Detail of a 1575 map of Cambridge showing the Common Schools

Ralph Rochford II of Walpole (died c1460)

Previous: Thomas Rochford of Walpole (died 1438)

An unexpected inheritance

It appears that by 1441 the heir of the late Sir Henry Rochford, and of his late eldest son Thomas Rochford, was Thomas’ younger brother Ralph Rochford. There are few records of this Ralph’s early life. He did not, for example, appear alongside his father and brother with the other Norfolk gentry to take the oath not to maintain peacebreakers in 1434.[1] But the earliest probable record of him does date from that year. According to Francis Blomefield, Philip Morgan, who was the bishop of Ely, appointed a Ralph Rochford as the rector of Outwell St Clement’s church, just ten miles south of Walpole. While we cannot be certain that this was Ralph II of Walpole, the later story of his life suggests that it probably was.[2]

The earliest certain records of Ralph date from 1448. By this time there was a new bishop of Ely, Thomas Bourchier, and he was suing “Ralph Rocheford of Walpole in the county of Norfolk, esquire” in the court of Common Pleas for payment of forty marks. Ralph failed to show up for the hearing, so the sheriff of Cambridgeshire was dispatched to bring him before the court around Easter, and then, having failed the first time, again in Summer.[3] The bishops of Ely were among the chief lords of Walpole and at least some of the Walpole Rochfords’ estates seem to have been held under them, so Ralph’s late payment was perhaps connected with this.[4]

Ralph must have been of age in 1448, so he was certainly born by 1428. In fact he was probably born much earlier, since his father Sir Henry was born between 1354 and 1368. We know that Henry was Ralph’s father from the same record that confirms that Thomas was Ralph’s brother: a 1465 court case over some property in Walpole during which it emerged that at some point in the time of Henry VI, “Thomas Rycheforde son of Henry Rycheforde, knight, Ralph Rycheford son of the same Henry” and others had been in possession of this patch of land, probably as trustees.[5]

Since Thomas was named first in that court case, and since Ralph was not listed among the Norfolk gentry in 1434, it is likely that Ralph was the younger of the two. But Thomas died in February 1438, apparently childless, and their father Sir Henry died around the same time, by 1441 at the latest.[6] So by 1448, when Ralph was dodging the bishop of Ely at the court of Common Pleas, he must have been the senior surviving member of his family. He was heir to all the Walpole Rochfords’ family estates at Walpole, East Barsham, Hindringham, Kettlestone and elsewhere – assuming they were still intact.

Blomefield reports that around this time Ralph confirmed some land, apparently at East Barsham, to Thomas Lord Scales, Edward Clere, and others.[7] I have not found a primary record for this, but, if correct, Scales and Clere must have been trustees to a portion of Ralph’s inheritance. Lord Scales was a Norfolk baron whose caput was at Middleton, just a few miles from Walpole. Clere, meanwhile, was possibly a cousin or in-law of Ralph’s, since Ralph’s father was at some point married to a lady whose sister or niece Elizabeth Braunche’s husband was John Clere of Ormesby.[8] It may be that that lady was Ralph’s mother.

Ralph Rochford of Walpole was not the only person of his name who was alive and appeared in state records of the 1440s. The other was his second cousin “Ralph Rocheford of Stoke near Grantham” (now Stoke Rochford), who died in deeply mysterious circumstances in October 1444.[9] This Ralph was the eldest son and heir of Sir Ralph Rochford III of Fenne, who was Sir Henry of Walpole’s first cousin. Just days after Ralph of Stoke died, his younger brother and heir John died too, in similarly suspicious circumstances, leaving their youngest brother Henry as heir to all their family estates. So it was that by the mid-1440s, the two main surviving branches of the Rochfords were represented by two younger sons: Henry son of Sir Ralph Rochford at Fenne and Stoke Rochford, and Ralph son of Sir Henry Rochford at Walpole.[10]

Of course Ralph of Walpole had not planned or expected become heir to the family estates. While his forefathers had been knights and leading county landowners for generations, Ralph’s own direction in life, as a younger son, had looked rather different. So he had embarked on a career in scholarship, law and religion. His story reveals a character with little interest in the status he inherited, or the material pursuits of land, war and chivalry that had so consumed his forefathers. Perhaps this was for the better, given the bloodshed that would ensue over the next forty years. But Ralph was not able to keep out of trouble entirely.

Involvement with the Pastons

King Henry VI, by an unknown English artist, circa 1540. © National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).
King Henry VI, by an unknown English artist, circa 1540. © National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

Around 1450 Ralph at Cambridge University. Henry VI’s England was on the brink of civil war. Much of France had been lost, rebels had briefly captured London, the magnates were at each others’ throats, and tensions were flaring all over the realm.[11] Somehow Ralph became embroiled in a spat between the Paston family and a scholar identified only as the “parson of Welle”.[12] The Pastons are famous today for the huge cache of their private family letters that have survived, enthralling modern historians with the feisty detail of 1400s life that they reveal. One of these letters, from William Paston to his brother John Paston around 1449-1452, relates how “Mastyr Recheforthe” or “Rycheforthe”, “a knythys sone of Norfolke”, found himself on the wrong end of the parson of Welle’s seething temper.[13]

Here is William Paston’s fascinating letter in full, in slightly more modern English than the original:

“To my most reverent and worshipful brother Jon Paston.

To my most reverent and worshipful brother. I recommend myself heartily to you, desiring especially to hear of your welfare and prosperity, which Almighty God continue to your ghostly [i.e. spiritual] health and bodily welfare. And if it please your good brotherhood to hear of my welfare, at the making of this bill I was in good health. And if it like your good brotherhood to remember the letter that I sent to you of the noise that was told of you, that you should be one of the captains of the rising in Norfolk, and how that one scholar of Cambridge, which is parson of Welle, should have uttered further to your great slander, beseeching you to understand that the said parson of Welle was soon [after] that time at London, where he heard say of one squire of 200 marks per year that you and Master Thomas Wellys would sue the said parson Welle for your slander. And the said parson came to Cambridge seething, and has picked a quarrel to one Master Recheforthe, a knight’s son of Norfolk, and said to Rycheforthe that he had the cause that you should sue him. And the said parson Welle threatened Rycheferthe that whatsoever that you caused parson Welle to lose by your suits, that Rycheforthe shall lose the same to the parson of Welle. Wherefore this gentleman Rychforthe took great thought, and prays me to write to you that you would cease your suit until the time that you would assign that I may speak with you, and other sundry have spoken with you of the same matter; for it were pity that Rycheforthe should have only hurt thereby.

I beseech you hold me excused though I write no better to you at this time, for in good faith I had no leisure. The bringer of this letter can tell you the same.

God have you in his keeping. Written at Cambridge on Friday senyth next before midsummer eve. In case you come by Cambridge I shall tell you more of it. I am sorry that I may write no better at this time, but I trust you will be patient.

By your poor brother, W. Paston.”[14]

So this parson of Welle (who I have not been able to identify) was apparently going about telling people that John Paston had been a ringleader in a recent uprising in Norfolk; and on hearing that Paston intended to sue him for this, the parson went after Master Ralph Rochford and declared that he would hold him liable for his full losses in the matter. Why did the parson go after Ralph? Perhaps Ralph had passed on information about these events which, whether true or false, had left him in a very difficult position. Or perhaps Ralph was somehow affiliated to both parties and the parson saw an opportunity to use threats against him as leverage against Paston.

John Paston certainly appears to have been involved in local disturbances. In 1449 John Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, briefed Paston to raise a force of “as many clenly people as ye may gete”, to escort him to a parliament in London where several other magnates – and even the king himself – turned up armed to the teeth.[15] Mowbray’s bitter enemy was the king’s favourite William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk. Their murderous rivalry had been playing out across the fields of East Anglia since the early 1430s, drawing factions to either side. Around 1443 Mowbray had fallen out spectacularly with the Norfolk knight Sir Robert Wingfield, who was a friend, kinsman, and executor to the wills of Ralph Rochford of Walpole’s late Fenne cousins, Ralph and John Rochford, who had both died mysteriously in late 1444.[16] One possibility is that the Fenne brothers lost their lives in the fracas. And by 1451 another local baron, Thomas Lord Scales, who was a trustee to some of Ralph of Walpole’s estates, had become decidedly hostile to Mowbray and the Pastons.[17] All in all, Ralph of Walpole had good reason to be cautious around anyone who supported the duke of Norfolk.

And yet the tone of William Paston’s letter does not portray Ralph Rochford as a potential enemy. The parson of Welle was clearly, to Paston’s mind, the problem, while Ralph was an innocent bystander and a victim in the whole debacle, deserving of the Pastons’ empathy and support. This is evident in the fact that William Paston took time out of his supposedly very busy schedule to write specifically about the whole matter to his brother John, and to plead with John to hold off further action against the parson until they had time to talk about it face to face. As for other matters, Paston had time only to apologise that he was too busy to write further. His words even reveal a note of affection for Ralph: “for it were pity that Rycheforthe should have only hurt”.

“Late esquire, now clerk”

Detail of a 1575 map of Cambridge
Detail of a 1575 map of Cambridge with the Common Schools (or Old Schools) at the centre. This building was home to the Faculty of Canon Law, of which Ralph Rochford II of Walpole was a member. From Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates Orbis Terrarum, v2.

Around this time Ralph Rochford abandoned the style esquire and took to calling himself Master and clerk instead. So when he and John Miller of Walpole sent their attorney to the court of Common Pleas in 1453 to chase down some debts, the court manuscripts recorded his name as “Ralph Rocheforde, esquire, alias Master Ralph Rocheforde, clerk”.[18] And in September 1454, according to Blomefield, when Ralph concluded an agreement over some property in Castle Rising, Norfolk, he called himself Ralph Rochford “nuper armiger, modo clericus” – late esquire, now clerk.[19] Ralph was not just presenting himself as a man of learning. He was also very clearly rejecting the mark he was entitled to as the eldest surviving son and heir of a knight – esquire or armiger, literally shield- or arms-bearer – with all its military connotations. And this was at a time when civil war was right upon the land. I wonder what Ralph though of it all.

The earliest surviving registers of Cambridge Univerisity’s community date from 1454, so we cannot piece together much about Master Ralph’s academic career before this date. But there, among the first few pages of the register, is a record that on 13 March 1456 “Master Rychforth” paid two shillings to the university proctors, Masters Henry Boleyn and John Bolton, while he was studying for the degree of Bachelor of Canon Law.[20] This was the study of the laws and policies of the church; an advanced degree, Canon Law being one of the higher faculties of the university. Ralph must already have been at Cambridge for many years, first as a scholar, then as a tutor and lecturer to the younger students. The Canon Law degree itself took some ten years’ study to complete, of which at least five years involved the study of civil law too. It was not a light undertaking.[21]

Death, family and successors

This is the only record of Master Ralph Rochford in the Cambridge register, and the rest of his life is a mystery. Blomefield reports that he married Elizabeth, a daughter of Sir Marmaduke Constable, and that they had three sons together: Henry, Ralph of Langholm and Saier of Barton.[22] I have not found any primary records to evidence this, or even that such people existed. If Ralph did have sons, they do not seem to have survived, and it appears that by 1468 Ralph himself had probably died too. He would have been at least forty years old, and probably a good twenty to forty years older still – the uncertainty is because we have little information to deduce when he, or his father, Sir Henry, were born.

The reason Ralph appears to have died by 1468 is this: according to Blomefield, on 10 September that year a widow named Joan Welby, of Moulton in Lincolnshire, was in possession of the Rochfords’ estates at Walpole and East Barsham, and settled them on her son Richard Welby and his wife Elizabeth, who was a daughter of Sir William Calthorpe.[23] The Rochords’ estates at Kettlestone and Hindringham also appear to have ended up with the Welbys, since, again according to Blomefield, around 1540-1541 another Richard Welby was in possession of them and the East Barsham property.[24] I have not found any primary records of these transactions, so they should be treated with extreme caution, but there is further evidence that the later Welbys considered themselves to be blood relatives of the Rochfords. In the 1800s there was apparently an early Tudor stone chimneypiece at Halstead Hall, which once belonged to the Welbys, with the sculptured arms of “Welby impaling Calthorpe, Rochford, Leake, and Lindsey”.[25] If correct, then of course it seems likely that the widow Joan Welby was Master Ralph Rochford’s heiress. Some have said that she was a daughter of a Sir John Rochford[26] – whether Sir John de Rochford II of Fenne or Sir John de Rochford the Younger of Boston is intended is not specified. But neither is likely. The former was born around 1330 and succeeded by his son and heir Sir Ralph Rochford III of Fenne, while the latter was succeeded by three daughters, none of whom was called Joan. Far more likely is that Joan Welby was a daughter or granddaughter of one of the Walpole Rochfords – exactly who remains a mystery.

Master Ralph Rochford left no will, and there have been no known monuments to him, so we do not know where he was buried. The most likely place is in the family chapel at Walpole St Peter’s church. This is where his grandfather Sir Ralph Rochford I of Walpole’s monument was, where his brother Thomas Rochford wished to be buried, and probably where the bones of other family members lie interred today.[27]

Next: Monuments of the Walpole Rochfords


[1] CPR,; Fuller and Nichols, The History of the Worthies of England, v2, p143,

[2] ‘Clackclose Hundred and Half: Upwell and Outwell’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v7, pp454-478,

[3] CP 40/748/157,; CP 40/748/300,

[4] ‘Freebridge Hundred: Walpole’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v9, pp99-121,

[5] CP 40/814/252,

[6] Will of “Rocheford (Russhford), Thomas, of Walpool, St Peter”, Norfolk Record Office, NCC will register Doke 85,; also referred to in ‘Freebridge Hundred: Walpole’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v9, pp99-121,

[7] ‘Gallow and Brothercross Hundreds: East Barsham’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v7, pp53-65,

[8] See my account of Sir Henry Rochford of Walpole

[9] CP 40/732/225d,

[10] See my accounts of Ralph Rochford IV and John Rochford III of Fenne and Henry Rochford of Fenne and Stoke Rochford

[11] Griffiths, ‘Henry VI…’,

[12]Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Part 1, pp149-150,; The Paston Letters, A.D. 1422-1509, v2, no 91,

[13] We can deduce that this “Rycheforthe” was Ralph of Walpole from several facts. First, the Rochford family name was often now written like this (see for example: “Henry Rycheforth, knight” in The National Archives Website: Discovery: West Yorkshire Archives, WYL230/247,; “Thomas Rycheforde son of Henry Rycheforde, knight, Ralph Rycheford son of the same Henry” in CP 40/814/252,; “Henry Rocheforth, knight” in E-CIPM 21-67: JOHN DE HARYNGTON, KNIGHT,; “Henry Rocheforth, knight” in CPR,; tomb of “Henricus Rochforth” at Stoke Rochford, in Turnor, Collections for the History of the Town and Soke of Grantham, p136, Second, the late Sir Henry and Sir Ralph III of Fenne were the only Rochford knights who had sons still living, and Sir Ralph of Fenne’s son was not from Norfolk (see my accounts of Sir Henry Rochford of Walpole, Sir Ralph Rochford III of Fenne and Henry Rochford of Fenne). And finally, the location Cambridge, and the title Master, square directly with what we know of Ralph of Walpole’s later life.

[14]Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century, Part 1, pp149-150,; The Paston Letters, A.D. 1422-1509, v2, no 91,

[15] Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI…, 1422-1461, p690,

[16] Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI…, p587,; and see my accounts of Ralph Rochford IV and John Rochford III of Fenne

[17] Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI…, p590,

[18] CP 40/768/348,

[19] ‘Freebridge Hundred: Walpole’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v9, pp99-121,

[20]Grace Book A, p4,

[21] For discussion of the system of study and what the degree of Bachelor of Canon Law involved, see Grace Book A, Introduction, pp xx-xxviii,

[22] ‘Freebridge Hundred: Walpole’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v9, pp99-121,

[23] ‘Freebridge Hundred: Walpole’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v9, pp99-121,; ‘Gallow and Brothercross Hundreds: East-Barsham’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v7, pp53-65,

[24] ‘Gallow and Brothercross Hundreds: East-Barsham’, in Blomefield, Norfolk, v7, pp53-65,

[25] Gibbons, Notes on the Visitation of Lincolnshire, 1634, p197,; anonymous, Notices of the Family of Welby, p44,

[26] See for example, Lincolnshire Notes & Queries, v4 (1896), p154,

[27] Gough, Sepulchral Monuments, v2 part 2, pp8-9,; will of “Rocheford (Russhford), Thomas, of Walpool, St Peter”, Norfolk Record Office, NCC will register Doke 85,