babylonian King Hammurabi just over 100 years later, who set out a codification system called the Codes of Hammurabi.  

The concept of law eventually spread around the world. The Romans implemented their jus civile (civil law), followed by jus gentium (law of nations), as their empire rapidly expanded.

An official who oversaw these codes was called the praetor, the second-highest-ranking official in the Republic. On the ground, however, day-to-day law-keeping fell to Vigiles, who acted as both police and firefighters.    

Arabic Misconception 

The word sheriff is commonly, and most would argue incorrectly, attributed to the Arabic title sharif, meaning noble or highborn. Sharif – sometimes spelt as Sherif – has long been the traditional designation for men descended directly from the Prophet Mohammed.

Between the 13th and early 20th centuries in Saudi Arabia, these men were responsible for the safekeeping of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina – hence the title ‘Sharif of Mecca’. 

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However, Sharif was also used in a much broader sense to denote a man who serves as the protector of the tribe and all tribal assets, which perhaps pushes us more towards what we would think of the word sheriff. Despite the remarkably similar meanings and spellings, this does appear to be a complete coincidence       

The Book of Daniel

Most sources place the origin of the word sheriff in the mid-9th century, and the combination of shire and reeve – which we’ll be coming to shortly – however if we go back to 2nd-century BC, we find a direct mention of the word sheriff in the Book of Daniel.

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“Then the princes, the governors, and captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, were gathered together unto the dedication of the image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up”

The Book, purportedly written by the Prophet Daniel, is set some four centuries before and speaks of the Jewish experience living under the yolk of Babylon.

It’s not clear who these sheriffs were or what role they played, but this is the first time we see the word written as we know it today. 

Old & Middle English

However, as we mentioned earlier, the etymology of sheriff is far from opaque. The root for our modern word sheriff comes from the Old English word scirgerefa, meaning a representative of royal authority in a shire. We later find it in Middle English as a combination of two words; shire and reeve.

Today, shire is widely known as ‘county’ but was also used to determine administrative office, jurisdiction, stewardship, authority, district, province, and even country. It was a word that eventually emerged from the slow amalgamation of what we know as modern Britain.

The belief in home rule led to the establishment of tuns (towns), which were gradually banded together into parcels of land known as ‘tenths of land’ and eventually ‘hundredths’.

This slow expansion finally led to shires, which we see today as modern counties across the United Kingdom. Reeve was a word used roughly as steward, local official or chief magistrate during Anglo-Saxon Britain.

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This person primarily oversaw the discharge of feudal obligations, a wide-ranging role that included all crown representation within a particular area. One of the earliest known roles of Reeves was to sound the alarm after the escape of prisoners. This was done with the repeated cries of two words, huy and cry, that would bring others out onto the streets, and a pursuit would begin.

Hundred Moots

This was also the period where the basis for Britain’s modern justice system originated. Shire courts were an Anglo-Saxon legal institution that remained in place after the Norman conquest and were not finally abolished until 1846.

A Saxon medieval moot. The manor court met here once a fortnight and the offences and disputes of the tenants were tried and punished.

Just as today, the court system operated in a tiered arrangement. The lowest was ‘moots’ or ‘hundred moots’, regular meetings held within each shire where local matters could be discussed, and those accused of crimes were first presented.

If the case was deemed serious enough, usually involving theft or murder, the matter would be moved up to the tithing and hundred courts in the south, or wapentakes in the north. The court above was known as the shire court, acting as both court of appeal, and a civil court where land disputes were typically heard.

The shire court met only twice each year, and a case needed to have been rejected three times by a hundred or wapentake before it could arrive at this stage.

Justices of the Supreme Court

Shire courts were originally presided over by an Earl, later replaced by the local bishop, with a council of men composed of local magnates judging proceedings.

However, also present and acting to ensure that the ruling of the court was carried out correctly, was the shire-reeve, and later sheriff. This system officially remained in place until the 1846 County Courts Act, but there are still traces of it within our justice system today, along with our language.

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A ‘moot point’ refers to a subject open for discussion or debate where no satisfactory answer is found. The word moot is still found in legal language to describe a mock judicial proceeding set up to examine a hypothetical argument.

Even to this day, the UK’s Supreme Court offers twelve places to law students each year, giving them the opportunity to argue a hypothetical case in front of the Justices of the Supreme Court, known as the Moot program.   

Shire-Reeve – Sheriff

While it’s virtually impossible to determine exactly when the term Shire-Reeve arrived, sometime just before the Norman conquest is probably the best bet. At that stage, shires were becoming larger, requiring more diligent oversight.

It was around this point, a clear differentiation between country-reeves (smaller areas) and shire-reeves (larger areas) appeared.

The arrival of the Normans led to dramatic changes in the role that saw the shire-reeves, and eventually, sheriffs, become much more government-oriented rather than home rule.

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They became tax collectors rather than simply keepers of the peace, leading to widespread abuse of power – especially considering the role was exclusively drawn from the ranks of barons, royal administrators and the local gentry.

The Magna Carta, signed in 1215, included nine mentions of the office of the sheriff, and it was a role that strengthened over the centuries. As Britain sought to keep pace with Spain, France and Portugal during the Age of Exploration, their first settlement was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

Their ideas of law and order came with them, and the first mention of an American sheriff came in 1634, with the first Sheriff’s Office in America established in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, in 1641. In the United States, the position was solidified into what we see today, while in Britain, the opposite occurred.

The role of sheriff was eventually replaced by specified tax collectors, while law enforcement was gradually taken up by watchmen and constables, with the Metropolitan Police, the country’s first significant police force, appearing in 1829.