The earliest record of Ralph that we can give a certain date to is from 1156-1158, when he witnessed a charter at Boston for Alan Rufus’ great-nephew and successor, Conan IV, duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond.
The sheer anarchy of King Stephen’s reign had recently ended, and a period of great English empire-building had begun under the extraordinarily energetic Henry II. Conan’s father Alan the Black, earl of Richmond, had died about a decade earlier when Conan was still a child. The young duke had only recently come of age and, amid considerable uncertainty, just about secured his English and Breton inheritances on either side of the Channel. Over the following years he spent much time in England seeing to the administration of his estates, especially at Richmond and Boston, and the charter that Ralph of Fenne witnessed was a case of this. In it, Conan confirmed to his men of the soke of Gayton that they could continue to enjoy all the liberties, tenures and customs that they had in the time of his grandfather Stephen, count of Tréguier.
Ralph was presumably of age when he witnessed Conan’s charter, so he must have been born by about 1138 at the latest. The names of several other men who were in the duke’s court that day, and who witnessed the same charter, stand out. One was Baldric de Sigillo, who had been the late King Stephen’s keeper of the seal and would soon become archdeacon of Leicester. Another was William of Fenne, who may have been related to Ralph, although there is no evidence to confirm how if so. And there were also Lambert of Moulton, his brother Walter and his sons Thomas, Richard and Alan. They had extensive estates in Lincolnshire and Brittany, and would have much to do with Ralph’s heirs over the next century.
Most of what little we know of Ralph’s life is down to the lucky survival of local, private charters like this. The most revealing come from the cartulary of Kirkstead Abbey, a fledgling Cistercian monastery some twenty miles north of Fenne that Ralph was especially fond of. This abbey had been founded by another Breton, Hugh son of Eudo, lord of Tattershall, in 1139. It was said that Hugh visited Fountains Abbey in the wilderness near Ripon in Yorkshire, and he was so impressed by what he saw that he lured several of its monks to a new, carefully selected site on his own land: a “place of horror like a vast solitude” surrounded by wild brushwood and swamps, perfect for men in search of a purer life.
The abbey’s cartulary is a treasure trove of hundreds ancient abbey documents painstakingly copied into a book by scrupulous monks in the 1200s. Just over a hundred of these relate to properties the abbey built up in the marshlands of Scrane during the 1100s, mostly through charitable gifts from landowners there wishing to secure God’s favour for themselves, their ancestors and their heirs. One of the earliest of these was a gift to the abbey from Ralph’s father, Alan of Fenne, of land in an area of Scrane called Crakeholm, plus five acres of arable land in the marsh of Toft. “This gift I have given to the said church in alms for the health of my soul and my father and all my forebears,” he wrote in his charter. He also secured the “consent and good will of Ralph my son and heir” to ensure that the gift would be honoured and not retracted after his death. None of the early charters in the cartulary have dates, but Ralph appears to have succeeded his father by 1158, so this charter probably dates from the 1140s or 1150s.
Alan of Fenne is the earliest member of the family about whom we know anything at all. He was probably born by 1118, if Ralph was born by 1138. And although we know nothing about Alan’s parents, his Christian name betrays his likely origins: it was a Breton name, not at all like the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names of the Boston-area natives. It is probable that he or an ancestor came to England with one of Conan IV’s predecessors, possibly even with Alan Rufus or Ralph the Staller.
Alan of Fenne appears in only one other record, when his heir introduced himself as “Ralph son of Alan of Fenne” in his own charter to Kirkstead Abbey. In fact, Ralph made at least five grants to the abbey over the course his life, and each charter reveals a little more about the places and people in his world, and their very practical daily concerns. Each gift was carefully considered and had a specific purpose, and in each case the boundaries of the property donated were described in intricate detail, often confusing to modern ears even if they made sense to locals at the time.
Ralph’s first grant was an area of land in Scrane called Westneuland, between the salt waterway John’s Fleet and the monks’ grange or farm, for them to make a mill pool for their watermill. The name of this property – neuland – indicates that it was land that had recently been reclaimed from the marsh, and in his grant Ralph stipulated that his other land was to drain into the new pool. In another charter he gave the monks property to build a dyke at Autineuland and Crakeholm, which must once have been an islet in a creek, as that is what holm means. He also gave them some marshland beside a causeway that the monks had built between their grange and their watermill. Later Ralph gave the monks some more land in Scrane, a hundred feet wide leading west towards an area called Aldascrahinga, or Old Scrane, to extend their dyke or build a new one.
These and so many other charters in the abbey’s cartulary tell us that Scrane was undergoing a massive, generations-long development project. At the beginning of the century much of the area must have been an inhospitable, swampy wasteland petering out into the tidal mudflats of The Wash, ready to suck in any footloose traveller. But these lands had potential. They were good for grazing sheep, good for arable, and good for making salt.
There were people living here in Ralph’s time. His tenants Robert le Gros, who was presumably rather fat, and Gippe, whose name suggests a Scandinavian origin, and Emma the widow of Reinald all had houses in the area, on high or recently-reclaimed ground. The monks had built a causeway out to their farm and were developing dykes and drains at a rapid pace. They were famously industrious. Ralph’s God-fearing gifts to the abbey must have been motivated at least in part by the knowledge that their hard work could only increase the value and productivity of his own property. And for their own part, the monks were well aware that offering commercial, as well as spiritual, benefits could only enhance the reputation of their foundation.
The abbey was not at all shy of cutting a deal, and it developed its property through exchanges as well as gifts. In one charter Ralph agreed to swap some property he had at Enedeholm for property the monks had at Halingecroft, and he gave them some marshland at Hareholm to boot. In another, he noted that he had swapped two acres of land at Autineuland that he had previously given to the chapel of Fenne so he could give it to the monks, and he also gave them permission to cross a specific stretch of his own dyke with their cattle. This is the earliest record of the chapel of Fenne. Many centuries later Ralph’s descendants would still own the right to appoint the parson at Fenne, so it is likely that Ralph, his father Alan or another predecessor was its original founder. Although all his charters to Kirkstead Abbey related to property in Scrane, he retained close connection to the hamlet he was named after.
Ralph’s neighbour Roger of Huntingfield was also fond of Kirkstead Abbey. On one occasion he exchanged some property with the monks that “Ralph’s ancestors” had given them in the marsh of Toft near Saltergate. Ralph gave his consent to the deal, and he and his son Hamo both went on record as witnesses to it.
Hamo must have been Ralph’s eldest son and heir. He witnessed five other charters around this time, most of them involving Kirkstead Abbey, so he must have come of age and it appears that Ralph was priming him for the day he would inherit the family property. But Hamo never seems to have stepped out of his father’s shadow – he was always “Hamo son of Ralph” – and nothing else is known of him. He did not live to inherit the estates he was primed for.
Ralph also had two brothers, John and Master Hamo, who witnessed several of his deals with Kirkstead. John is never referred to in these as a parson or cleric, but later in life Ralph managed to arrange a posting for him as parson of the village church of Quadring, some fourteen miles west of Fenne. Meanwhile Hamo’s title of Master, or “Magister” in the original Latin documents, tells us that he was a formally trained scholar of local note. He may well have been educated at Kirkstead, or served as scholar-monk there.
Ralph seems to have formed a close relationship with the Huntingfields. They had arrived in Toft in the 1130s, when the heir of the Craon fee, Alan de Craon, granted his nephew William son of Roger of Huntingfield a fief comprising all nine of his carucates in Toft and much property elsewhere. In return William was to give him knight-service, homage and fealty. Thus the Huntingfields became vassals of the Craons.
Some time before 1155, William of Huntingfield then made a man known as “Baldric the clerk of Fenne” his vassal for one of the nine carucates he had just acquired in Toft. In return, Baldric was to provide him with the service of an eleventh part of a knight’s fee. Baldric looks to have got a good deal here, as six to eight carucates was about the norm for a whole knight’s fee, for which a man was expected to provide his lord forty days’ military service a year.
One of the witnesses to this enfeoffment was Ralph son of Alan, who may well have been Ralph of Fenne. And it may also be that Ralph ultimately inherited this property, since his grandson and successor, Ralph de Rochford, had a property matching exactly this description under the Huntingfields in the next century. But it is not certain, as several of Ralph de Rochford’s immediate neighbours had similar properties too, any one of which might have begun with this grant to Baldric the clerk of Fenne.
Ralph often witnessed local property transactions for William of Huntingfield’s son and heir, Roger, after he succeeded his father in 1155. These included deals with men and women such as Geoffrey Columbeyn, Henry the abbot of Croyland, Ralph the Simple the prior of Freiston, Adeliz daughter of Gerd of Bicker, and William son of Robert son of William of Fenne. Around the same time Ralph of Fenne exchanged 25 acres of his own land at a place called Hestecroft with 25 acres of that Roger of Huntingfield had in “languas in Fenna”. And Ralph witnessed charters for other local men too, including one from Robert son of Stephen the chamberlain to Kirkstead, and another from Simon le Bret to Lincoln Cathedral.
Evidence of who was a vassal of who, and how much property they had at this time, is murky to say the least. But there are clues in these charters about Ralph’s status as a local landowner. When he witnessed Conan IV’s charter in 1156-1158, Ralph appeared towards the end of the list of witnesses – he was only just on the duke’s radar, and only in connection with local matters. This is hardly surprising, as the duke’s English estates alone stretched to some sixty knights’ fees. But Ralph’s role in the local activities of the Huntingfields was far more important. In their charters he appeared towards the top of the list of witnesses, with men such as Conan of Kirketon, Walter Maureward, Alan des Roches and Alexander of Pointon. In the next century all of these men, or their heirs, were vassals of the Craon fee, and they typically had about one knight’s fee each. Ralph’s own heirs’ properties in the next century are much less clear-cut, as they had become vassals of the honour of Richmond, the Craons and the Huntingfields, which must have given them some organisational headaches. But their assorted properties seem to have added up to about a knight’s fee in all, and it looks likely from this that Ralph already had much the same property, status and feudal responsibilities in his own time.
In 1181, amid much concern that the realm’s knights were not properly equipped for these responsibilities, King Henry II issued a proclamation: “Whoever possesses one knight’s fee shall have a shirt of mail, a helmet, a shield, and a lance”, so that they could always be ready for war when called upon. In case the directive was not clear enough, Henry threatened to “take vengeance, not merely on their lands or chattels, but on their limbs” if anyone failed to comply. There are no records of Ralph and his associates going to war, but they must have done so when their lords were called up. Later records confirm that Ralph’s successors owed military service to the earls of Richmond and the Huntingfields, and Ralph probably did too.
The earliest government record of Ralph of Fenne dates from 1165-1166. The Pipe Rolls, the records of the exchequer, for that year note that he and “his men” owed the crown five marks “for pleas”. Evidently Ralph and his own vassals had taken some legal problem before the king’s itinerant justices, Geoffrey de Mandeville and Richard de Lucy. Many of Ralph’s neighbours appeared alongside him in these accounts for similar payments, including Maurice de Craon, who was the latest heir of the Craon barony, Roger of Huntingfield, Baldric de Sigillo, Alan of Benington and William the clerk of Fenne.
The next firmly dateable record of Ralph after this is not for almost two decades, but it is likely that much of his activity developing property at Fenne and Scrane, and cutting deals with the abbot of Kirkstead and his neighbours, occurred during this time. Meanwhile, in 1171 Conan of Brittany died leaving a ten-year-old daughter, Constance, as his sole heiress. King Henry II of England had already persuaded Conan to betroth her to his son Prince Geoffrey in 1166. The marriage was finally celebrated in 1181 and Geoffrey became duke of Brittany and earl of Richmond in his wife’s right.
Henry’s belligerent sons spent most of 1183 and 1184 at war with one another in their continental duchies. In autumn 1184 a fed-up King Henry summoned them to England for a family conference. This is the only occasion Geoffrey is known to have returned to England after becoming earl of Richmond, and he did not stay for long, as in December Henry sent him to govern Normandy. Whether Ralph spent any time with his lord on the continent we do not know, but he did join Geoffrey in London during his brief stay in England. Here Ralph witnessed a charter by Geoffrey granting a plot in Boston to Reiner of Waxham, who was the deputy sheriff of Yorkshire under Ranulf de Glanville. Glanville was also the crown’s chief justiciar.
It may be that Ralph was able to get the king’s ear at this time too, as Pipe Rolls for 1184-1185 record that he paid the crown twenty shillings and owed another twenty for a “recognition of the travails” of his nephew, Baldric, whose father had died before he came of age. It is not known whether Baldric’s father was Ralph’s brother Hamo or another unknown member of the family – it could not have been John, as he was still alive in 1186. And the record is so oblique that it is hard to guess what it really means. Perhaps Ralph sought to buy his nephew a place at court or some other favour. In any case, in 1186-1187 Ralph paid the final twenty shillings off, and it was noted that Baldric was still under age and in his care.
Around the same time, or perhaps as late as 1190, Ralph granted a fifty-percent stake in Quadring church to the nuns at the tiny priory of Stainfield near Lincoln. Ralph had appointed his brother John parson of the church, and he asked that the nuns keep him in that post until he died or chose to leave, but afterwards they could choose their own parson. It is not known how Ralph got this property, who had it before him or who had the other fifty-percent stake. In 1086 “Gyrth, count Alan’s man” had a carucate of land in Quadring under Alan Rufus, which is probably the property that Ralph had now. It may be that he and Gyrth were related somehow, but there are no other known records of Ralph in connection with the village from which to draw conclusions.
Ralph appears to have died by 1190, when he must have been at least 52 years old. His son Hamo had died leaving no children, and any other sons Ralph may have had died likewise. But Ralph did have an unmarried daughter and heiress, who now became a ward of the crown.
A man named William of Budville agreed to pay the exchequer the rather large fee of £20 “to have the daughter of Ralph of Fenne”. Thus he purchased the right to her wardship: to determine where she lived and who she married, and to take the profits of her lands in the meantime. It is not known whether Budville intended to wed the heiress himself or marry her off for profit. Although £10 of his payment was still outstanding in 1201, by 1199 Ralph’s only heiress was a daughter named Albreda, and she was married to Waleran de Rochford.