Division into Counties

In England, the country had been divided into shires prior to the Norman Conquest.  Each shire and each hundred had its own court.  The shire court met twice a year and the hundred every month. The shire court was presided over by the local sheriff who was a president, not a judge.

The Norman’s created shires in Ireland gradually.  The Munster counties were organised in shires by the beginning of the 13th century.  The liberties, Leinster, Ulster and Meath were outside the shire organisation and had their own organisation.

Ulster and Meath came into the King’s hands in the early 13th century and were administered by royal officials described as seneschals, not sheriffs. Other areas outside of Connacht had developing shires by the middle of the 13th century.  Connacht was a shire by 1247.

Through the 13th century, the shires took shape by  subdivision and reversion of certain of the liberties to the crown. At certain points, liberties were restored, but might later pass back into the hands of the crown.  Liberties were granted to the Great Earl families including the Butlers, Desmonds and Ormonds.

There existed enclaves within liberties which were subject to royal sheriffs and  reserved to the crown.  This included certain church lands and cross lands. By the reign of Edward III; the cross lands were organised at separate counties with their own sheriffs. Counties were subdivided into cantreds which later became baronies corresponding to the English hundred.

County Courts

The Suitors of the Court, being the freemen of the shire, declared the customary law.  Trials might be by oath or ordeal. Both civil and criminal matters were dealt as well as  administrative business.

The King’s commands were published.  In the course of the 12th century, shire courts were held monthly and hundreds courts at intervals of three weeks.


Initially, sheriffs were appointed by the justiciar or the crown. By the middle of the 14th century, the consent of the justiciar, chancellor and others in council was required.  Later, the  King ordered that  each county elect sheriff annually and that the sheriff be obliged to account for his issues to the exchequer. The sheriff was responsible for the collection at the bulk of revenue of the crown and had  to account to it receiving allowance for sums ordered to be spent locally.

When the justiciars or justices in eyre held sessions; the sheriff was responsible for bringing pleas and persons before them.  He is responsible for custody of prisoners and was ordered to  levy debts recovered and execute royal writs of all kinds.

The sheriff was president of the county court and responsible for its business both judicial and administrative business. The sheriff’s tourns were held twice yearly in each barony,  dealing with a wide variety of administrative and judicial matters, deciding lesser offences.  More serious matters were reserved for the royal judges.

The sheriff might be directed by the central government to do anything necessary within the county.  In later times, the military functions of the sheriff were of greater importance in Ireland than in England.

Other Officers

The sheriff was assisted by sub-sheriff’s, clerks and receivers.  He had a  body of sergeants to do most routine work including collecting debts and serving writ. Sergeants held their office directly from the King and were not subjected to complete control by the sheriff.

The coroner was an officer of government with special duties, the  including holding of inquests on dead bodies, organising outlawries, forfeiting land or goods to the crown together with certain other functions.  He might be obliged together with the sheriff to perform other functions as may be required.  He was elected by the oath of 12 men in the county court.

Keepers of the Peace

Keepers of the peace date back to the end of the 12th century.  In England knights were appointed as keepers of the peace to assist the sheriff to maintain order.  The offices were found in Ireland by the end of the  13th century.

A statute of 1285 required every free man to equip himself with arms according to the amount of his property.  In every county, the justiciar was to appoint two lawful knights of that county to enforce the peace.  The numbers of keepers of peace might be several in each barony with a chief keeper of peace for the whole county.

Their commission required them to assess and array all men of those parts between the ages of 16 and 60 so that they might be ready and prepare to set out in the King’s service whatever and whenever necessary to fight felons and rebels as well as English and Irish invading those  parts.  They had power to arrest and commit to prison all those disobedient to the assessment and array.

By the end of the 14th century, they were to enquire concerning felons and commit them, sending indictments before the lieutenant.  By the beginning of the 15th century, there were commissioned as justices and keepers of the peace. The older appointment as keepers of the peace also continued.

Kings Jurisdiction in Liberties

The Liberties dated back to the beginnings of the Norman conquest.  Charters or  liberties were granted to local magnates and earls within their own areas. The holder would be in a position, almost  equivalent to King with control of his  own administration and jurisdiction to the exclusion of the royal officials.

The King reserved himself pleas of the crown jurisdiction in error, crosslands and church lands within the liberty. The pleas of the crown referred to arson, rape, treasure trove and forestall. There were differences in the extent in which the royal writs ran in different liberties.

Bracton, the influential legal writer regarded certain rights as inherent in the crown which could not be separated from it.  In such cases, the jurisdiction and rights were exercised only as delegates of the King.  The officeholder might be deprived of his franchise if he did not exercise it in accordance with laws.  He was obliged to exercise royal writs within his lordship. Only if the lord failed to execute a writ, could the King’s sheriff be especially authorised to enter a liberty to execute it.


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