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.
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.
In the early 1200s the monks of Kirkstead carefully copied the charters by which men like Ralph of Fenne had given them gifts of land, and they wrote indexes so that the documents could be pulled out in a jiffy to resolve dispute and other matters. Pictured is the index to their charters for Scrane, an area to south of Fishtoft, where they built up a grange – an outlying farm – over the years.
These charters provide the earliest known references to Scrane, and because of them we now know far more about the early history of this long-lost place than we do about the Rochfords’ caput at Fenne. The earliest mention of Scrane is in a charter in which “William son of Roger” of Huntingfield granted to “the church of St Mary of Kirkstead and the monks of that place” forty acres of land in “Veteri Scrainga” (i.e. Old Scrane) and in “Westneuland within the dyke and ten acres by the sea without the dyke”.
The witnesses to this early deed include Robert the bishop of Lincoln and Baldric de Sigillo. The charter does not have a date written in it, but it can be dated with reference to these witnesses: Robert de Chesney was bishop of Lincoln 1148-1166, and Baldric de Sigillo, meaning of the Seal, bore that name while he was King Stephen’s keeper of the seal, so not after 1154.
It is not clear whether this deed represents the very origins of Kirkstead Abbey’s possessions in the area. But it is certain that the grant occurred some time between 1148 and 1154, and that by this time locals already called some parts of the place Old Scrane: it was indeed an ancient hamlet.
We also know from the charter that there was already a dyke at Scrane to claim land from the sea. In fact, there had been a dyke in the area since Roman times. Much of the land along the coastline is and was reclaimed from the Wash – an activity that was particularly active in the area through the 1100s and 1200s.
This charter seems to have opened the floodgates for further gifts of local property to the abbey. Over the next century-and-a-half Kirkstead received no less than one hundred more, most of them relatively small, but enough in number to build up a decent holding. A significant proportion of these were from Ralph of Fenne and his Rochford descendants. Through them, we learn that Fenne Chapel was already in existence at this time, that Ralph’s father was Alan of Fenne, that Ralph a brother named Hamo, who was a cleric, and another brother named John, and also that he had a son named Hamo too. This son must have died young, since it was Ralph’s daughter Albreda who succeeded him in the late 1100s. We also learn a great deal about the people of the area – their names, their lands, what sort of places they lived in, and what some of their day-to-day concerns were.
Photograph from the Kirkstead Cartulary. Copyright The British Library Board, Cotton MS Vespasian E XVIII.
 ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Kirkstead’, in A History of the County of Lincoln: Volume 2, ed. William Page (London, 1906), pp. 135-138. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/lincs/vol2/pp135-138 [accessed 4 July 2017].
 BL Cotton MS Vespasian E xviii
 BL Cotton MS Vespasian E xviii, f178d