Nottingham has had a Sheriff for about a thousand years. In fact, from 1449 to 1835 it had two and for a short time in 1682 it even had four.
After the Norman Conquest, the city was divided into two parts: one for the French and the other for the Saxons. Each was to have its own Sheriff but at first there was only one – a High Sheriff who was master of Nottingham(shire), Derbyshire and the Royal Forest. The menacing medieval castle which stood on Nottingham’s Castle Rock was the seat of his power. He collected taxes, punished wrongdoers and, as a Frenchman, became a hated symbol of Norman repression. As Nottingham grew in importance interference by the King’s officer, whose primary concern was the royal forests of Sherwood and the High Peak, became even more bitterly resented. But, it was many years before Nottingham escaped his attentions.
The first step came in 1189 when the city was given the right to choose its own tax gatherer. Then, in 1284, Nottingham was permitted to elect two bailiffs to execute writs, appoint a Mayor and hold a November fair. The (High) Sheriff continued to interfere in the administration of the City until 1449 when the Great Charter gave it County status.
As the two boroughs had not yet merged into one, the charter provided for the appointment of two Sheriffs. They were chosen every year from among the burgesses, leading citizens with full rights, and were responsible for law and order, carrying out the King’s instructions and levying his dues.
Nomination for the office was not always welcome and there were many cases of those elected paying fines to be excused. Those who accepted office retained the right to wear their official crimson gowns after their year in authority and were said to belong to livery or clothing burgesses.
There are records, too, of Sheriffs being fined for refusing to provide the City Council with a traditional dinner. One, who was bankrupt, was removed from office by no less a figure than the Attorney General. There was another scandal in 1682 when rivalry between two factions led to the City having, for a short period, two Mayors and two pairs of Sheriffs.
Nottingham continued with two royal officers until the Municipal Reform Act of 1835, long after the original distinction between the English and Norman boroughs had ceased to exist. However, something of this tradition remains, as today’s Sheriff still has two silver maces which precede him in procession. These, incidentally, cost £10 each in 1669 and the Sheriffs who bought them were each reimbursed by succeeding office holders, less ten shillings, until they were paid for.
The Sheriff’s wand is a plain mahogany staff five feet long with a silver top. It bears the city arms, the inscription “Villa Nottnghamia” and the date 1627. In 1836, the year after the last double holding of the office, the head of one of the wands disappeared and did not turn up again until 1928. It had evidently been kept by one office holder as a souvenir.
The Sheriff’s present chain of office dates from 1958 and replaced one given to the city in 1881.
To discover which of the early Sheriffs, if any, was in conflict with Robin Hood is as difficult as providing conclusive proof of the existence of the legendary outlaw himself. Sheriffs like Philip Marc or Mark and John de Oxenford are known to have caused unrest and resentment in the Middle Ages for the corrupt way they enforced the law and levied taxes. But there is no evidence to link them with Robin Hood.
Today the Sheriff of Nottingham fulfills a mainly ceremonial role, a much loved figure who can be relied upon to promote the interests of his beautiful city all around the world.