Sheriff Fiona has never had to raise an army

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THE High Sheriff of Northumberland, Reverend Fiona Sample, talked to Morpeth Rotary Club members about the ancient role and how it works today.

She wore the traditional costume of lace jabot, green velvet jacket, silver buttons, buckled shoes and ostrich feather – “Who says the pantomime season is over?” she joked.

It is based on court dress from the 1800s and all except the silver buttons were made in Northumberland.

High Sheriff is the oldest secular office in Britain and the first 1,000 years were celebrated in 1992.

Equality has featured well in the past, with the first woman being appointed by King John as High Sheriff of Lincoln when she was 66. The next woman was in office in 1660 and then there was a long gap up to 1967. The first woman High Sheriff in Northumberland was appointed in 1984.

The role was immensely powerful at the start as they were the King’s representative in each county. Their job was to raise armies, enforce his law and collect taxes.

At the end of each financial year in April, they were required to attend at court with the gold that had been collected.

It was laid out on a chequer board to decide if all went to the King or if there were legitimate expenses for the Sheriff in the county. This was overseen by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Board.

The office continued to be powerful until an Act in 1887 took away the power to run prisons, administer justice and enforce the peace.

It had always been a responsibility to entertain High Court judges and that is there today as the High Sheriff still hosts a dinner for them.

They were once able to stay for months at the Sheriff’s expense, but that sometimes led to bankruptcy.

Judges going on to Cumbria were given a dagger and money as it was regarded as one of the most dangerous places to travel to on the highways.

Selection is by committee and names are sent to the Queen. Selection is by the sovereign pricking the name on vellum with a bodkin.

There is a strong modern relationship between the High Sheriff and the blue light services and armed forces in the local area.

The bulk of the work is, however, linked with the voluntary sector in supporting and promoting projects in the community, especially those helping young people.

The Oswin Project, which helps youngsters who have served prison sentences to get into work, is one of the most recent.

The High Sheriff has an award fund that can give grants of between £200 and £2,000 for worthy projects. So far this year, 42 awards have been made.