It took exactly two months for confirmation that Ralph de Rochford could have his inheritance to come through. An entry in the Fine Rolls of 14 September 1227 records that “the king has taken the homage of Ralph de Rochfort for the land that Albrea de la Fenne, his mother, held of the count of Brittany, whose lands are in his hand, which falls to Ralph by hereditary right”. The sheriff of Lincolnshire was instructed to collect Ralph’s payment and having done so to hand over an eleventh part of a knight’s fee. This must have been the same property as the tenth part of a knight’s fee Waleran de Rochford and Albreda had at Skirbeck Quarter. Later records show that Ralph also inherited the other family properties around Fenne and at Clipston on the Wolds, for which he was no doubt required to do homage and make payments to their respective overlords, but these were administered by their own courts rather than the royal courts, and therefore not recorded in the Fine Rolls.
A legal dispute that broke out after Ralph’s death reveals that he was under age when his father died, which was between 1224 and 1227. Ralph must have been of age by September 1227, when he was allowed to inherit his estates, so he was presumably born between about 1204 and 1207.
In fact, Ralph was probably born towards the beginning of those four years, because in late 1225 John Bonet, who was a retainer of Earl William Longespée and also a professional under-sheriff, appointed two lawyers in the Curia Regis to see through a property deal with Ralph. At some point between January and March the following year the pair met in court to agree that a quarter of a knight’s fee in Langford Budville in Somerset would belong to Bonet for the rest of his life, and afterwards pass to Ralph’s brother Robert (who King John had demanded as a hostage a decade ago) or his heirs. Perhaps this was the mysterious property that King John had ordered the sheriff of Somerset to seize when Waleran de Rochford rebelled in 1216. Seven years later, around Easter 1232, Bonet went to see Ralph in court again, this time under much less friendly circumstances. He wanted to know why Ralph was not holding “to the agreements made between John [Bonet] and Albreda de Rocheford, mother of Ralph … over a third part of the manor of Clipston with appurtenances”. Ralph failed to turn up for the case, but presumably they managed to settle the matter away from the courts as there are no further records of it. These two cases suggest a family relationship between Ralph and John Bonet, but there is no evidence as to what. Perhaps Albreda had married Bonet after Ralph’s father died, or perhaps Ralph married Bonet’s daughter.
Ralph’s own life was pitifully short, and there are few other records of him. In 1229 he obtained an unusually worded writ from the king for an aid from his men “ad primam militiam suam”. Its meaning is not clear, but it seems to suggest that he was going on a campaign or becoming a knight. The last record of Ralph alive is from 1237, when Ralph de Hoyland complained to the chancery about services Ralph de Rochford was demanding of him for a tenement in Benington.
By 1241 Ralph was dead. He cannot have been more than 37 years old. A legal battle erupted between John de Gatton and Thomas FitzWilliam over who was Ralph’s overlord at Clipston, because his son and heir, John de Rochford, was still under age. FitzWilliam had taken Ralph’s two carucates in the village into his wardship, just as he had done when Waleran died and Ralph was under age, and he intended to hold on to them until John was old enough to fulfill his feudal obligations for the property. But John de Gatton took the matter to the Curia Regis on the basis that he was their rightful overlord there, and he complained that FitzWilliam’s actions had done him out of forty marks. In the end they settled out of court: FitzWilliam let go his claim for a one-off payment of 100 shillings.
Ralph’s widow, Joan, lived on for many years. By 1244 she had remarried another local landowner, Hugh le Breton, and she outlived him too – she claimed dower rights in his property at Toft, Butterwick, Benington, Sibsey and Boston in 1271. It is not known who Joan’s family were, and or when she died.
Ralph may not have lived long, but he and Joan found time to have at least four children. Their young son and heir, John, was not named in the 1241 court case over who was his overlord at Clipston, but plenty of records of the later 1200s identify him. In the next century there was an inheritance dispute between two of Ralph’s great-grandchildren over family property at Skirbeck – the details of this case reveal that Ralph also had two younger sons, Peter and Thomas de Rochford, who both died childless. And in the mid-1200s John arranged a curious gift for his sister Nichola de Rochford on her marriage to Henry de Braytoft: he gave the couple a serf, “Richard son of Adlicia my bond tenant with all his sequel and all his chattels”.
Henry III was a hopeless general, but he was keen to recover the lands that his father, King John, had lost on the continent. A rather ill-considered campaign was planned for summer 1242, and to help fund this the royal administration commissioned a detailed survey of all the knight’s fees in the land, which could be used to collect a scutage. The surviving records of this provide the first systematic evidence of the properties the Rochfords of Fenne had. Although Ralph was dead, his son John was presumably still under age, so all the family properties were recorded under Ralph’s name – interestingly, here he was called Ralph of Fenne, like his maternal grandfather.
Most of Ralph’s property was held under the honour of Richmond. This included the tenth part of a knight’s fee his parents had in Skirbeck Quarter, which was here described as being five bovates and half a manslot, probably about eight acres in all; and also the property his parents held in socage in Skirbeck, which was described as being one carucate or about 120 acres, now in Boston. He paid 20½ shillings annual rent for this socager property.
Ralph also held two much larger properties under other tenants of the honour of Richmond. One was a quarter of a knight’s fee of two carucates, about 240 acres, in Benington that he held under John de Edlington. The other was a quarter of a knight’s fee in Toft that he held under Petronilla de Craon, who had this parcel under the honour of Richmond even though she had her own enormous barony. In the later 1200s this last parcel was described as two-and-a-half carucates, about 300 acres. In the time of Ralph’s father it was held by Petronilla’s late husband, the rebel Oliver de Vaux, under the honour of Richmond, and it was reported to be in Scrane and Toft. This may well be where Ralph’s grandfather Ralph of Fenne created his Scrane newlands and granted land to Kirkstead Abbey in the 1100s.
Ralph de Rochford also held some land under the Craons’ own barony, through the Huntingfields. This was an eleventh part of a knight’s fee in Toft, and in the later 1200s it was reported to be one carucate, about 120 acres. This might have been the land where William of Huntingfield enfeoffed Baldric the clerk of Fenne before 1155, but we cannot be certain since several of Ralph’s neighbours – Warin Engayne, John of Tointon and John de Huntingfield – had very similar properties at this time too.
Over in Clipston the survey records only that John de Gatton was overlord, but we know from the 1241 court case that Ralph had two carucates or about 240 acres under him there. There are no records of the family in connection with Quadring, or Langford Budville in Somerset.
The total of all these lands Ralph held comes to just over nine carucates, about 1080 acres. One of the startling features of them is how many smaller parcels he had with different tenures. Ralph’s ancestors must have acquired these piece by piece, gradually building up their status in the area over many generations. Inheritance, vassalage, war and deal-making would all have had a role to play. Ralph’s grandfather, Ralph of Fenne, probably already had much of this property in his time, so much of this activity must already have taken place by the mid-1100s. Alan of Fenne was likely of Breton origin, but perhaps among his ancestors were men and women who had already been in Boston for many years when the Normans and Bretons arrived.
There is one final, mysterious and quite unexpected piece of evidence relating to Ralph. It comes from an ancient tomb a thousand miles from Fenne, in the monastery of Santa Maria de Huerta in Spain. This is where the great Iberian archbishop of Toledo, Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, was buried in 1247. Beneath the archbishop’s resting head was an English-made pillow embroidered in silk with 32 coats of arms. One of these was the distinctive coat of gold and red quarters in a black border with gold coins, belonging to the Rochfords of Fenne. Other coats woven into this pillow included the arms of the Rochfords of Essex, the Lacy earls of Lincoln, the Moultons and the Wakes of Bourne in Lincolnshire. How Ralph’s and the others’ arms came to be on the Toledan archbishop’s burial pillow is anyone’s guess. It could be pure chance, perhaps whoever made the pillow chose whatever coats they liked to decorate it. But this seems unlikely. Maybe Ralph and the others had some connection to the embroiderer, or even to Castile and Archbishop Jiménez himself.