Rediscovering a lost medieval English family, 1066-1550

Volumes One and Two draft covers together

In the early 1400s, everyone in England knew the name Rochford. Family members were among the leading knights of the royal household and the realm. Yet today, all that survives are a few old place names, some muddled local histories, and very little else. The story of this family has been a mystery for half a millennium.

My aim is to unravel that mystery. Over the years I have collected thousands of pieces of primary evidence about the Rochfords. I have used these to reconstruct their story, from the 1100s until their final days in the time of Henry VIII. On this site, I am sharing it all.

The book – Volume One
Rochford of Fenne and Stoke Rochford, Volume One: The Origins Rise and Fall of an English Family, 1066-1550, tells the story of the family through biographies of its eighteen principal members. Read online or download the PDF.

Original records – Volume Two
A companion volume of records, citations, working notes, etc., for researchers. Contains all the citations for Volume One, 1200+ abstracts and transcripts, and commentary on their interpretation. PDF only.

Genealogical charts
One huge genealogical chart showing thirteen generations of the family from the 1100s to the 1500s, with coats of arms and illustrations. Also several smaller charts, and a few maps from the book showing various places associated with the Rochfords.

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Waleran de Rochford and the Death of King John, 1216

A monk offering King John a poisoned chalice in 1216 (BL Cotton MS Vitellius A XIII)

King John reigned from 1199 until his untimely death in 1216. He was deeply unpopular – some forty years later the chronicler Matthew Paris wrote:

“Foul as it is, Hell itself is made fouler by the presence of John.”

John is also remembered as the king whose barons humiliated him by forcing him to agree to Magna Carta, the great charter of liberties that imposed limits on the power of the sovereign. That was on 15 June 1215. But less than two months later, the wily king secured an annulment of the charter’s terms from Pope Innocent III, and the First Barons’ War broke out.

This was in the time of the first of the Rochfords of Fenne – Waleran de Rochford – who sided with the rebels, like many of his neighbours and close associates.

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The Kirkstead Cartulary

An index from the Kirkstead Cartulary relating to property in Scrane, 1200s (Copyright The British Library Board, Cotton MS Vespasian E XVIII).

Like many people of their time, the Rochfords and their Fenne ancestors were generous in their gifts to local religious foundations. In the 1100s and early 1200s they had a particularly strong connection with Kirkstead Abbey, which was founded by Hugh son of Eudo, lord of Tattershall, in 1139.

It was said that Hugh visited Fountains Abbey in the wilderness near Ripon in Yorkshire, and he was so impressed by what he saw that he lured several of its monks to a new, carefully selected site on his own land: a “place of horror like a vast solitude” surrounded by wild brushwood and swamps, perfect for men in search of a purer life.[1]

The discovery of the Kirkstead Cartulary in the British Library has provided a huge amount of background information on the Fennes in particular, for a period in English history where there are few surviving records of men of their status. They were landowners, but not nobles.

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The first battle of Lincoln, 2 February 1141

The first battle of Lincoln, 2 February 1141

This illumination depicts the first battle of Lincoln, on 2 February 1141, in the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda. It comes from a copy of Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum made around the year 1200.[1] It is included in my chapter on Ralph of Fenne, who was the ancestor the Rochfords of Fenne through his daughter and heiress, Albreda.

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The early Norman-Breton lords of the Boston area

Duke William of Normandy defeated the English King Harold at Hastings in 1066 – an event that would set English history on a new course. Over the following twenty years England was flooded with new lords from the continent, while their native Anglo-Saxon counterparts either assimilated or fled.

In this short post, I look at the Breton connections of the lords in the Boston area.

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Map of the Rochfords’ homelands at Fenne and Scrane

Map of the area around the Rochfords' homelands at Fenne and Scrane

This map is my attempt to map the area around the Rochfords’ homelands at Fenne and Scrane, roughly as it was in medieval times. The different colours of land are the different parishes, each with a main settlement near its centre. The coastline and boundaries are based on Ordnance Survey maps of the early 1800s – they probably changed a little over the years.

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The view across Boston Haven to the fields of Toft and Scrane

The view today across Boston Haven to the fields of Toft and Scrane. Photo copyright Tormod Amundsen of biotope.no.

This wonderful photo, by Tormod Amundsen of biotope.no, is the headline image for my chapter on Early Fenne and Scrane. The view looks north-north-east from Frampton Marsh, across Boston Haven, to Toft (now called Fishtoft) in the middle, Scrane to the right, and Freiston beyond. At the top left, you can just see the town of Boston itself. Fenne is barely visible to the east of Boston.

These were the homelands of the Rochfords of Fenne.

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The will of Sir Ralph Rochford III of Fenne, died 1440

Sir Ralph Rochford III’s last testament of 1439, will of 1440, and probate documents, in the Westminster Abbey Muniments Room, copyright the Dean and Chapter of Westminster

One of the exciting discoveries during my research of the Rochfords has been this: the original manuscripts of the will of Sir Ralph Rochford III of Fenne, who died in 1440. They were hiding among a wodge of old deeds relating to the manors of Fenne and Scrane, in Westminster Abbey Muniments Room. They have survived the years in excellent condition, are easily readable, and have seals still attached, although the latter have crumbled and rubbed over time.[1]

Sir Ralph is probably the best known and most successful member of his family. He was a close aid to Henry IV, a leading knight of the Lancastrian period, and a mentor and guardian to the young Henry VI. He led a terrifically exciting life. But his death was calamitous: afterwards, his family’s fortunes spiraled. His will is a very significant document and record of his life.

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The earliest confirmed likeness of a Rochford

There is not much to see in the north chapel of the church of St Peter in Walpole today, but in the 1700s it was full of stained glass and a few monuments in memory of the Rochfords who were lords of one of the manors in that town in the 1300s and 1400s. Fortunately, details of these were captured by the Norfolk historians Francis Blomefield and Charles Parkin.[1]

The first of the Rochfords to be based permanently at Walpole was Sir Ralph Rochford of Walpole, the second son of Sir Sayer de Rochford of Fenne. He seems to have been based there from about 1350, and it was during his time that much of the church was rebuilt after a catastrophic flood in 1337. It is very likely that Ralph was one of the principal benefactors to the reconstruction project.

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Rochford of Rochford and Berden, 1140-1309

There are several places in England and France that gave their names to families called Rochford. One of these is the village (or town, as it is now) of Rochford near the south coast of Essex. The family who were lords of the manor in this village took their name from it, and made it their primary base. They appear to have been the progenitors of most other families in England called Rochford too.

In this article, I look at the history of this family.

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Rochford of Braintree and Bocking, 1386-1577

In the 1400s, there was a family of Rochfords connected with the town of Braintree in Essex. I have no idea where they originated from. One would guess they were cousins of the Rochfords of Rochford and Berden in Essex – a tremendously wealthy family who were in the area from at least the mid 1100s. But what little evidence I have found suggests that the Rochfords at Braintree may have been more closely related to the Rochfords of Fenne.

This article looks at the hazy history of these mysterious individuals.

Continue reading “Rochford of Braintree and Bocking, 1386-1577”