Rochford Tower, Fenne. Photo copyright Shane Bradshaw, all rights reserved.

Introduction

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[Note: this chapter is still in draft, and may change]


Most histories are about kings. Some are about queens, robber barons and outlaws. This one is about a family of knights and esquires: the Rochfords of Fenne and Stoke Rochford in Lincolnshire. Their story is fascinating. It involves much savagery, as you might expect: an almost continuous churn of battles, sieges, coups d’état, feuds, murders, plagues, imprisonment and even hostage taking. But there were peaceful moments too. Family members travelled across Europe, made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, served as royal aids and led embassies to negotiate peace treaties. They studied the histories of the Romans and the Jews, they built monuments to the departed, and they left gifts of gold, rubies and sapphires to loved ones.

Their story can be traced back with certainty to the late 1100s, when a landless knight named Waleran de Rochford made a lucky marriage to a well-to-do heiress, Albreda of Fenne. Over the following centuries their successors played increasingly prominent roles in local and national affairs, and they got involved in just about every major war, rebellion and political event of their times. By the early 1400s they were preeminent among the royal house of Lancaster’s retainers, and they were the richest family in Lincolnshire.

Then disaster struck – not once, but repeatedly over almost a century, until finally in the mid-1500s the last of the Rochfords of Lincolnshire faded into obscurity. What was left of the family fortune was inherited by a single surviving, female cousin. The family name was gone, their monuments were left to crumble, their lives all but forgotten.

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As far I know, no one has written a detailed and accurate account of the Lincolnshire Rochfords before. Those of which I am aware are all brief, and riddled with errors and confusion.

This is not surprising: the task is made complex by the fact that over the course of the family’s 350-year history there were at least six Ralphs, six Johns, three Thomases, two Sayers and two Henrys, their lives often overlapping in time and place. And there were other prominent families named Rochford that used the same first names too, in Essex, Yorkshire, Dorset and Ireland. Many writers have given up in frustration. Two thirds of the way through his own account in the late-1700s An Essay Towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, Francis Blomefield complained: “The Rochfords were such a numerous family, and of so many branches, that it is not easy to distinguish, or make a regular descent of them.” But with a little patience the pieces can be put in the right place, and in so doing a great story is revealed: the rise and fall of a classic medieval English family.

This volume tells this story in three parts, through biographies of each of the most prominent Lincolnshire Rochfords down the generations.

Part one, Origins, deals with the earliest known members of the family and, of course, their likely origins. It covers the period from Domesday to about 1316. Much of the evidence from this period is so fragmentary that the biographies are rather terse: to fill in the gaps would take much guesswork, and I have preferred to stick with the known facts. But there is just enough evidence to identify that seeds had already been sown for the family’s steady ascent over the next three generations from bottom-rung county knights to swashbuckling veterans of the royal household.

That is the story told in part two, Rise, which covers the period from 1316 to 1440. In contrast to part one there is bountiful evidence of family members during this time – enough to understand not only the ebb and flow of their lives and careers, but also something of their characters, quirks and aspirations. Some preferred adventure and war, others trade, justice and scholarship.

Rochford Tower, Fenne. Photo copyright Shane Bradshaw, all rights reserved.
Rochford Tower, built by the Rochfords around 1460 as part of their main residence at Fenne. Photo copyright Shane Bradshaw, all rights reserved.

After 1440 everything changes. Despite having huge estates and family connections at the highest levels of society, the Lincolnshire Rochfords suddenly, and almost completely, disappear from the record. Part three, Fall, attempts to trace this mysterious story of a family in sharp decline, using what few fragments of evidence are available, until their final days in the time of Henry VIII.

I have not included footnotes and endnotes, as all the relevant records and their citations are to be found in Volume Two. It contains a compendium of all the material on the family that I have collected, with commentary and analysis. In this way I hope that readers can quickly evaluate and make use of the legwork I have put in for their own research.

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To avoid confusion, I have introduced a numbering system for members of the family, as in Ralph I, John I, Ralph II, and so on. This sequence starts with the first of the Rochfords of Fenne – Waleran – and continues with the heads of the family there and at Stoke Rochford in order of succession. Other branches of the family, such as the Rochfords of Walpole who emerged in the mid-1300s, are not included in the sequence.

Of course, the Rochfords and their contemporaries never used such a system, but they also never wrote a history of the family and therefore had no need to. Where necessary, contemporaries normally identified different members of the family by status (“knight”), age (“junior”), hometown (“of Walpole”) or family relationship (“son of…”).

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Medieval scribes were remarkably flexible when it came to spelling. The name Rochford was often written Rocheford until around 1400, after which the French spelling Rochefort became more common. This is curious, as it was around this time that Middle English began to replace Latin and Anglo-Norman French as the language of choice for the upper classes of England, for the first time since the Conquest. My guess is that many contemporaries pronounced the name in the French style (“Roshfor”) and initially moved towards a French spelling to retain this pronunciation as Middle English became more common.

There were many variations, however. The first vowel was not always an o: Racheford, Recheford, Richeford and Rycheford all appear in primary sources throughout the period. The ch was flexible too: Roccheford, Rokeford, Rockeford and Rogeford all appear. Sometimes an s was inserted or the f was doubled-up, as in Rochesford, Rokesford and Rochefford. The last consonant was usually d or t, but occasionally th, as in Rocheforth. And of course, a final e could be added to any of the above at any time for good measure, as in Rocheforde. The scribes blended these and other variations at will, and with a little creative licence they occasionally came up with entirely new forms too, such as Rogereforde and Russhford.

Bizarrely, the modern spelling Rochford was hardly used at all in medieval times. But it is the standard spelling used now for places named after the family, like the village of Stoke Rochford, and it is also the most common spelling used by people with this surname today. So, to keep things clear, I have generally used this modern spelling except in quotes, where I have left the original spelling intact.


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