Unfinished business

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There are plenty of other loose ends in our story of the Rochfords: gaps in the narrative, events that lack a tidy place in it, fragments of evidence that are not properly explained.

An unattributed tomb in Stoke Rochford church, to the left of the alter, by Acabashi, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)
An unattributed tomb in Stoke Rochford church, to the left of the alter. There is another, similar unattributed tomb to the right of the alter. Members of the Rochford family are probably buried in these, but there is nothing to identify who. Photo by Acabashi, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

There are several tombs at Stoke Rochford church that remain unaccounted for. Two of these are large stone tombs on either side of the chancel, directly flanking the alter, that date from the 1400s. Holles described them as having “shields, feudal insignia carved around”. The stonework is still there, but there is nothing to help identify who was buried in them. There is also a stone tomb recessed into the wall of the north chapel with angels holding shields and decorative, arched stonework. This probably dates from the 1460s onwards, since the chapel was not built before then.

It is likely that all three of these tombs hold members of the Rochford family. Sir Ralph III’s wife Margaret, Henry’s wife Joan and Ralph V all remain unaccounted for during that century, and there were probably other sons and daughters who did not survive and were never recorded.

Another unattributed tomb at Stoke Rochford, this one in the north chapel, by Acabashi, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)
Another unattributed tomb at Stoke Rochford, this one in the north chapel, which was built in memory of Henry Rochford of Fenne around the 1470s. This tomb probably also holds a member of the Rochford family. Photo by Acabashi, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

The family appears to have first made Stoke Rochford their primary home around the time Henry married Elizabeth Scrope, between 1461 and 1470. Before this they were mainly based at Fenne. The earlier Rochfords were probably buried in the chapel of St Michael there, and no doubt its windows were full of their arms and those of related families too. Sadly, nothing of this chapel survives, and there are no records of the tombs and windows there. The last record of a chaplain at Fenne is from 1552 and the chapel did not appear among Gervase Holles’ notes, so it may be that it was destroyed by the 1640s.

Nevertheless, the Rochfords’ arms could also be seen in other churches throughout the southern half of Lincolnshire and neighbouring parts of Norfolk. The only church in Skirbeck wapentake in which Holles recorded the Rochfords’ arms was at Freiston, in a north window. Here there was a portrait of a lady with the Rochford arms on her gown, and beside her a man with the arms of the Leeks, Argent, on a chief gules an annulet of the first, over all a bend engrailed azure. These two coats combined could also be seen in the bell tower window at Freiston and in the Cantelupe chapel in Lincoln Cathedral. Blomefield and Parkin’s 1700s History of Norfolk documented a similar portrait, probably of the same couple, in the east window of the Rochfords’ chapel in Walpole St Peter’s. This window also had a portrait of Rochford male with what may have been a Leek female – if correct, there was more than one marriage between the two families. The 1563 Visitation of Lincolnshire reported that “Marie, fourth daughter and coheir to Sir Ralph Rochford” married Robert Leek of Freiston. None of the Sir Ralph Rochfords in our account was succeeded by a coheiress, but it may be that one of them had a daughter who married a member of the Leek family. Sir Ralph III who died in 1440 was particularly close to the Leeks – they were often involved in his property transactions, and one member of the family was an executor to his will. But the portraits in Walpole church point towards Sir Ralph of Walpole who died after 1391. In any case, without contemporary documentary evidence it is impossible to place the family connection with any certainty.

It is surprising that Holles did not see the arms of the Rochfords in the other churches of Skirbeck wapentake, and especially at Toft, Boston or Benington, all of which the family had close connections to. But he did see plenty elsewhere in the county. There was a cluster in the wapentakes just to the north of Skirbeck, in the windows of the churches of Bolingbroke, Bag Enderby, Horncastle, Haltham-on-Bain and Coningsby. Further to the south and west, the Rochfords’ arms were to be seen in the churches of Hougham, Carlby and Stamford St Mary’s. In Norfolk, Blomefield recorded them in several churches not far from Walpole St Peter’s: Walpole St Andrew’s, Terrington St Clement’s and Tilney All Saints’.

The Rochfords’ connections with many of these places are obscure. Both Sir Ralph III, who died in 1440, and his uncle John the Younger, who died in 1410, were officials of the honour of Bolingbroke, which may explain why their arms appeared in that church. But Haltham, where there were four versions of the Rochford arms in the windows, and nearby Coningsby, where there were three, are harder to explain. Next to the Rochfords’ arms in these churches were those of the Willoughbys, Rooses, Welles, Huntingfields, Cromwells, Hastings, Dymokes and others. In Walpole St Andrew’s, the Rochfords’ arms were impaled with those of the Denver family, and in another case with an unidentified coat, Argent, a fess dauncette between six cross crosslets, sable. These and the others must represent intertwined family connections and allegiances that have not yet been identified – of which there were clearly plenty.

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