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The English sheriff - from shire-reeve, county official - was the mainstay of the administrative system, the principal channel between the government and the county community and county court. Sheriffs were also much involved in the management of the royal estates, much to their own profit. As Professor Barlow has observed, 'as well as the king's estate agent and tax gatherer', the sheriff was 'his immediate and omnicompetent executive officer'.
As with most other aspects of the administrative system, the sheriff was inherited from the Anglo-Saxon administration. There were baronial sheriffs in some areas, notably in the Sussex Rapes, and in Cheshire, Cornwall, and Shropshire. Anglo-Norman sheriffs had a reputation for rapacity, a reputation which Domesday Book tends to corroborate. The three most notorious - Eustace of Huntingdon, Picot of Cambridge, and Urso of Abetot - were denounced in often picturesque language by monastic chroniclers. Picot was 'the ravening wolf, the cunning fox', and the misdeeds of Urso moved the chronicler to verse:
Hattest though Urse,
have thou God's curse
All three sheriffs were the subject of claims in Domesday Book.
Sheriffs varied considerably in landed wealth but the wealthiest of them were among the richest men in the kingdom, three of them being ranked among the top 100. Another characteristic shared by many sheriffs was the large number of tenants-in-chief from whom some of them held land. Half-a-dozen sheriffs each held estates from no fewer than six different tenants-in-chief.
For further detail, see W.A. Morris, The medieval English sheriff to 1300 (1927); Judith A. Green, 'The sheriffs of William the Conqueror', Anglo-Norman Studies, vol. 5 (1983), pages 129-45; English sheriffs to 1154, edited by Judith A. Green (1990); Richard P. Abels, 'Sheriffs, lord-seeking and the Norman settlement of the south-east midlands', Anglo-Norman Studies, vol. 19 (1997), pages 19-50; John J.N. Palmer, 'The wealth of the secular aristocracy in 1086', Anglo-Norman Studies, vol. 22 (2000), pages 279-91; and Frank Barlow, William Rufus (new edition, 2000).