Friday, 20 December 2013

The High Sheriff of Shropshire

A few afternoons ago I had Shropshire’s current High Sheriff over for tea. Very nice it was, too. From the moment she arrived I don’t think either of us stopped talking. In her London days, Diana Flint used to be a picture researcher for Thames & Hudson, a subject of interest to me. However, I was good. I stuck to my brief.  I knew nothing about the ancient post of High Sheriff, which was why I’d issued the invitation. We weren’t here to talk about fine art publishing, but the mysterious world of royal appointments.

Diana Flint was installed as High Sheriff of Shropshire on 5th April 2013 at Shrewsbury Castle. Her roots go back a long way in the county. Her family has farmed near Ellesmere since the mid nineteenth century, and in 1997 she and her husband Charles returned to take over the farm.

Diana was educated at boarding school in Hertfordshire, returned to Shropshire at sixteen and became the first girl at Ellesmere College before going on to university. In her London days, she worked voluntarily as secretary of The Camberwell Society. Then after returning to Shropshire, she volunteered to work for The Art Fund, for whom she served as Shropshire Committee chairman for ten years. She also became involved in supporting her local church at Dudleston Heath. 

It’s something of a leap, however, from working for the Art Fund and supporting the local church to becoming High Sheriff. How did this come about? By what arcane process was Diana selected? For most people, including me, the office of High Sheriff is a mystery. What do High Sheriffs actually do? What are the links between their modern role and the historic one?  Does the office differ regionally? How would anybody recognize a High Sheriff on the street?  Are there any likenesses at all between those silver-starrred men with their lantern jaws, who kept law and order in the Wild West, and somebody like Diana Flint in Shropshire today? 

The likeness, it turns out, lies in the words ‘law and order’.  As High Sheriff, Diana Flint is the Queen’s representative for law and order in Shropshire, including everything to do with the Judiciary. Hers is an apolitical role, so perhaps it’s fitting that she’s the official Returning Officer for parliamentary elections. Hers, too, is the responsibility for proclaiming the accession of a new Sovereign and she also is present with the Lord Lieutenant for any Royal visits to the county. In addition, if a High Court judge visits Shropshire, it’s Diana's responsibility to entertain him or her.
These days you wouldn’t expect our High Sheriff to put on a show of Shrewsbury schoolboys wreathed in green willow orating on the shores of the Severn upon the arrival/departure of any High Court judge [see my post on Sir Henry Sidney’s heart]. However, this venerable position goes back a thousand years, and it does come with a degree of ceremony. Diana may not have turned up in full kit for afternoon tea, but there are occasions when she would. 

The ladies costume for High Sheriffs, Diana told me, like the men’s, harkens back to the 18th century. A certain freedom of choice, however, has allowed for her to opt for a knee-length dark green velvet coat, designed by herself, with antique buttons. In addition, a hat decorated with ostrich feather, lace jabot around the neck, and cuffs finished with lace, [in Diana's case handmade in Ireland, passed down through her husband’s family from his great great-grandmother] are all necessary elements of the female High Sheriff's garb.   

Men, Diana said, carry swords as well. In her case, as a lady High Sheriff, should the occasion require [for, say, the church service held for the Legal Services in March] she could have one carried behind her ceremonially on a cushion.

This highlighted not only with the venerable nature of the role, and the ceremony attached to it, but was a link to its history. The office of High Sheriff would once have been held responsible for looking after royal properties, collecting taxes and presenting them to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This would literally have meant laying out the money on the Chancellor’s table [covered with a checkered cloth, from which the title ‘of Exchequer’ is supposed to derive] in the full knowledge that if it wasn’t as much as expected, the High Sheriff would have to make up the shortfall.

Hardly surprisingly, given his [it always was a ‘his’ until modern times] position, the High Sheriff of a county was a powerful man. So powerful that, in order to keep High Sheriffs in check [remember the power wielded by the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood’s day?] Henry VIII created the role of Lord Lieutenant, with a mandate to raise armies for the king. This position of Lord Lieutenant was a lifetime appointment, ‘life’ being seen to extent to the age of seventy-five. Modern High Sheriffs, however, are appointed on a yearly basis.

‘You’ll know four years in advance that you’re going to become High Sheriff,’ Diana said.  ‘Your name is submitted to the County Consultative Panel, which here in Shropshire is made up of a group of people from all over the county, including members independent of the High Sheriff's office. Nominations are discussed and the current High Sheriff will propose a name to the Privy Council. The nominee will be written to, to ascertain whether they are happy to be appointed, and then their name will be read out by the Queen’s Remembrancer at an annual Nomination Ceremony in the Royal Courts of Justice in London. This has to happen three times, on three consecutive years before being submitted to the Queen for her approval. This means, in effect, that you have three years in advance to learn about the role.
This process is greatly helped by the High Sheriffs’ Association’s annual training day at Burleigh. The Association was set up in 1998 in order to give the office a more transparent public face. Annually it provides prospective High Sheriffs with presentations on the history of the office and its modern practices.  Then, more locally, an annual West Midlands training day will take place. The actual appointment, three years after being nominated, takes place in the Privy Council at what’s known as the Pricking Ceremony.
Rare note from court of Elizabeth I to High Sheriff of Shropshire
This is one of those weird Gormenghastly events that are a feature of ceremonial life in any country with a long enough history. The idea behind the Pricking Ceremony is that not everybody called upon to become a High Sheriff would once have seen the office as an honour – in some cases there may even have been individuals who attempted to get out of it. However, the pricking of their name on vellum with a bodkin by the monarch would have made it impossible for them to claim that they had never been the nominated candidate.
So, why would a person not want to be High Sheriff, given all the prestige, not to say anything of power, that once came with the role? ‘It could have been the expense,’ Diana suggested. ‘Becoming a High Sheriff brought with it a financial burden.  Even today, though modern High Sheriffs don’t have to pay a shortfall in taxes, the role still comes at a certain cost. It’s not a role paid for out of the public purse. High Sheriffs take the expenses of the year upon themselves.’
Hosting events is one of the expectations of a modern High Sheriff.  Maintaining the dignity of the office is of prime importance. Within the county, the High Sheriff is second in seniority and precedence only to the Lord Lieutenant and attends events as one of the Queen's representatives.   

The responsibility for some events may occasionally be shared cross-borders, as when Diana teamed up with Clywd’s High Sheriff, Celia Jenkins, to honour volunteers at the Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry. But throughout her year as Shropshire’s High Sheriff, the focus of Dian'a time will be spent supporting the Judiciary, the magistrates, the probation service and the forces of law and order, amongst which duties she'll ocasionally sit with County Court Judges, Coroner and Magistrates in court.  
High Sheriff with Lord Rees of Ludlow
Next March, prior to the annual church service to recognize the work of the legal services in the county, Diana will host a lunch for County Court Judges, senior members of the clergy and Chiefs of Police. After the service, tea will be provided for the whole congregation. Last October at the High Sheriff’s Party, which raised over £5,500 for Hope House, Diana invited one of the world's foremost scientists,  the Astronomer Royal [also recent President of the Royal Society], Lord Rees of Ludlow, to give a lecture .  The event was held at Enginuity, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, and Lord Rees, as a Shropshire man, spoke on ‘Challenges for Science in the 20th Century, from Darwin to Telford.’ It was an unforgettable evening, Diana said.   

Evenings like this give Diana the opportunity to stamp her personality upon the office of High Sheriff.  So, too, does her charity work. During her year as High Sheriff, Diana is supporting the county's museums and galleries as well as a variety of charities. She has a particular interest in the work of the county’s many volunteers, especially those working in the justice system. A visit to the Midlands Air Ambulance shop, for example, to encourage its volunteers on their first anniversary, or to see the work of the Probation Service in Telford, or the Police Cadets in Shrewsbury and Telford are all special events. So, too, is visiting the Probation Service rehabitilion institution at Willowdene Farm, where drug and alcohol offenders learn skills to enable them to return to the community with proper jobs.  Willowdene takes pride in its 90% non-re-offending rate for young women who are in a residential unit at the farm.

There are no two days alike.  One may see Diana meeting volunteers at the Dogs’ Trust,  another celebrating the work of Shrewsbury’s latest young troop of police cadets, and yet another presenting awards - the police’s Young Good Citizen Awards and the Fire Service Bravery Awards amongst them.  
The position of High Sheriff may seem mysterious to some people and a throw-back to history to others. Certainly it's the oldest secular office in our country outside of the monarchy, but the really interesting thing about it is that its entire reason for being is to work for the good of the community.  Diana Flint sees her year as an opportunity to showcase some of what's best about our county.  You can only want to support an endeavour like that.  'According to a former Bishop of Liverpool,' Diana told me, 'High Sheriffs exist to identify the good and shine light upon it. And that's what my year in office means to me.’

High Sheriff of Shropshire's Arms


No comments:

Post a Comment