William Heron and the Fine Rolls

William Heron, sheriff of Northumberland from 1246 to 1258, was a wicked sheriff to rival the sheriff of Nottingham of legend – greedy, arbitrary and dishonest. This of course made him great fun to write about, in an article which has just been published in Northern History.

The fine rolls provided several helpful pieces of information, particularly about the way in which Heron’s son, also William, succeeded to his father’s estates, and his debts (CFR 1257-58, 340-2). William senior died in office, owing the Exchequer over £1,100. This is an enormous sum, at a time when an income of £15 a year was enough for a knight. It appears that Heron had either failed to collect sums due to the government, such as amercements from the eyre of 1256, or, more likely, had collected them and failed to deliver them to the Exchequer. There is at least one case where this definitely happened: the earl of Strathearn owed £100 for having custody of his daughters; he paid this to Heron, as Heron’s receiver acknowledged, but the cash was not passed on.

William junior was under age – he was 18 when his father died – but was allowed to succeed to his estates, on paying (or promising to pay) a 100 mark fine. This debt was rolled in with the sheriff’s debts, and William junior undertook to repay the total £1,200 – at the rate of £40 a year. This may seem generous compared to the size of the debt, but it is hard to see how William junior could seriously have expected to find the money from the estates he had inherited, which were valued at just £37 a year. Unsurprisingly, it took many years for him to begin repayments. Thirty years later, in 1288, when he should have finished paying off the debt, he still owed £315, although he did make a further £40 payment that year.

William Heron senior not only exploited the county by imposing arbitrary penalties and inventing new obligations, but also defrauded the government, as much of the money he collected evidently stayed in his own pocket. The fine rolls added useful detail about the way in which his son dealt with the financial burden left to him by his father the wicked sheriff.

The article is available online to subscribers and via Athens or Shibboleth: Northern History, Volume 50, No. 1, March 2013.

Richard Cassidy



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