Magna Carta: Essex Connections – Hugh de Neville

In the run up to Magna Carta: Essex Connections we take a more detailed look at the Essex connections of Hugh de Neville, a friend of King John who eventually rebelled against him.

Hugh de Neville appears a witness in the royal grant of 2 May 1203 that we hold here at ERO (D/DB T1437/1). He was King John’s Chief Forester, one of the great officers of state, and is named in Magna Carta as one of John’s officials – the men whom the chronicler Roger of Wendover referred to as the king’s ‘evil councillors’. One of the aims of Magna Carta was to curb the powers of royal positions such as Chief Forester.

D-DB T1437-1 Hugh de Neville

Hugh de Neville named in a royal charter of 1203 (D/DB T1437/1)

Before John’s reign, Hugh de Neville had served briefly under Henry II, then throughout the reign of Richard I, fighting with him on the Third Crusade. The Essex historian Revd. Philip Morant records that ‘he performed a valorous exploit, by shooting an arrow into a Lion’s breast, and when he rose against him, catching him by the beard, and running his sword into his heart’. This feat was represented on his seal.

Hugh was given lands by both Richard and John, many of them in Essex. Over time he acquired the manors of Langham, Wethersfield, Little Hallingbury and Abbots in East Horndon and served as sheriff of Essex, 1197-1200 and 1202-1203.

Despite being on friendly terms with King John for most of his reign, de Neville appears to have suffered as a result of John’s philandering. John had a reputation for forcing himself on the wives of his courtiers.  A French chronicler wrote that he was ‘too desirous of fair women … by which he brought great shame upon the highest men of the land, for which he was much hated’. A chronicler in Yorkshire wrote of John that he ‘deflowered the wives and daughters of the nobility, spared the wives of none whom he chose to stain with the ardour of his desires’. The Oblate Roll for Christmas 1204 recorded that Joan ‘the wife of Hugh de Neville gives the lord King 200 chickens that she might lie one night with her lord’ (i.e. paying the King to allow her a night with her own husband).

John moved quickly to rescind the Magna Carta and the rebel barons invited Prince Louis of France to take the English throne. Louis arrived with an army in May 1216, and this is when de Neville finally abandoned John and joined the rebel barons. When John died and his son became Henry III, de Neville pledged his loyalty to him.

De Neville died in 1234, and was buried in Waltham Abbey.

I-Mb 385-1-86

The interior of Waltham Abbey, 1860 (I/Mb 385/1/86)

There is more to come in our Magna Carta series, but in the meantime get in touch on 033301 32500 to book your ticket for Magna Carta: Essex Connections.

Magna Carta: Essex Connections

To explore the significance and legacy of this famous document, both nationally and for Essex, join us for talks from:

  • Nicholas Vincent, Professor of Medieval History at the University of East Anglia, who has been leading a major project researching the background to Magna Carta
  • Katharine Schofield, ERO Archivist, on Essex connections with Magna Carta and the impact it had on the medieval county

Saturday 23 May, 1.15pm for 1.30am-4.15pm

Tickets: £8, including tea, coffee and cake

Please book in advance on 033301 32500

The lives and times of the High Sheriffs of Essex

Today at ERO, we welcomed a number of High Sheriffs of Essex, past and present, to a reception hosted by Cllr Kay Twitchen, Chairman of Essex County Council, to mark the deposit of a unique set of records.


One of the High Sheriff’s journals which has been deposited at ERO

Would you like to know where to find a trumpeter, or how much it costs to put on a good garden party, or how to deal with a really cold judge?  These and other more serious questions will soon have better answers thanks to the High Sheriffs of Essex.

When asked to think of a sheriff, our mental picture library might supply a greedy, grasping figure (possibly played by Alan Rickman), predictably defeated by the rather less interesting forces of goodness and virtue.  Beyond that, usually, nothing.  Considering that with the exception of the Crown itself the shrievalty is the oldest public office in England, this is a pity, but it is about to become less true.

High Sheriffs past and present gathered at ERO, hosted by Cllr Kay Twitchen (in red jacket)

High Sheriffs past and present gathered at ERO, hosted by Cllr Kay Twitchen (second from right)


Former High Sheriffs looking at documents relating to the history of the role which are held at ERO


The High Sheriff of Essex for 2014, Mr Nicholas Charrington (centre)


Looking in one of our storerooms to see the conditions in which the journals will be kept

The post of High Sheriff dates back to before the Norman Conquest. The origins of the post are in Saxon times – the title of ‘reeve’ was used for senior officers with local responsibility to the king within the shire, and over time ‘shire reeve’ became ‘sheriff’.

In Anglo-Saxon England the sheriff was responsible for the maintenance of law and order through the system of tithings, groups of approximately 10 men who were bound together in mutual assurance. All able-bodied men aged 12-60 had to belong to a tithing, and each man in the group was responsible for the good behaviour of each of the others. They were bound to observe and uphold the law; if a member of tithing broke the law then the others were obliged to report the culprit and deliver him to the constable, failure to do this would result in everybody in the tithing being fined. The sheriff was responsible for inspecting the tithings (although after the Norman Conquest many lords of the manor acquired the right to do this for themselves).

Under the Norman regime the sheriff was the means of enforcing (literally) the King’s writ in the localities, with the authority to summon the posse comitatus (county force or power) to help maintain law and order. The sheriff discovered criminals and delivered them to the royal courts for judgement and executed writs issued by the Crown. In addition the sheriff supervised Crown lands in the county and handed over the revenue to the Exchequer and he could also compulsorily requisition food and supplies for the King (e.g. to fight war). With no oversight from central government, these powers could give the sheriff opportunities for extortion and corruption (hence the Sheriff of Nottingham).

The sheriff also presided over the shire court (the shire courts along with the hundred courts are thought to be one of the means by which Domesday Book was compiled in 1086). From the mid-13th century knights of the shire were elected in the shire court to sit in Parliament and coroners were also elected there. The last duties of the shire court only passed to county courts in 1886 with the County Courts Act.

The medieval sheriffs were also over-burdened with routine business (they have been described as ‘workhorses’ of medieval local government) which meant that law enforcement could be patchy and on occasions arbitrary. As early as 1327 ‘good and lawful men’ were appointed in every county to ‘guard the peace’, called conservators or wardens of the peace and in 1361 justices of the peace were created. In the 1540s lord lieutenants were appointed to take over the military duties of the sheriff.

By 1881 when the High Sheriffs of Essex started to keep the record books which are being deposited with ERO, they had long given up persecuting peasants.  Their real powers and duties were, in fact, quite limited.  This makes their later history a fascinating parallel to that of the monarchy itself: an exercise in finding new roles, while still keeping up appearances.  This was not always easy.

Essex County Council, 1892. Andrew Johnston, the Council's first Chairman and the High Sheriff who began the journals, is in the top centre of the photograph, sitting aside the cannon which used to be outside Chelmsford's Shire Hall

Essex County Council, 1892. Andrew Johnston, the Council’s first Chairman and the High Sheriff who began the journals, is in the top centre of the photograph, sitting aside the cannon which used to be outside Chelmsford’s Shire Hall

At first they were concerned especially with the expenses of an un-salaried office set about by all sorts of costly ceremonies (hence the trumpeters, part of the formal escort provided by the sheriffs for the assize judges when they visited Chelmsford).  From about 1890, however, sheriffs started to write more general reflections on their year of office.  In 1916 one sheriff’s car broke down on the way to the assizes, leaving him and his chaplain to complete their journey to Chelmsford ‘in an open hawker’s cart’.  In 1959, when the hot water system at the judges’ lodgings failed during the Winter Assizes, the High Sheriff ‘nearly had [his] neck wrung’, the judges threatened to leave for London forthwith, and the sheriff ended up having to stoke the boiler himself.

Even so, during the 20th century the sheriffs were able to simplify many of their office’s remaining ceremonial duties and to develop a new social role.  Today’s High Sheriffs continue to attend on visiting High Court judges, and, together with the Lords Lieutenant, to act more generally as the Crown’s local representatives, especially, in their case, in areas of crime and punishment.  They also work to promote the voluntary sector.  A mainly symbolic role, maybe, but who says that symbols are not important?