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The Sheriffs of Edward the Confessor

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2023

Stephen D. Church
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
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Summary

Well then, the county of Cambridge had fallen by chance to the lot of Picot, a Norman by race, a Gaetulian by temperament. A starving lion, a footloose wolf, a deceitful fox, a muddy swine, an impudent dog – in the end he obtained the food which he had long hankered after and, as if the whole county was one carcass, he claimed it all for himself, took possession of the whole of it and, like an insatiable monster bent on transferring the whole of it to his belly, did not allow anyone to be a sharer of his portion – not God, not an angel, none of the saints, not – and this is what I am leading up to – the most holy and famous Æthelthryth, who up till then had owned a great many properties – land or vills – in that same county, by the gift and grant of prominent people of former times.

The monastic compiler of the Liber Eliensis, writing in the late twelfth century, offers a vivid impression of the unpleasant nature and conduct of the sheriff. Indeed, most have heard of the medieval sheriff: the pre-modern period was apparently riddled with unsavoury, grasping, malicious thugs perpetually seeking to deprive unjustly the public of their money, land, and sometimes even their freedom. One could go so far as to say that the ‘poster boy’ for the poor character of the medieval sheriff is the bullying, greedy sheriff of Nottingham, immortalized in various retellings of the Robin Hood legend. But how much does this figure resemble the agents who operated in Edward the Confessor's England? What do we know of the men and the office in the eleventh century, closer to the origins of the role? This article aims to provide a clearer picture of the Confessor's sheriffs and their activities. It has been well-established – by Ann Williams, Judith Green, Tom Lambert, Richard Abels, and George Molyneaux – that sheriffs were an important cog in the machinery of the eleventh-century English administration. The emergence of this official, beginning in the late tenth century, significantly impacted the exercise and reach of royal power. But what do we know of the men who operated in the office of sheriff in the last decades of the pre-Conquest period?

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Anglo-Norman Studies XLV
Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2022
, pp. 61 - 76
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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