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1,000-Year English Tradition Goes Online for First Time in History

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The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted daily life around the world. It has also interfered with many historic traditions and ceremonies. A 1000-year-old swearing-in of a sheriff was not able to take place in North Yorkshire, England because of the lock-down currently underway. But technology ensured the high sheriff declaration ceremony did take place, as it has for a millennium, just in a unique medium!

The office of High Sheriff dates back to the Anglo-Saxons. It is believed that the name derives from an Old English word for a royal official. In the Middle Ages, the sheriff was responsible for the safety of the local community in Yorkshire and the enforcement of various laws.

This historic ceremony involves the swearing-in of the high sheriff, a ceremonial officer. The ceremony has traditionally taken place in the Assize Court in the historic city of York. It confirms the Queen’s appointment of an individual as high sheriff for a year. This ceremony is usually conducted with great solemnity and rituals. However because of the current restrictions as a result of the pandemic, the ceremony could not take place in York as scheduled.

The declaration ceremony of Mr. Kerfoot as High Sheriff of North Yorkshire could not be held in York due to the pandemic. Source: YouTube Screenshot

The declaration ceremony of Mr. Kerfoot as High Sheriff of North Yorkshire could not be held in York due to the pandemic. Source: YouTube Screenshot

The Pandemic Led to a Virtual Court

Instead of postponing the ritual, the legal authorities decided to use technology to hold the declaration ceremony. It was decided to swear in the new high sheriff in his home. The ceremony was broadcast live to the public. This virtual ceremony broke ‘more than 1,000 years of tradition’ according to the Northern Echo . It has always taken place in a law court in York, even during wars and various political crises.

The virtual court and the ceremony were presided over by Judge Sean Morris, the Recorder of York, who opened the ceremony that took place in the living room of Mr. Kerfoot’s home, in Ainderby Steeple, North Yorkshire.

Enacting an Ancient Ritual this Way is a “Sign of the Times”

Judge Morris opened the ceremony with the following words “All persons with anything to do before her majesty’s crown court draw near and give your attendance, we are now in court” according to The Darlington and Stockton Times . He informed  Mr. Kerfoot that he “had been chosen by the monarch in an ancient ritual in which a silver dagger pierced a roll of names before the appointment was approved by Privy Council,” according to the Northern Echo . This ritual may date back to the reign of Elizabeth I and is known as ‘Pricking.’

Queen Elizabeth I. (Public Domain) The ritual to choose the sheriff may date back to the reign of Elizabeth I and is known as ‘Pricking.’

Queen Elizabeth I. ( Public Domain ) The ritual to choose the sheriff may date back to the reign of Elizabeth I and is known as ‘Pricking.’

Mr. Kerfoot established a successful local business with his wife and he has many years of community service. His wife placed the badge of the office around his neck. The new sheriff swore to uphold the laws and to remain loyal to the monarch and serve her subjects. Judge Morris told the Northern Echo that “After all that ceremony going back all those years, century on centuries, this is the first, as far as I am aware, ever ceremony that has been held on computer. That is a sign of the times.”

An Anglo-Saxon Tradition

Among the duties of a High Sheriff was raising taxes and overseeing the local militia. The sheriff could also raise “a hue and cry,” reports the Northern Echo . This meant that the local citizens had to help him to apprehend a criminal or maintain law and order. It is believed that the American office of sheriff ultimately derives from the English legal official of the same name.

Sir John Hotham, Sheriff of Yorkshire, 1634-35 (public domain)

Sir John Hotham, Sheriff of Yorkshire, 1634-35 (public domain)

Since the 16th century, the powers of this representative of the monarch have been slowly stripped away. Under the Sheriffs Act of 1887, the office became largely a ceremonial one. Nonetheless, the office still has some theoretical powers, such as the ability to raise a posse of local people. The North Yorkshire high sheriff also issues awards to individuals and groups who have contributed to the judicial process in the area.

The Ceremony Reached a Worldwide Audience

The ancient ceremony was streamed on YouTube and it was watched by people from all around the world. Mr. Kerfoot was congratulated by many people, who said they found the Shrievalty declaration ceremony uplifting and that having it in a private home did not detract from the solemnity or spectacle.

Mr. Kerfoot told The Darlington and Stockton Times that the ‘Shrievalty is not as well-known as it could be and this has given it a much wider audience’. Mr. Kerfoot hopes to use the annual high sheriff awards to not only recognize those who contribute to the judicial process but also the many people who are helping others during the coronavirus pandemic in North Yorkshire.

Top image: Portrait of an historical governor. Credit: ysbrandcosijn / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

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