Ralph cannot have been more than seven years old when his father, Henry, died in 1470. But unlike his half-brother and half-sister, he was not an orphan: his mother, Elizabeth Scrope, was still alive. She remarried Oliver St John, “sonne to the excellent Dutchesse of Somersett”. It seems that they made Stoke Rochford their home and Ralph stayed with them. Here they had a hall and a gatehouse, and on the gatehouse was a large stone shield with the Rochfords’ coat of arms and a crest on top of it: a man’s head with a long, curly beard and a pyramid-shaped cap. Ruins of the old gatehouse and shield could still be seen in the mid-1600s when Bishop Sanderson of Lincoln took down some notes about them, but nothing remains today.
The earliest record of Ralph is in his step-father’s will of 2 March 1496. St John asked “to be buried in the quier afore Saynt Andrew” in Stoke church, and wished that “Rauf Rochford have all such lands and tenements as I purchased within the lordship of Sowth Stoke and North Stoke”. Ralph was a witness to the will, as was his older maternal half-brother Henry Bigod. Oliver St John died in 1497, apparently in Fontarabia in Spain. Elizabeth’s own will written six years later confirms that his companions did actually bring the body home and bury it according to his wishes at Stoke Rochford.
With her third husband dead, Elizabeth wasted no time getting her affairs in order. On 1 July 1498 she was using the name of her first husband when she, “Elizabeth Bygod, widow, who was the wife of Henry Rocheford, esquire” and her son “Ralph Rocheford, son of the aforesaid Henry” cleared up arrangements for the family property at Stoke and Arley. The two manors were to stay in her possession for the rest her life, and afterwards to pass “to Ralph and the heirs of his body. In default of such heirs, remainder to the right heirs of the aforesaid Henry Rocheford”. This was another unusual move: essentially, Ralph would have nothing until his domineering mother died. The structure of the deal also strongly suggests that he was the only surviving child of Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage.
As with Fenne and Scrane, the transaction provides interesting detail on the extent of the estates Ralph would eventually inherit. They were described as “the manors of Southstoke and Northstoke and also twenty messuages, twenty tofts, 1000 acres of land, 100 acres of meadow, 1000 acres of pasture, 100 acres of wood and 100 shillings of rent in Southstoke, Northstoke and Obthorpe in the county of Lincoln and the manor of Arley, twenty messuages, ten tofts, 500 acres of land, 100 acres of meadow, 100 acres of pasture, 100 acres of wood and 100 shillings of rent in Arley in the county of Warwick”. In total, this comes to some fifty houses with 3000 acres and £10 rent a year – almost fifty percent larger than the estates Ralph’s older brother John inherited. It is not certain how much of this was purchased by Oliver St John, but based on these figures we can reasonably estimate that back in the mid-1400s Henry Rochford inherited from his father, Sir Ralph, some 5000 acres and seventy houses, plus £15 annual rental income.
On 26 May 1503 “Dame Elisabeth Bigod, of Sowthe Stoke in the diocese of Lincoln” wrote her will. She asked to buried in Stoke Rochford church by the alter “nyghe unto my husband Sent John”, and wished “that my husbond Rocheforth will be fulfilled as touching all suche bequestes as is bequethed to my son Raff Rocheford”. She left Ralph her finest tableware: “my standing cup gilt with the cover, a basin, and an ewere of silver, the swages gilt,” as well as two covered salt pots with gilt “swages” or decoration.
Elizabeth died just a few weeks later, on 12 June that year, and she was buried in Stoke Rochford church beside Oliver St John. In the chancel floor, right by the alter, there was a large black slab of marble with brass effigies and an inscribed brass plate in memory of this couple. The brasswork still survives – it is in a similar style to Henry Rochford’s monument and was probably made in the same workshop. The inscription is in English, and reads:
“Pray for the soll of Master Olyv’ Sentjohn, squier sonne unto the right excellent hye and mightty prynces duchess of Somersete, grandame unto our soveyn Lord Kynge Herre the vii. And for the soll of dame Elizabeth Bygod his wiff, whoo dep’ted frome this transitore liffe the xii day of June, in the yeer of our Lord mccccc and iii.”
Oliver St John’s effigy shows him in full armour apart from a helmet, his curly hair falling around his shoulders. Elizabeth’s effigy wears a headdress and a flowing robe. Above the couple are two identical brass shields combining the arms of Elizabeth’s family, the Scropes, and her husbands’ families: the St Johns, the Bigods and the Rochfords. And beneath the couple are seven smaller brass figures representing three daughters and four sons. Buried next to Elizabeth and Oliver is one of his daughters, Sibilla St John, who according to her own brass died on 1 June 1493. Elizabeth may have been her mother.
Ralph Rochford must have been between about 32 and 42 years old when his mother died. At last he would have his inheritance, and he seems to have chosen Arley as his main base. But all was not well. In October 1511 the jurors at inquisition in Warwick swore on oath that “Ralph Rochford, formerly of Arley … is … in a frenzy, and not of sound mind or sane memory”. In January the next year another inquisition held in Lincolnshire reported much the same, adding that he had been this way for eight years. So Ralph’s insanity dated back to the year after his mother died. Perhaps that event was the trigger, or perhaps he had been insane or on the edge for many years – it would explain why, in 1498, Elizabeth took measures to ensure she was in full control of his inheritance for as long as possible.
At length, on 18 April 1512 the crown decided to put Ralph in the wardship of his brother-in-law Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset, who had been married to his late half-sister Eleanor St John. This is the last we hear of Ralph. It is not known when died or where he was buried, but he must have been dead by 1523. In that year the accounts of the Knights Hospitaller headquarters at Old Dalby in Leicestershire noted that the “occupiers of lands and tenements late of Ralph Rocheford in Northstowke in county Lincoln, called Baldok thing” owed them 72 shillings in back-rent. Perhaps Ralph had gone into their care for his final years. There would be no fine chapels, stained glass windows or brass effigies in shiny armour this time. That lavish era was over for the Rochfords. Ralph simply slipped into the past.
What happened to poor Ralph’s estates for twenty to thirty years after his death is a mystery. Apparently he had no surviving children. According to the settlement he and his mother made in 1498, his inheritance was therefore to pass “to the right heirs” of his father Henry. This would have been Ralph’s older brother John, if he were alive. So, under common law and in normal circumstances, John’s own heir would be next in line.