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.
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.
Fenne and parts of Scrane had belonged to the Rochfords and their ancestors since at least the mid-1100s, and were their principal residence. King Henry VII purchased these two manors from Sir Ralph’s grandson John Rochford IV of Fenne and his wife Agnes over a series of transactions in the late 1400s and early 1500s. They were to form part the Tudor king’s endowment for Westminster Abbey’s new Lady Chapel. Presumably Sir Ralph’s will, together with a few other documents relating to the Rochfords that I found with it, were handed over as evidence of title.
After Ralph’s death, when his will was proved in the probate court, the complete wording was copied into a register per standard procedure. These registers survive today in the National Archives, so the content of the will has not been a mystery. In fact, it is rather well known as one of the earliest surviving wills to be written mostly in English, rather than Latin or Anglo-Norman French. Before the discovery of the original, my main source for the document was Frederick J. Furnivall’s transcription in his Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, London: A. D. 1387-1439. This can be read here, and is based on the probate transcript.
The will is in fact in two parts, the originals of which are separate manuscripts. The first is a relatively short testament in Latin in which Sir Ralph confirmed the names of his executors and several gifts to religious foundations for the well-being of his soul on the other side. It was written, sealed and dated “at my manor of Fenne” on 26 March 1439. The second document is the English part, and it is far longer, at several thousand words. In it, the old knight gave exceptionally detailed instructions on how his estates were to be managed, his wife provided for, his sons educated and raised, and his property divided up after his death.
While this document is in English, it is somewhat closer to Chaucer’s English than ours: there are plenty of unfamiliar words and archaic turns of phrase. Interestingly, Ralph still seems to have preferred a French-style spelling for his family name, Rochefort, even though it was etymologically incorrect. Perhaps things were changing, but it was a slow process.
There has been some confusion over the dating of this second document. The last line reads:
“And yn witnesse of this his present last wiƚƚ, the forsaide Rauf here-to hath sette his seale the xijth day of Marcℏ In the yere of oure lord̛ god M CCCC xxxixte And in the xviij yere of the reigne of Kyng̛ Henry the sext.”
Or to put that in modern English:
“And in witness of this his present last will, the foresaid Ralph has set his seal [to this document on] the 12th day of March in the year of our Lord God 1439, in the 18th year of the reign of King Henry VI”.
Furnivall complained that the scribe had made an error, commenting:
“…’decimo septimo,’ the Latin Testament says rightly, and March 26 for the day. The 17th of Henry VI. was from 1 Sept. 1438, to 31 Aug. 1439.”
Thus Furnivall concluded that the English document was sealed in March 1439, presumably at the same time as its Latin counterpart. But in fact the scribe was correct: the medieval year started on 25 March, and therefore the date we would call 12 March 1440, a medieval scribe would have called 12 March 1439, and that would indeed have been 18th Henry VI.
So the English document was completed almost a year after the Latin one.
Plenty have written that Sir Ralph Rochford died in 1439. But we know from a charter of Newton Longeville that he was still alive on 8 December 1439: the charter relates that he was trying (successfully) to persuade the king to extend some gifts to his executors for 26 years after his death. And now, based on this clarification of the date of the English part of Ralph’s will, we also know he was still alive on 12 March 1440.
It seems likely that Sir Ralph died about two months later, in the second week of May 1440. On 15 and 16 May the crown quickly granted out some valuable offices and annuities that were now “in the king’s hands by reason of the death of Ralph Rocheford, knight.” And on 19 May, probate was granted in London to two of the late knight’s executors.
You can read the full text of the will at the link given above, or for detailed analysis of the content, context and characters involved read my account of Sir Ralph’s life, which goes into his will in some depth. Meanwhile, here are my summary abstracts of the two documents, with notes from their index card entries in Westminster Abbey Muniments Room. You can also find these and many other transcriptions in Volume Two.
26 March 1439 – “First will of Ralph Rochefort, Miles. Dat. At Fenne manor … 26 March 1439”. Original document in Westminster archives, no seal. Copy in PCC register. Abstract:
Latin testament of “Radulphus Rochefort, Miles … given at my manor of Fenne”. For my burial fee, my best horse. For Lincoln Cathedral, 20s. For the fabric of St Giles Cripplegate, 20s. For William bishop of Lincoln, a gold ring with a big sapphire. For Ralph Cromwell, Lord of Tattershall, my cup called “vulture’s egg”. For the sisters and paupers of St Katherine, 13s 4d. For the fabric of Stoke church, £10. For repairs to the chapel of St Michael in Fenne near Boston, £10. Executors John Tamworth, John Langholme, Richard Leek, William Massyngham, John Rayncok clerk, Robert Caileflete and William Stanlow. Supervisors William bishop of Lincoln and Ralph Cromwell.
12 March 1440 – “Second will of Sir Rauf Rochefort … Dat. 12 March, 18 Henr. VI. (A.D. 1439(40)). Three reed seals, (1) chipped, (2 & 3) fragments. Shield couche, Quarter or & gules, within a bordure for Rochfort. Crest?” Original in Westminster archives, and copy in PCC. Abstract:
English will of “Rauf Rochefort, Knyght … given at my manor of Fenne”. Abstract:
To “Margarete his wyf”, her lawful dower, for life. 20 marks yearly from the manors of Fenne and Skreynge, on condition that she keeps out of trouble and doesn’t contest his will. 200 marks or £10 yearly from the manors of Stoureprewes and Newton-Longvile. A third part of his plate and other moveable goods.
The remaining profits and issues of the manors of Fenne, Skreyng, Stoke, and Arleye to be managed by the executors for 7 years. His sons to be sent to school and then to court, with the oversight of the executors until they come of age.
To “Rauf his sone”, when he comes of age, his manors of Fenne, Skreynge, Stoke, and Arleye. After eight years, the manors, lands and tenements bought from Sir John Biron in Stoke, Obthorpe, Thurleby and Dembleby in Kesteven, and from other people in Arleye, Fenne, and Skreynge – in the meantime these properties to remain in feoffees hands and profits from them to be expended in the performance of the will. 500 marks for his marriage.
To “John his sone”, manors, lands and tenements, rents and services bought from Sir William Malery in Northstoke, when he comes of age. Until then, the property to be managed feoffees and executors to John’s benefit. 300 marks for his marriage.
To “Henry his sone”, lands, tenements and rents in Southende in Boston, when he comes of age. Until then to be managed by feoffees and executors to Henry’s benefit. 300 marks for his marriage.
From the manor of Stoureprews, an annuity to Margery Loughton of 26s 8d. From the manor of Newton Longvile, the following annuities: Robert Caileflete 50s; John Newbery, 26s 8d; John Cornwaill, 26s 8d; John More, 26s 8d; William Basse, 26s 8d; Nicholl Penbroke, 26s 8d; John Johnson, 20s; Jenyn Bavenger, 13s 4d; John Pallyng, 13s 4d; Richard Skott, 6s 8d. Richard Leke’s annuity in Arley to continue.
To “Robert Cailflet and Johane his wyf”, Botiller Place in Eston for life. To “William Stanlow”, property in Dembleby & Waterwilughby for 20 years. To “Jenyn Beranger, his seruant”, Burton Place in Fenne for life. To “John Coke, his seruaunt”, Prestplace in Stoke for a rent of 10s, in reward for his long service.
Remaining profits from Stoureprews, Newton Longvile and others properties, “with all othir dettes beyng due to hym” and moveable goods to be used first for his burial, second to pay his debts, and third for preists and poormen as follows:
Payment for a priest and 3 “bedmen” at Stoke, a priest at Newton Longville, and a priest at Fenne, “to synge and pray for his sowle dailly”. If friar Barton will live and sing at Fenne, a salary of 5 nobles yearly. 20s year for an obit to be kept at Stoke church forevermore, from property bought from John Symond called Eleward Place in Fenne.
Another third of plate and moveable goods to be split between his sons, and the last third to be used for “werkes of charite, payment of his dettes” etc.
£100 to pay the executors. If his wife or sons work against the will or disturb the executors, they lose their bequests.
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.
 Westminster Abbey Muniments, 14737 and 14738
 Westminster Abbey Muniments, 14708-14709, 14711-14715, 14721-14728; Abstracts of Feet of Fines, http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/fines/abstracts/CP_25_1_145_164.shtml#24, http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/fines/abstracts/CP_25_1_145_164.shtml#36, http://www.medievalgenealogy.org.uk/fines/abstracts/CP_25_1_294_83.shtml#37; T. W. T. Tatton-Brown and Richard Mortimer, Westminster Abbey: The Lady Chapel of Henry VII, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PMZ-eEhNDyMC&pg=PA83; The Will of King Henry VII, http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=uI8PAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA63 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 17, 1542, http://www.british- history.ac.uk/letters-papers-hen8/vol17/pp379-401; Christine Merie Fox, The Royal Almshouse at Westminster c.1500-c.1600, PhD thesis (Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012), p107, https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/16694161/Final_edited_post_viva_copy_20_ 03_13.pdf
 Frederick J Furnivall, Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, London, p120, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/c/cme/EEWills/1:54?rgn=div1;view=fulltext; TNA PROB 11/3/470, http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/D968655
 For example, John Stowe’s Survey of London, interments in St Giles Cripplegate.
 H. E. Salter, Newington Longeville Charters, no. 143, https://archive.org/stream/newingtonlongevi00newtuoft#page/100/mode/2up