Canterbury became a County of itself by Royal Charter in 1448 under the Lancastrian King, Henry VI, with the bailiffs answering to the King for the fee farm, and taking over duties previously undertaken by the High Sheriff of Kent. The role of Town Sheriff was therefore created in all but name. The Charter creating Canterbury as a City and County was granted by Edward IV in 1461, in return for Canterbury lending its support and giving a large sum of money. The role of Sheriff, who was originally known as the “Sherwick”, was confirmed by this charter.
The Sheriff was elected from among the Common Councillors of the City and had to take an oath before the Mayor or his Deputy in the Guildhall, and not elsewhere, within four days of his election. He was then called upon to give a dinner to the whole House of Burghmote or pay a fine of £3.6s.8d. if he refused. Thomas Giles was so fined in 1562.
The Sheriff was responsible for the discharge out of the Royal Exchequer of the money demanded of the City for the fee farm of the city until 1837. He and his Undersheriff appear to have spent a great deal of time and money in suing their Quietus (receipts for payment of debt) in the Exchequer, so much so that it was small wonder that the City complained. In 1652 the sum spent was £3.7s.10d., but by 1719 it had risen to £26.13s 0d. In 1765 it was over £52.
The Sheriff was not paid a salary, but collected fees of all sorts: £40 for a conviction for burglary or felony; various casual profiles such as deodands (payments due if a person’s chattels had caused a death, usually a horse); payments for executions; court fees. In the 1630s there was a great deal of trouble over payment of the Sheriff’s expenses because they were numerous, small and difficult to estimate. These claims for expenses from the Burghmote led to endless arguments over many years. In the end the City agreed to be liable for them all.
The Sheriff sat at Quarter Sessions and was also responsible for arranging executions, having coffins and gallows made, buying ropes and so on. In July 1635 there is mention of 13d. disbursed at the execution of Susan Whentnall. £1.17s 5d. was allowed the gaoler for carrying up one Moore, a supposed popish priest who spoke treasonable words again King Charles I in extolling the Pope’s supremacy in 1641; in 1653 one of the Town sergeants was paid £4.10s. 0d. in connection with the execution of William Lee, who was executed for poisoning his wife.
These sums were allowed on the Sheriff’s account each time. In 1661 the Sheriff was paid £3.8s.2d. in connection with the execution of some witches; and 30s. he had paid out to the King’s footmen then in the City. Each time he obtained a conviction for felony or burglary he was paid £40. From 1725 this was paid out of the Common Fund.
The Sheriff could be fined for non-attendance on the Mayor or at the Cathedral. In 1570 the Sheriff was fined 3s 4d for “wearing his beard”, while in 1587 the Sheriff, Mark Berry, was allowed to wear his hat in Burghmote due to a “disease in his head”, presumably a skin infection.
Other than these duties, he was generally in attendance on the Mayor and was fined 3d. for every non-attendance. From 1652 he was expected to attend in the Cathedral every Sunday on pain of a fine of 10s.
In 1787 a special Chain of Office was purchased for the Sheriff. From 1837 onwards the Sheriff of Kent was also Sheriff of Canterbury, although separately accepted. When the Courts of Quarter Sessions were abolished in 1972, his Office became an honorary one, and still is.
A furious argument broke out in 1910 about the Sheriff’s position at the Proclamation of King George V, probably because of an accusation that the Mayor was engaging in party politics.