The office of High Sheriff is an ancient one, being the oldest continuous secular office in the UK, and one that dates back nearly 1,000 years.  The name originates from the Anglo Saxon scirgerefa, with the Shire being the area of jurisdiction for which the Reeve (the King's representative) reported to the King on matters of law.  (The word ‘County” is derived from the Latin term comitatus used after the Norman conquest of 1066 to describe the Shire).

The first documentary evidence of the Sheriff in England occurs in the reign of the West Saxon King Althestan (924-939) and by the time of Ethelred II “the Unready” (978-1016), the Sheriffs were a regular and established part of government structure.  The Sheriffs proved successful tax-gatherers and, under the Saxon kings, they became the Monarch’s trusted administrators within the Shires.  After the Conquest in 1066, the Norman Kings expanded this role and the Shrievalty remained at the heart of national administration for hundreds of years.

In Ireland, the role of the Sheriff developed rather differently from England with records indicating the appointment of John Mandeville as Sheriff of Co Down in 1326.   By the 17th Century, the High Sheriffs presided over a form of local government called the ‘Grand Jury’ of which there were forty in Ireland with at least one for each County.  The powers of the Sheriffs were amended by The Grand Jury (Ireland) Act of 1836 and The Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898.  In 1900 Sir James Henderson was the first to take on the position in the newly created County Borough of the City of Belfast, followed by Otto Jaffe in 1901 - although The Sheriffs (Ireland) Act 1920 restricted the duties of the High Sheriff to summoning the County Grand Jury and attending the Judge at assizes.

There are currently eight Sheriffs in Northern Ireland - one for each county, and one for each county borough (the cities of Londonderry and Belfast) - and the appointment is officially made by the Secretary of State on behalf of the Monarch. As the Sovereign's judicial representative in the County, the Sheriff is invited to greet members of the Royal Family or Heads of State if they visit County Down, and receives High Court Judges should they be presiding at a Court in the County. The Sheriff will also receive a range of invitations to social and ceremonial functions in the area.

The role of High Sheriff for the County of Down is unpaid and no public expenses are attached to the duties.