In 1440 life looked promising for Sir Ralph Rochford III’s three young sons. They would have exemplary schooling followed by an education at court. Perhaps this was to be in the household of the bishop of Lincoln or Ralph, Lord Cromwell, or perhaps in the king’s own court, which had become fractious with the decline of English power in France. The eldest of the three, Ralph Rochford IV, stood to inherit the family estates at Fenne, Scrane, Stoke Rochford and Arley when he came of age. John would inherit a smaller property at Stoke, and Henry some property at Southend in Boston. All three had the funds and connections to make excellent marriages. But disaster struck before any of these things could happen. Within three days of one another, the two eldest brothers, Ralph and John, made their wills. Within a few weeks they were both dead.
Ralph made his will in London on 24 October 1444, less than five years after his father died. He was not more than 25 years old, and since his father’s executors were to manage the family estates for seven years, he had not yet come into his inheritance. The will is short. Ralph asked to be buried at the house of the Friars Preachers or Blackfriars at Ludgate in London. He left his brother John two grey horses with saddles, bridles and other apparel. He left 100 marks to his brother Henry out of the 500 marks his father had given him for his marriage. And he left another third of that 500 marks to his cousin Sir Robert Wingfield (their mothers, Elizabeth and Margaret Russell, were sisters). Finally, Ralph named his brother John and Robert Wingfield as his executors.
Ralph died the very same day. The chancery immediately issued a “Writ of diem clausit extremum” to the escheator of Lincolnshire to take possession of any property he held directly of the king, so the correct procedures could be followed.
So John became heir to the family estates. But only three days later, on 27 October 1444, John made his own will at Ingatestone in Essex. He asked to be buried in the church there, with a stone over his body. He left sums to the fabric of the church, to the rector and the hospital of Ingatestone, and to the church of Letheringham where his grandmother Margaret Hastings was buried with the Wingfields. He left two grey horses and their apparel to his cousin Sir Robert Wingfield’s son – perhaps these were the same two horses Ralph had just left him, or maybe the brothers had similar possessions. John also left 100 marks to Wingfield, who he appointed as his executor.
John died soon after, on 1 or 10 November 1444, and he was buried according to his wishes in Ingatestone church. There was once a monument there combining the arms of the Rochfords and the Limesys, just as John’s father had worn at the siege of Rouen. It had the following inscription, recorded by John Weever in 1631:
“Hic jacet Johannes Rocheford, arm. filius domini Radulphi Rocheford, qui obiit decimo die Novemb. 1444…”
“Here lies John Rocheford, esquire, son of lord Ralph Rocheford, who died the tenth day of November 1444…”
Ralph’s will was proved in Prerogative Court of Canterbury on 7 June the next year, where the clerk noted that Robert Wingfield was to be his sole executor, “John Rocheford having previously withdrawn from this life before God”. John’s own will was proved there the very next day.
It cannot be a coincidence that the two brothers made their wills within a few days of one another, so young in life, and died so soon afterwards. Ralph knew he was about to die, and John clearly suspected that his own end was nigh too. Whether the cause was sickness, foul play, a feud or otherwise, we will probably never know.
Around this time, perhaps in connection with these events, the Rochfords’ private family archives seem to have disappeared. Like the cartularies of Kirkstead Abbey and the Huntingfields, these would have included hundreds of title deeds and other valuable family documents, dating back perhaps as far as the time of Alan of Fenne. They would have been stored carefully under lock and key in a muniment chest, ready to be flourished in court whenever a property dispute arose. But in November 1448 Sir Ralph’s executor William Stanlowe reported to the chancery that Henry V’s original letters patent confirming Stour Provost to Sir Ralph had been lost. Stanlowe swore on oath to return them if found, in return for which a copy was made, and the chancery also confirmed that he and the other executors could continue to manage this property for the rest of the original term granted.
It seems that most of the Rochford family papers were lost at the same time, and never recovered. Only about sixteen items are known to survive, now in the archives of Westminster Abbey. Of these, only eight date from before 1448, but there must once have been hundreds. The earliest is from 1416 when John Makeworth, dean of Lincoln, and Richard Fleming, rector of Boston, were acting as trustees for the manors of Fenne, Scrane, Stoke and Arley. Two more date from 1431 when Sir Ralph Rochford III bought Elward Place to finance his obit. The next four include Sir Ralph’s testament and will, and two probate documents. The eighth, from May 1441, is the arrangement for Fenne and Scrane to pass to the young Ralph upon his mother’s death (she was still alive at the time). These eight documents survive probably only because one of Sir Ralph’s executors was making use of them when the archives were lost. Sadly, we will probably never know what insights, stories and mysteries were lost with them.