The early Lincolnshire Rochfords were associated with the two fenland hamlets of Fenne and Scrane near Boston in Lincolnshire. Their lands lay around these in the open expanses of Fishtoft (at the time usually called just Toft), Skirbeck and Benington, and also in the terrifically wealthy market town of Boston itself. Both hamlets are now gone, leaving only fragments of their former existence on the landscape.
Fenne was centred on north end of the parish of Toft, just to the east of Boston. A 15th-century turreted tower variously known as Rochford, Richmond or Kyme Tower still stands there by the western boundary of the parish with Skirbeck. It is all that remains of a manor house the Rochfords built on land that was probably part of the honour of Richmond, and which later belonged to the Kyme family. Rochford Tower Lane leads a few hundred metres north to a crossroads with the ancient Wainfleet Road, where the Ball House Inn now occupies a site once known as Chapel Green. The chapel of Fenne once stood here, but nothing remains of it today. This was presumably the centre of the medieval hamlet; buildings nearby were known as Boston Fen End well into the 1800s.
Lands connected with Fenne are thought to have extended north to Hill Dyke and Boston Long Hedges, and west to Burton Corner where Wainfleet Road meets the Sibsey and Spilsby Roads at the northeast corner of modern Boston. These lands appear to have overlapped into the old parishes of Skirbeck and Boston, whose boundaries have changed a good deal in the last 200 years and must have done so before then too.
Scrane, meanwhile, is said to have been at the southern tip of the neighbouring parish of Freiston, near where Scrane End is now. But the Rochfords’ Scrane properties were associated with the parish of Toft, so perhaps the hamlet’s lands spanned both parishes along the marshy northwest shore of The Wash. Much work was done here during the Rochfords’ time building and maintaining dykes and ditches to develop these marshlands for agriculture, pasture and salt-making.
All these lands lie within an old Lincolnshire area called Skirbeck wapentake, which comprises all the parishes along the northwest coast of The Wash from Boston Haven to Wrangle. Before the Normans invaded England in 1066 the lord of most of the land here was King Edward the Confessor’s household steward, Ralph the Staller, who was of mixed Anglo-Breton blood. A smaller portion of the land fell under the lordship of the queen’s theign Wulfweard the White, and another under the Lincolnshire magnate Aethelstan son of Godram. Their names reveal them both to have been native Anglo-Saxons.
Ralph the Staller found favour with the new Norman regime, but by the time the Domesday Book was drawn up in 1086, all his property in Skirbeck wapentake had been merged into the enormous new barony of William I’s favourite Breton, count Alan Rufus, whose forces had probably led the vanguard at the battle of Hastings. This was the barony that later came to be called the honour of Richmond, and its lords were the earls of Richmond.
By 1086 Wulfweard’s and Aethelstan’s estates in the area had also been taken over by a foreigner, the Norman magnate Guy de Craon, whose family were the lords of Craon in France. He acquired some sixty properties in Lincolnshire after the Conquest, which came to be known as the fee or honour of Craon. The old guard were well and truly gone.
In Domesday, Skirbeck wapentake was called “Ulmerestig” or Wolmersty after a long-lost hamlet in the north of the region. Each of the seven “vills” in the wapentake – Skirbeck, Toft, Freiston, Butterwick, Leverton, Leake and Wrangle – was assessed at twelve carucates, notionally about 1400 acres. Clearly a methodical hand had been involved in establishing their boundaries.
In the vill of Toft, nine of these carucates were Guy de Craon’s, and he had a church, a priest and a mill on this land, so presumably he owned the main village too. The other three carucates in Toft were part of Alan Rufus’ estates. The vill’s population comprised eighteen sokemen, nine villeins and a bordar: 29 households including the priest, so perhaps 100-150 individuals in all.
Boston itself is not named in Domesday, as it was a settlement within the vill of Skirbeck. All twelve carucates of this vill, with the exception of one quarter, belonged to Alan Rufus. The population here was larger than in Toft, but still small: nineteen sokemen and twenty-one villeins, perhaps 150-200 individuals in all. There were also two fisheries, two priests and two churches. One of these churches must have been St Botolph’s, built for a trading settlement that had evolved at a crossing point on the river Witham just one mile northwest of the main village of Skirbeck. Over the following decades the earls of Richmond and their men developed a whole new town around this settlement, with walls, a port, a marketplace, plots of land for merchants to build their halls and warehouses, and an annual fair. Within a century St Botolph’s Town – Boston – would become one of England’s primary international trading posts, attracting merchants from as far as Italy, Spain and the Baltic. Millions of fleeces of wool, said to be more valuable than gold, were traded here, as were luxury cloths, furs, spices, wines, falcons, metals and much more. It was a good place to own land.
When the Rochfords first arrived in the area in the 1190s, the boom was just taking off. The earliest records of the family here date from 1199, although they may have arrived a little earlier. These records are connected with an inheritance from a man named Ralph of Fenne, who held lands in the area as a vassal of the earls of Richmond, and probably also under the Craons. So Ralph is the subject of our first biography.