Sayer de Rochford first appears on record in May 1316 when he petitioned the king for the manor of La Grave. This was the two-thirds of the property that his father, Ralph, had granted to Philip de Gayton and Scolastica after 1284. If Sayer was under age when his father died in 1315 or early 1316, he seems to have been of age when he put this petition; if he turned 21 around this time, he was born around 1294-1295.
Philip de Gayton, his wife and his two sons, Philip and Theobald, had all died by 10 February 1316. Theobald was the last to pass away, on that day, and an inquisition into his estates reported that his two sisters, Juliana the wife of Sir Thomas Murdak and Scolastica the widow of Godfrey de Meaux, were coheiresses to the family property. But it was also found that La Grave was held only for life and that it ought to revert to Sir Ralph de Rochford’s heir, so in June 1316 the escheator was instructed to hand it over to Sayer. A feudal survey later that year recorded him as lord there.
On 20 July 1319 Sayer was granted royal protection to go on campaign to Scotland in the seventy-strong retinue of Edward II’s household knight Hugh Audley, who had become one of the king’s new favourites after Gaveston’s murder. The English forces besieged Berwick, which the Scots had captured the year before, but Robert Bruce drew them off by marching towards York, where Edward’s queen, Isabella, was staying. The Scots routed an English army hastily assembled by William Melton, archbishop of York, killing thousands. It was a disaster for King Edward, whose own army was still at Berwick. Thomas of Lancaster refused to continue the siege, and acrimony broke out as everyone departed for home.
Sayer’s company on this expedition included Sir Peter de Limesy who had leased out the half-manor at South Stoke a few years before, and Sir John de Hardreshull. Both were Warwickshire men who had been prominent retainers of Lancaster until they were recruited to the royal household in 1317. In April 1320 Sayer and Limesy witnessed a charter together for Hardreshull to Henry le Bret of Ansley, Warwickshire. And in May Sayer, Limesy and several others were accused by another household knight, Sir Roger de Swynnerton, of attacking his manor of Acton in Staffordshire “with the intention of killing him and his servants”. Sayer and Swynnerton would fight bitterly after this for ten years, in at least five court cases, over a payment of 300 marks that Swynnerton claimed Sayer owed him. Two others, Alan de Wodelowe and John de Beaurepeir, also had some involvement in this dispute on Sayer’s side, perhaps as trustees or lawyers.
In November 1320 Sayer de Rochford settled his two-thirds of the manor of La Grave on himself, his wife Elizabeth, Sir Peter de Limesy and John de Berowe for the rest of their lives, thereafter to Sayer’s heirs. The same Alan de Wodelowe acted as their attorney and John de Beaurepeir as a trustee to the transaction. Scolastica de Meaux put in a claim against the property. Her sister Juliana, however, was tried, convicted and ultimately burned for murdering her husband, Thomas Murdak, and all her property was taken into the king’s hands. The inquisition into the estates of their late brother Theobald de Gayton was re-opened, whereupon Scolastica claimed that the previous inquiry was mistaken and La Grave ought not to revert to Sayer.
The case rumbled on, but in early 1321 civil war broke out over tensions between several barons and Edward II’s new and equally unpopular favourites, the Despenser family. Edward’s fractious cousin Thomas of Lancaster was again at the head of the rebellion, with Sir Roger Mortimer of Wigmore and the spurned Sir Hugh Audley alongside him.
Sayer followed his father’s precedent and joined the rebels in the thick of it. Later records suggest that at this time he and Peter de Limesy’s son John were among Lancaster’s retainers and were based at Kenilworth Castle, which now belonged to the rebel earl. But when Sayer joined the rebellion it was Roger Mortimer’s band that he was drawn to, as were Peter de Limesy and several others who had been involved in the attack on Swynnerton’s property.
In spring 1321 the rebels set about raiding the Despensers’ property in Wales, then marched on to London where a standoff ensued in August. The king agreed to exile the Despensers to defuse the crisis, and on 14 September 1321 Sayer was one of the rebels pardoned for any harm done “against Hugh le Despenser, the son, and Hugh le Despenser, the father, between 1 March and 19 August last”. But Edward soon brought the Despensers back. On 22 January 1322 he forced Roger Mortimer to surrender at Shrewsbury and instructed the sheriffs to confiscate Mortimer’s retainers’ estates, including Sayer de Rochford’s property at La Grave. Here Sayer was called Serlo – an alias used for him on a number of occasions.
The rebellion fell apart after the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322. Another rebel leader, Humphrey de Bohun, earl of Hereford, was killed gruesomely on the battlefield with a pike through the anus, while Thomas of Lancaster was captured, summarily tried and beheaded at Pontefract few days later.
Sayer was imprisoned back at Kenilworth Castle, which the king had seized along with the rest of Lancaster’s estates, and soon after he was escorted to Pontefract Castle by Thomas le Rous, the sheriff of Warwick and Leicester. Rous and his associates looted whatever they could find of the rebels’ possessions, including various items that Sayer had left at Kenilworth: “a complete bed worth 13s 4d”, “two quarters of barley worth ten shillings a quarter”, and other goods worth forty marks.
Sayer’s wife Elizabeth, meanwhile, had retreated to Kenilworth Priory for safety, but this did not prevent Peter de Montfort of Beaudesert paying her a visit and, “by means of threats and against the will of the said Elizabeth”, forcing her to hand over a written bond by which Montfort was bound to Peter de Limesy for the extraordinary sum of £6000.
Roger Mortimer was sent to the Tower of London, from which he would escape and flee to France in early 1323. Many rebels were executed. Others contributed handsomely to the king’s coffers for the recovery of their lands. On 30 July 1322 “Sayer de Rocheford of the county of Warwick … made fine in 200 marks” for the recovery of his, for which John Darcy of Lincolnshire, Thomas de Barington of Staffordshire, John Murdak of Warwickshire and John de Barkeworth of Nottinghamshire stood as his guarantors. Bizarrely, the king sent instructions to Thomas le Rous to send a horse belonging to Sayer to Newcastle upon Tyne – perhaps Sayer had been released from the castle and he needed it to get home, or perhaps the king wanted it for himself.
By 10 June the next year Sayer had paid off his fine and an official was instructed to return his lands in Warwickshire. But he was not in the clear: the day before, the Close Rolls registered a new and far greater debt, this time to Hugh Despenser the elder, now earl of Winchester, for the extortionate sum of £2000, secured against Sayer’s properties in Lincolnshire and Warwickshire.
This is the first mention of Sayer in connection with Lincolnshire since the dispute between Sarah Foliot and his overlords at Riseholme, Thomas of Lancaster and Alice de Lacy, in 1317. His estates there do not appear to have been confiscated with La Grave. Perhaps the royal administration was oblivious to them. The surviving records of a feudal survey of 1325 do not cover Toft and Benington, but they do confirm that Sayer still held the manor of Riseholme as a knight’s fee worth £10 a year under the duchy of Lancaster.
Sayer’s debt to the Despensers was untenable. Had things remained the same, he and his heirs would have been indebted to them for years to come. But this was not to be. For some time tensions had been building between England and France over the English-owned duchy of Gascony, and 1324 war broke out there. On 7 January 1325 Sayer de Rochford (described as of Warwickshire) and other former rebels were ordered to meet the king at Portsmouth and prepare to sail for France. Perhaps wisely, the king decided not to join the campaign himself, and the force sailed under the earl of Surrey in April. Before departing Sayer found time to register two debts on the Close Rolls: one from himself to Robert of Worcester, a clerk, for 25 marks, and another from John de Fylengle, the parson of Speen, to himself for £50.
In the meantime Edward II’s queen, Isabella of France, went to Paris to negotiate with her brother Charles IV of France. But there she hooked up with the fugitive Roger Mortimer: they embarked on a scandalous affair and returned to England with an army in September 1326. They captured her husband, forced him to abdicate, and imprisoned him at Kenilworth. The Despensers were both executed, and Isabella’s young son was put on the throne as a puppet king, Edward III, while Mortimer and Isabella ruled in his name.
Sayer de Rochford was knighted for his allegiance to Roger Mortimer – the crown kindly purchased suitable apparel for him for the occasion, including robes of viridian and azure, a special cushion of gold cloth and a brown cloak. Then on 25 May 1327 Sayer was formally pardoned for any actions that might in the future be held against him.
Trouble was developing on the Scots border however, and on 4 July Sir Sayer appointed two attorneys, Richard de Boston and Roger atte Goter of Boston, to represent him while he headed to Scotland in the retinue of John Hotham, who was both Chancellor of the Exchequer and bishop of Ely. The English suffered a humiliating defeat at the battle of Stanhope Park and were manoeuvred into agreeing to the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which finally recognised Robert Bruce as king of Scotland.
This marked the start of the end for Roger Mortimer, whose excessive hunger for power and wealth riled his peers. The young King Edward III took Mortimer by surprise at Nottingham Castle and had him ignominiously hanged at Tyburn on 29 November 1330. So began the king’s personal rein.
For Sayer de Rochford, this was the end of a decade of allegiance to Mortimer. But whatever grievances Edward III held against Sayer were eventually forgiven, and over the following decades he would build a hugely successful career as a royal official.
Sayer’s closest ally during his time as Mortimer’s retainer had been Sir Peter de Limesy. In 1319 they went to Scotland together, in April 1320 they witnessed a charter together for John de Hardreshull, later that year they attacked Roger de Swynnerton’s manor of Acton together, and towards the end of the year Limesy was involved in Sayer’s settlement of La Grave. They were pardoned together for any harm done to the Despensers in 1321, and both their estates were confiscated on the surrender of Roger Mortimer in January 1322 – Limesy’s were at Bascote, about eleven miles east of Budbrooke, and Arley, about eighteen miles north. And somehow, during this time Sayer’s wife Elizabeth was in possession of one of Limesy’s most valuable legal documents: the £6000 written bond that Peter de Montfort plied off her.
Sir Peter de Limesy died in January 1325, before he was able to recover his property. An inquisition post mortem reported that he died “at York of a natural illness”, rather suspiciously. His son and heir, John de Limesy, set about trying to recover his inheritance at Arley and Bascote, which he finally achieved in 1326 after joining Sayer on expedition to Gascony. But at some point over the following decades the Rochfords acquired both of these properties, apparently by inheritance. From 1350 Sayer’s own son and heir, Sir John de Rochford II, was described as lord of Arley, and in 1402 Sir John’s son Sir Ralph III sold Bascote to Thomas Seyville. In 1434 this Sir Ralph asked the king to confirm a grant of free warren in Arley that Edward II had made to “Peter de Lymesy, and his heirs” in 1310. And at the siege of Rouen in 1418 Ralph bore the Limesy arms of a gold eagle displayed on a red field – Gules, an eagle displayed or –- quartering his own, Quarterly or and gules, a border sable bezanty, in a way that conventionally indicated descent from an heiress (illustrated on page 191). Ralph’s descendants continued this custom and displayed the Limesy arms liberally alongside their own in the windows of the village church at their later home, Stoke Rochford.
With this in mind, Sayer’s wife Elizabeth, who was Sir John de Rochford II’s mother, was almost certainly the heiress of the Limesys. John de Limesy was aged 24 in 1325, so just a few years younger than Sayer. Elizabeth was therefore probably John’s sister and Sir Peter de Limesy’s daughter. This would explain why Peter de Limesy was involved in Sayer’s settlement of La Grave, and why Elizabeth was in possession of Limesy’s legal papers when he was in prison. Returning to period immediately after Sayer’s parents died, it also appears increasingly likely that the young heir became Limesy’s ward: it was not at all unusual for men to marry their wards to their own children.
By the time of the battle of Stanhope Park in 1327, however, Sayer had turned his attentions away from Warwickshire. He was now primarily associated with Lincolnshire, and especially the area around Boston where the lands of his Rochford ancestors lay. And moreover, it was around this time that Sayer’s two eldest surviving sons were born: John by about 1330 and Ralph by 1332.
A curious memorandum in the Huntingfield cartulary records that Sayer still held property of the Huntingfields in Fenne, including “in the capital messuage of the manor of Fenne, all of the old ox house except one post, the new oxhouse, the old barn and the southern half of the new barn, the Dovecoteyard and the big orchard running from the tree called la Meeltre to the north”.
More comprehensively, a feudal survey of 1346 confirms that Sayer still had the two quarter knight’s fees at Toft and at Benington under the honour of Richmond, and the eleventh part of a knight’s fee under the Huntingfields of the honour of Craon, that his great-grandfather Ralph de Rochford I had held in the 1240s. The latter is the parcel that might have originated in the Huntingfields’ grant to Baldric the clerk of Fenne before 1155. Like his ancestors, Sayer formed a close relationship with the Huntingfields and witnessed a number of their charters after his move back to Toft. These include charters from Sir John son of Geoffrey Russell, Daniel son of Hugh de la Grene of Quadring, and Gilbert Rybold of Pinchbeck, rector of Carlton Curlieu, to Roger son of William de Huntingfield.
Sayer also acquired further land in the area, including a parcel in Toft from William de Burton and Joan his wife, and Richard son of Richard son of Helewise de Wrangle and Katherine his wife. And in 1346 Sayer, Robert Pynszon and John Horn of Boston granted land in Boston to the town church, “the said Saer retaining a messuage in Fenne, and the said Robert and John retaining messuages in Boston”.
The inquisition post mortem of Edmund of Woodstock, earl of Kent, who was executed by Roger Mortimer in 1330, records that a knight’s fee at Riseholme worth £10 a year was held under him by John de Rochford. This was possibly an error, as a similar inquisition after the death of Edmund’s son and heir, John, earl of Kent, in 1352 records that it was held by Sayer de Rochford. In any case, it is clear that the overlordship was not returned to Alice de Lacy after her late husband Thomas of Lancaster’s rebellion and execution. The latter inquisition is also the last record of the Rochfords owning property at Riseholme – it is not known what happened to it afterwards.
Whatever the reason for Sayer’s lack of connection with his Lincolnshire inheritance during his time as Mortimer’s retainer, it is here that he established himself as a leading county official in the time of Edward III. His first post was in May 1328 as a royal commissioner “de wallis, fossatis, etc.” to oversee the maintenance and development the fenland walls and ditches in Skirbeck wapentake. This was a role that he, his sons and grandsons would be appointed to repeatedly over more than a century. They must have acquired great expertise in the field, as their ancestor Ralph of Fenne had in his time, and no doubt these commissions brought considerable benefits to their own properties as well as their neighbours’.
In 1332 Sayer worked with Ebulo le Strange, justice of Lincolnshire and second husband of Alice de Lacy, the widow of Thomas of Lancaster. But locals complained that the pair were corrupt, and that Sayer had “had them summoned in arms, allegedly to maintain the peace, and extorted money from various people”. The king instructed the plaintiffs to take the matter before the courts, but we do not know the outcome.
The next year Sayer headed to Scotland again, this time in the retinue of Ebulo le Strange. War had broken out there between the supporters of the late Robert Bruce’s young son David II, and Edward Balliol, the son of John Balliol who had been king of Scotland before Bruce. The English joined Balliol to besiege Berwick, which was held by forces loyal to David, and together they routed Sir Archibald Douglas’ army at the battle of Halidon Hill nearby. King David fled to France.
Sayer was back in Scotland with le Strange in 1334 and 1335 to press the advantage, while the French joined the fray for their Scots allies. In January and February 1335 King Edward III sent intructions to Sayer and many other knights of the realm to join him in haste at Roxburgh with horses and arms to go against the Scots. Le Strange was killed while on campaign in September that year, so when Sayer headed to Scotland for a sixth time in September 1336, his captain was John de Willoughby of Eresby. It was a messy and inconclusive campaign of castles lost and won on either side.
Meanwhile, nearer to home in 1335 a disagreement between Sayer and his younger brother Thomas de Rochford had reached the court of Common Pleas. Thomas claimed that he and a third brother, John, should each have a third the “manor of Fenne” held under the honour of Richmond, since it was customarily to be split between male heirs. He gave a descent of the family stretching back to their great-grandfather Ralph de Rochford I, indicating that the reason it had not been split before was that in each generation there had only been one surviving male heir. The judges replied that unless Thomas could show the property had been split before, a court of common law could not support his claim. In fact, the last time there was more than one surviving male heir was in the 1150s: Albreda’s father, Ralph of Fenne, had a brother John, who was the parson of Quadring. The property in question does not appear to have been the main manor of Fenne, however. The wording of the case describes a property held in socage rather than for knight service, which would suggest that it was just the twenty-shilling carucate that Ralph de Rochford I held in 1242-1243. It may be that Ralph, or his parents Waleran and Albreda, were the first in the family to have this particular property, in which case it may never have been split.
The outcome of that case is not recorded, but by February 1336 Sayer had got into another, far more serious spat, this time with Elias de Hoxne, who was parson of either North or South Stoke. Tensions had spilled over, and Hoxne complained to chancery that Sayer and a mob of local hotheads had “broken his close and houses at Stoke by Grantham, carried away his goods and assaulted his servants”. From this it seems likely that Sayer now had the half-manor at South Stoke that his father, Sir Ralph, had held before 1316.
Despite fighting both at home and in Scotland, Sayer found time during 1336 to make arrangements for his eldest son and heir John’s marriage. Remarkably, the intended bride was Isabelle, a daughter of Sir Hugh Hastings of Elsing in Norfolk. The Hastings were a grand old family, and Sir Hugh was a grandson and nephew respectively of the two Hugh le Despensers executed by Roger Mortimer in 1326, as well as an uncle of the earl of Pembroke.
In two separate agreements, one dated 18 April at Scrane and the other 30 December at the Hastings’ property at Grimston, Nottinghamshire, the two knights hammered out a deal. Sir Hugh agreed “to give the said Sir Sayer two hundred marks of sterling”, and in return Sayer was to endow the young couple with property at Scrane that was now described as an independent manor. As the eldest son, of course John stood to inherit all of Sayer’s patrimony one day, but the Scrane property would provide them with a home and income in the meantime. Even so, the couple were still children at this time, so it was decided that “the manor of Screyng will remain in the keeping of Sir Sayer for as long as the children wish to remain in his company”, and he was to arrange appropriate care and subsistence for them. Moreover, if either child died within ten years, their parent would receive a large compensation from the other.
It was from this time that Sayer, now in his forties, began to play a prominent role in county administration, perhaps under the influence of his new family contacts. In June 1337 Sayer was appointed to his first royal commission since 1328, as a commissioner of the walls and ditches in an area of Lincolnshire known as the Parts of Holland. This was roughly the southeast quarter of the county around Boston and down to the Norfolk border, while the rest of the county was split between the slightly larger Parts of Kesteven in the southwest, and the much larger Parts of Lindsey in the north. In October that year Sayer was appointed to collect two taxes – a subsidy and scutage – in the same area. From this time he would hold royal commissions almost every year until 1363.
Tensions between England and France were at an all-time high. French fleets had been swarming off the English coast, and in early 1337 Philip VI of France confiscated the English-owned duchy of Gascony, triggering a war that would last for over a hundred years. In March 1338 Sayer was commissioned “to array all the men fit for armed service, both knights and esquires and others of those counties and to equip them with mounts and arms according to their status”, the king having “been given to understand that many men from the parts and lordship of France have gone to sea in various galleys and ships and invaded the king’s realm around Portsmouth”. On 6 July Sayer was commissioned again “to array the men of the county … for the defence of the realm against the French”, and he was also appointed “to keep the peace there, and to hear and determine trespasses”. This was Sayer’s first appointment as a justice. The following year, on 25 February 1339, he was described as the “keeper of the king’s peace in Holland, county Lincoln” when he was instructed to aid the sheriff in a case, and on 1 April 1339 he was formally appointed as justice of the peace in the county.
On the same day, however, Sayer was granted royal protection until midsummer to “set out in the king’s service at sea with other lieges in the company of William Trussell, admiral of the fleet, from the mouth of the Thames towards the west, for the defence of the realm”. A few days later the treasurer and barons of the exchequer were notified that Sayer would not be able to deliver recent tax collections until after his return.
The commons of Lincolnshire soon complained to the royal council that their new justice was not even in the country, let alone resident in the county where he was supposed to be keeping the peace. So Sayer was back in Lincolnshire by July, and on the twelfth of that month he was appointed to collect a wool tax in the county. King Edward III desperately needed funds to finance the war with France and Sayer was appointed to collect taxes again three times in 1340 – in February, April and August. In July that year the king instructed him and others to imprison anyone preventing them in their work, as “certain lords of towns and others in divers parts of England strive to defraud the king” of funds urgently needed “for the defence of the realm and for his expedition of war”. When Sayer was appointed to this task once more in March 1341 the king complained that the last tax had not reached him in France, forcing him to call off the siege of Tournay and agree a truce. In the same years Sayer was commissioned to enquire hastily into the killing of Gilbert Gosselyn at Holbeach, and also the killing of John son of Richard Mareschal of Hamelake at Goushill.
Despite the truce Edward III spent much of 1341 preparing for a renewal of war with France, using a quarrel over the succession to the duchy of Brittany as a pretext. On 3 November Sayer was summoned to join the royal council at Westminster in early December, presumably to discuss the war, and in November the next year he joined King Edward’s campaign to Brittany. This culminated in a siege of the city of Vannes (the poor city had already been besieged three times that year), until 19 January 1343 when a new truce was agreed between England and France. It would last until 1346.
After their return to England, King Edward rewarded Sayer for his good service in Brittany by granting him “exemption for life … from being put on assizes, juries of recognitions, and from appointment as mayor, coroner, sheriff, escheator or other bailiff or minister of the king, against his will”. But Sayer was not at all reluctant hold royal offices. Over the next year his career in government would take off in a new way.
In 1343 Sayer joined the wealthy Boston Guild of Corpus Christi, whose members would soon include the king, Queen Philippa, the Black Prince, John of Gaunt and many local lords, knights, merchants and clerics. Among its various activities, the guild managed various property grants and legacy, arranged prayers for the souls of deceased members on the anniversaries of their deaths, and provided charity for the poor.
In the same year Sayer was elected as a knight of the shire or MP for Lincolnshire for the parliament held at Westminster at Easter. In June he was appointed as a commissioner for the walls and ditches in Lincolnshire for the third time, the previous two having been in 1328 and 1337. He would be reappointed to this post numerous times before he finally retired – in 1351, 1352, 1353, 1355, 1356, 1358, 1361 and 1363. And just a few months later, in October 1343, Sayer was made a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire for the second time. Again, he would repeatedly hold this post throughout his career, being reappointed six times, in 1344 (briefly), 1345, 1348, 1355, 1359 and 1361. Towards the end of the year, on 25 November 1343 Sayer was appointed as sheriff of Lincolnshire – the top county post – for the first time. He was appointed to this office again with the office of escheator in 1344, and held both posts every year from 1348 to 1355: a total of nine times. It goes without saying that Sayer must have been an exceptionally gifted, hard-working and popular county official.
Alongside such offices Sayer carried out numerous ad-hoc royal commissions. In November 1343 he was commissioned to inquire into the estates of William Deyncourt. In March 1344 Sayer was commissioned to arrest “many evildoers and felons indicted … in the parts of Holande … Lyndeseye and Kestevene, co. Lincoln” who “run to and fro in divers counties of the realm perpetrating very many mischiefs, and in this way refuse to be brought to justice”. In May that year he was appointed to look into an attack on Thomas Tours of Somerby in Lincolnshire, in August to organise compensation for William de Letheneye who was attacked by pirates, and in October to carry out a survey in the Parts of Holland in Lincolnshire. In the next year, in October, Sayer was appointed to investigate the killing of John son of Robert Elyot of Spaldyng, in February 1346 the escape of two “vagabond” convicts, and in July an assault on John de Welby at Willeford. On 22 January 1347 he was again appointed to collect a tax in Lincolnshire.
Meanwhile, King Edward III had routed the French at Crécy in France in August 1346 and then headed north to take Calais. This would become single largest English venture of the Hundred Years’ War, involving an army of some 35,000 men. In early 1347 Sayer was called to join the siege, bringing with him three men-at-arms and six archers. In July he was still there in the retinue of Laurence Hastings, earl of Pembroke, a cousin of his daughter-in-law Isabelle. Calais finally surrendered to the English on 1 August, and would remain English property until Tudor times.
Back in Lincolnshire, in early 1348 Sayer was appointed to several royal commissions, including an inquiry into “evildoers who carried away the goods of Queen Philippa at the town of Boston … and assaulted her men and servants”, and another into whether John de la Warr had been taking profits from the honour of Richmond’s estates around Boston. The king had taken the honour from the duchy of Brittany in 1342 for safe-keeping during the wars in Brittany, and his son John of Gaunt now held it.
Sayer’s first wife, Elizabeth de Limesy, had died, and by 18 May 1348 he was remarried. On that day he settled some property in Toft, Benington, Skirbeck, Boston, Walpole in Norfolk, and Braunston in Rutland on himself and his new wife, Joan, and their heirs. She, meanwhile, brought property at Coleshill to the marriage as her dowry, which they leased to Sir John de Montfort for £8 a year.
Records from the next century reveal that Joan was a daughter of Sir Roger Hillary, a chief justice of the Common Pleas. These records include an inquisition post mortem into the estates of her only brother, also called Sir Roger Hillary, who died in 1400 although the inquisition was not carried out until 1403, and a complex legal case in 1431 tracing his heirs. These report that the younger Roger had no children and no brothers, so his estates were to pass to the heirs of his two sisters, who were dead by then: Joan the wife of Sayer de Rochford, and Elizabeth, whose husband was not named.
In the mid-1600s an antiquarian named Gervase Holles visited many Lincolnshire churches, documenting the various monuments and arms he saw in the stained glass windows. The windows of Stoke Rochford church were full of colourful depictions of the arms of the Rochfords and related families. In the east window, in the chancel above the alter, was one shield with the gold, red and black arms of the Rochfords – Quarterly or and gules, a border sable bezanty – another with the Hillarys’ coat of black fleurs-de-lis and crosses on a silver field with a red border – Argent, three floures-de-lize between nine crosses botony fitchy sable, a border gules – and a third with the two coats impaled side-by-side indicating marriage (illustrated on page 106). There was another coat in this window for the Grey family – six stripes of silver and blue, or Barry of six, argent and blue – which was perhaps for Joan’s niece Elizabeth, who was later married to Robert, Lord Grey of Rotherfield. The Rochford and Hillary arms combined could also be seen in the old St Mark’s church in Lincoln, in the same position – the east window above the alter.
By 1348 everyone in England must have been aware of the plague now known as the Black Death that was ripping its way across Europe. In July 1348 it reached the southern ports of England and spread rapidly across the country. Within two years the epidemic had killed between half and two-thirds of the English population.
The impact on society was unimaginable. Just as the plague arrived Sayer was re-appointed as a justice in Lincolnshire, and soon after also as sheriff and escheator – posts he would hold continuously until 1355. In 1351 he asked to be relieved of £20 18s 1d due to the crown from escheated estates, since he had nothing “because of the mortality”. Three years later he pleaded that he had been unable to raise more “because of the deadly pestilence of men and of tenants of the land, who died in the year 1349, and on account of the dearth of tenants”. The people were so impoverished they could pay nothing for “wapentakes”.
Government work ground on: in May 1349 Sayer was appointed by the crown to deal with the theft of a whale worth £1000 that had washed ashore at Leake in Lincolnshire, which ought to have belonged to Queen Philippa since she had the rights to “wreck of sea” there. But by the end of that year the epidemic was in retreat. Sayer’s neighbour Margery, the widow of William de Roos, decided to go on pilgrimage to Rome and appointed Sayer as her attorney in her absence. Sayer also acquired some more property in Walpole for himself and his wife Joan.
In February 1351 Sayer was commissioned to sort out the boundaries of the “old divisions between the Parts of Kesteven and Holand, as [the] crosses of stone there still standing … are so much inundated and otherwise hidden that there is complete ignorance of those metes and bounds, divers debates have arisen between the lords and other men of the towns of those parts”. And in August 1352 he was commissioned to sort out the bridges and causeways in the Parts of Holland, which were in such a state of disrepair “that there is great danger to those passing by them”.
In May 1354 Sayer finally sold whatever remaining interest he had in the manor of La Grave for £100 to Sir John Hastang, who already had the main manor in Budbrooke. Evidently it had become a ghost village after the plague. Shortly after, the king granted Sayer the wardship of the lands of John, the young son and heir of William de Healing, in Healing and Great Cotes in Lincolnshire, while Sayer’s brother-in-law Roger Hillary was appointed as guardian of the young heir.
At the end of the year Sayer undertook his last major case as sheriff of Lincolnshire: to deal with Sir Roger Darcy, who had “made various hostile assaults” on William de Skipwith, a justice in Lincolnshire, whom he had taken violently by the throat “in the hall where they were sitting for judgement …. with drawn sword before all the people who would have killed him … the king is not without reason disturbed”. On 16 February 1355, Sayer handed the shrievalty and escheatry of Lincolnshire to Thomas de Fulnetby.
Over the next few years Sayer was based at his manor of Fenne near Boston. He must have been almost sixty years old, if he was not already, but he was not yet ready to retire. A few days after stepping down as sheriff and escheator he was appointed as a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire again, and he continued to accept commissions of the walls and ditches in Lincolnshire and Norfolk. From 1358 he would often carry these out with his second son, Ralph. And on 20 June 1358 Sayer was summoned to join a great council or conference at Westminster on 22 July.
It was in 1359, however, that Sayer was entrusted with what was probably the most important royal commission of his life. In September 1356 his son Ralph was with the forces of the king’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, at the battle of Poitiers, where they captured the French king John II together with his youngest son, some forty nobles and thousands of knights and esquires. The Black Prince brought the most valuable captives back to England, where they were held at various locations; the rest were ransomed off in France.
On 27 July 1359 Sirs William Deyncourt, John de Kirketon, William Colville, John Deyncourt and Sayer de Rochford were appointed to the most valuable prisoner of all, John II of France himself, who was being kept at Hertford Castle. They were to securely transfer him to Somerton Castle in Lincolnshire with a guard of twenty-two men-at-arms, twenty archers and two warders, and to “keep him there safely at their peril”. For this Sayer and the other knights were to be paid two shillings each a day – pro rata equivalent to about £36 a year.
A week later Sayer was appointed to a commission to raise a squad of sixty archers and ten knights in Lincolnshire, to be sent to the town of Sandwich in Kent. But he must have sent a deputy or left the task to his colleagues on the commission, given the great risk and sensitivity of his appointment to guard the French king.
In spring the following year King Edward III, who was campaigning in France, learned “for certain that the enemies … are actually at sea with a host of men at arms, armed men and others with horses, probably purposing to invade the realm, seize the said adversary out of the king’s hands and bring him out of England”. Fearful of losing their prize, on 2 March the council wrote to Sayer and the others to remind them, “upon their allegiance and under pain of forfeiture, not to relinquish the charge of keeping the said adversary”, and that the French king was to be moved to Berkhampstead Castle, but that John Bokingham, keeper of the privy seal, and Sir Ralph Spigurnel were on their way to oversee matters “and to expound to them the intention of the council”.
The council was concerned about spies within the administration. Their true intention, only to be shared in person, was very different: a meticulously planned relay to conduct the prisoner to the Tower of London. Writs were sent to the sheriff and arrayers of the counties along the route, instructing them to be ready at a specified time and place, always before sunrise, with a fresh force of mounted men-at-arms and archers to complete the next leg. A Lincolnshire force was to take the prisoner from Somerton, on 20 March, to Grantham and then Stamford. A Northamptonshire force was to be ready to collect him there on 22 March and take him via High Ferrers to Woburn Abbey, and a Bedfordshire force was to take him from there on 24 March to St Albans and finally London.
On 8 May 1360 King John of France’s release was finally secured through the Treaty of Bretigny, which granted King Edward III territories amounting to about a third of France and a ransom of three million crowns. Sayer and his companions were finally discharged on 24 May that year and they were well rewarded.
Over the next three years Sayer completed two more stints as a commissioner for the walls and ditches in Lincolnshire and Norfolk, and one more as a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire. After this he appears to have more-or-less retired from public life.
In 1366 Sayer acquired some land in Gosberton, Lincolnshire, and in 1368 and 1370-1371 he bought parcels of land in North and South Stoke. In October 1371 Elizabeth, the widow of Sir Edmund de Rye, appointed Sayer as her attorney to take care of her family property, but he does not appear to have lived long after. The last record of Sayer is a final commission as a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire on 25 August 1372, by which time he was in his late seventies. Presumably he died soon after.
Sir Sayer de Rochford’s achievements had been considerable – he was the first to establish the Rochfords as one of Lincolnshire’s leading knightly families. After his rebellious early years, he was able to gain the trust of Edward III by serving in the Scottish wars and as a junior county official. He worked his way up the ranks on numerous commissions, and eventually he became the pre-eminent royal official in Lincolnshire as sheriff and escheator for a decade. He served for 22 years as a justice, and his reputation must have been impeccable when Edward appointed him to keep the captured king of France.
Remarkably, three of Sayer’s sons would become knights. They had a close connection to King Edward III’s fourth son, John of Gaunt, who was Sayer’s overlord at Fenne as earl of Richmond, and who also became duke of Lancaster after the death of his father-in-law, Henry of Grosmont, nephew and heir of the rebel earl Thomas of Lancaster. It may be that Sayer was able to arrange for his sons to be educated at Grosmont’s court.
Sayer’s family is complex to work out, not least because he had two sons called John. If this seems odd, it was not particularly uncommon. In the 1500s Sir William Skeffington famously had two sons named Thomas under similar circumstances: they had different mothers.
The elder John, known from the 1350s as Sir John de Rochford, and in this book as Sir John de Rochford II, was Sayer’s eldest son and heir. He was born by 1330 and his mother was Elizabeth, who was probably a Limesy. Sayer and Elizabeth had a second son, Ralph, born by 1332, who was unusually prominent for a younger son. While John inherited the family’s ancestral estates, Sayer provided extremely well for Ralph in other property, most notably around Walpole in Norfolk. The two brothers may well have been twins.
The younger John was Sayer’s eldest son with his second wife, Joan Hillary, and would become a coheir to the Hillary estates. He was born between about 1354 and 1357, and first appears on record in 1377. Until the 1390s, when his older brother Sir John retired from public life, he was variously known as John de Rochford of Boston, John de Rochford the Younger, or John son of Sayer de Rochford the Younger. Only a Latin reading of this last moniker makes it clear that “the Younger” here refers to John, not Sayer: “Johannes filius Saieri de Rochford junior”.
John the Younger was knighted in 1399 and thereafter usually known as Sir John de Rochford, not long after his older brother Sir John died; so on a less detailed reading of the primary evidence these might appear to be the same person. And while a record of grants to Barlings Abbey in 1390 seems to suggest that John of Boston and John the Younger were not the same person, a charter that he witnessed in 1389 and a series of transactions of the manor of Thetford in the 1390s make it absolutely clear that they were.
Understandably, all this has led to much confusion in accounts of the family. Most common are mix-ups over which John was which, and the claim that there were two Sir Sayer de Rochfords, perhaps father and son, each with a son called John. Sayer’s remarkably long career and the long gap between the birth of his eldest and youngest sons make it tempting to believe so. But the Sayer who married the younger John’s mother by 1348 was a knight at the time, and the Sir Sayer who was born in the 1290s is known to have been alive and well in 1354 around the time of the younger John’s birth: when he sold La Grave, he was described as “Sayer son and heir of Ralph de Rochford, knight” in direct reference to how he had an interest in it. The period demonstrates a clear continuity and growing precedence in records that can only refer to one increasingly succssful Sir Sayer, and there is nothing in the evidence to suggest there might have been more than one.
There was another Sayer de Rochford, but he was not a knight. He was the rector of Benington in 1377 and 1381, and probably a younger son of one of Sir Sayer’s marriages, but it is not known which. There are two others who were probably also younger sons of Sir Sayer: Richard de Rochford, who was parson of Benington and acted as an attorney for Sir Sayer in 1359 and for Sir John de Rochford II in 1366 and 1370, but is not otherwise recorded; and Edmund de Rochford, who was involved in a transaction with Sir Sayer in 1368. The 1562 Visitation of Lincolnshire also records a daughter, Elizabeth de Rochford, who was said to have married Sir Richard Winceby, although no primary evidence of this has been found.
The three accounts that follow are for Sir Sayer’s most prominent sons, Sir John, Sir Ralph and John the Younger.