“John son and heir of Sir Sayer de Rocheford” first appears on record in 1336 when his father arranged his marriage to Isabelle, daughter of Sir Hugh Hastings. John and Isabelle were both still children at the time – we do not know how old they were, but John was of age by October 1350, so he must have been born by 1330. Perhaps he was as young as six.
In any case, the arrangement was for the young couple to remain in the care of John’s father until they wished to go their own way, whereupon Sayer was to give them the family manor of Scrane as a nest egg. In time, of course, John would inherit all the family ancestral estates around Boston and elsewhere.
It is not known for certain whether John and Isabelle’s marriage went ahead as planned, but it seems very likely, since the original documents relating to the agreement were carefully stored in the Hastings family archives and where they remain today. Assuming the marriage did go ahead, Isabelle must have passed away quite young in life, as John was married again at least once, if not twice, by 1372.
John first appears on record as an adult in 1350, when he and his brother Ralph were appointed with eight others as “assistants” to the Boston Guild of Corpus Christi. Their father had been a member since 1343 and it must have been under his ambitious influence that the two brothers received these valuable posts. Their co-assistants apparently included the king’s younger son John of Gaunt, who was still only ten, the chamberlain of the exchequer John Bokingham, and the Lincolnshire heirs Robert de Willoughby of Eresby and Ralph de Cromwell. The networks John and Ralph were to establish early in life would serve them well throughout.
In October that year “John de Rocheford, knight, lord of Arleye” leased some land in that village to Robert le Meleward for a rent of 6s 8d a year and a requirement to attend his court in Arley three times a year. The lordships of Arley and Bascote had belonged to the Limesys until at least 1326 when John de Limesy successfully petitioned the crown for their return after his father, Sir Peter de Limesy, died. It appears that John de Limesy had died and John de Rochford had inherited this property through his mother Elizabeth, who must have been John de Limesy’s sister or some other close relative.
It is notable that John de Rochford was already a knight – he was the first member of his family ever to have been knighted before inheriting his father’s estates – and again, this was probably guided by his father’s ambitions. John appeared in a heraldic roll of arms around this time, now known as Powell’s Roll, with the same arms of gold, red and black that his grandfather Sir Ralph Rochford II had in the Lord Marshall’s, Collins’ and Parliamentary rolls: Quarterly or and gules, a border sable bezanty.
Nevertheless, Sir John, unlike his father and younger brother Ralph, was not active in public life at all until much later in life. Consequently there are few records of him during his early years, but those that survive see him more closely connected with the family’s Lincolnshire homelands than the Warwickshire estates he inherited from his mother. In October 1358 John bought a messuage and a small parcel of land in Toft for twenty marks. In 1364 he witnessed a grant from John de Willoughby to Sir William de Smythweyt of the manor of Raithby in Lincolnshire. In spring 1366 John was a trustee with Sir Theobald Trussell and others for a settlement of Sir William de Skipwith’s manors of Calthorpe, Covenham and Uphalle in Lincolnshire, worth £300, for which they registered a debt in the chancery, but this was ultimately cancelled in February 1370. And in October 1366 John was involved in his father’s purchase of land in Gosberkirk from Clement Bradhowe of Spalding and Osanna his wife.
Apparently Sir John de Rochford’s role as an assistant to the Corpus Christi guild did not qualify him as a full member, because its register records that he joined fully in 1364. But his career really seems to have begun with the outbreak of war in Castile in 1366. King Edward III’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, got involved; and soon after the prince’s younger brother John of Gaunt, who was now 26 and both duke of Lancaster and earl of Richmond, got involved too. Sir John de Rochford had been on Gaunt’s payroll since 1361, when the latter inherited the duchy of Lancaster from his father-in-law. On 2 November the king granted “protection to John duke of Lancaster and for Sir John de Rocheford, and 21 others in his retinue going to Aquitaine” to join the Black Prince. Two days later Sir John de Rochford appointed Richard de Rochford, parson of Benington, who was probably his younger brother, and Thomas Claymond as his attorneys in his absence. By spring the next year they were in Castile, and on 3 April the combined forces of the Black Prince, John of Gaunt and Pedro “the Cruel” of Castile routed the French and Castilian forces of Pedro’s brother Enrique II at the battle of Nájera.
On Sir John’s return he found that John Martyn, Walter de Stickney and others had “broke his close at Skirbek, co. Lincoln, burned his houses there, took away his goods, and assaulted, wounded and imprisoned his men and servants”, and he sought their arrest in January 1368.
In 1369 war broke out again with France. The new French King Charles V rejected the Treaty of Bretigny and declared all English possessions in France forfeit, including Aquitaine. In July John of Gaunt headed on expedition to Calais with Sir John de Rochford among his retainers again, and this time John’s younger brother Sir Ralph de Rochford joined them too. They pillaged Normandy and marched on Harfleur but ultimately achieved little and returned to England in autumn.
In July the following year Sir John prepared to head to France with John of Gaunt for a third time, appointing Richard de Rochford and Thomas Claymond as his attorneys again. Gaunt’s older brother the Black Prince was present on the campaign on this occasion and it was far more successful than the last. It culminated in the siege and sack of Limoges, after which more than 3,000 of the city’s people were slaughtered, if the chronicler Jean Froissart is to be believed.
There is then a break in the record for several years until 1373. In June that year Robert Haunsard granted the reversion of his ancestors’ manor of South Kelsey in north Lincolnshire to Richard de Ravenser, archdeacon of Lincoln, and others, noting that “John de Rocheford, knight, and Beatrice his wife” were currently in possession of it for the rest of her life. Beatrice was the widow of Robert’s father, Sir Robert Haunsard, and was possibly also the younger Robert’s mother. It is not known when she married Sir John de Rochford, but it could have been some years before: Sir Robert was already dead by 1362 when the Black Prince, who was overlord of the South Kelsey property, instructed his Lincolnshire official to let Beatrice have it as her dower.
It was around this time that Sir John de Rochford’s father, Sir Sayer, appears to have died – his last appearance on record was a final commission as justice of the peace in the summer of 1372. As eldest son and heir, John would then have come into full possession of the family estates in Fenne, Scrane and elsewhere in and around Boston, which he could add to the property at Arley and Bascote that he had probably inherited through his mother.
Sir John did not settle down, however. In May 1373 he and his brother Ralph were granted protection to go on campaign in France again under John of Gaunt’s command, with Sir Robert de Willoughby as their captain. Gaunt’s forces departed from Calais in August 1373 with some 9,000 to 11,000 men. They raided their way past Paris, through Champagne and Burgundy, and arrived in Bordeaux in December with at least half their number dead or deserted. It was a remarkable feat, if not very useful in the context of a very long war.
By July 1374 Sir John de Rochford was back in England, when he witnessed a charter with his brother Sir Ralph for Andrew de Leek relating to property in the villages of Leake and Leverton, near John’s home village of Fenne. There is then another short break in the record until 1377, when John’s fortunes dramatically changed.
In late 1376 Edward III was dying. The Black Prince was already dead and his young son Prince Richard, heir to the throne of England , was just ten years old. John of Gaunt was regent in all but name, and he was at loggerheads with the Commons. In December Gaunt called for a parliament to sit at Westminster in January the next year. The men of Lincolnshire elected Sir John de Rochford and Sir John Auncell as their knights of the shire to represent them there. This would come to be known as the Bad Parliament: between 27 January and 2 March 1377 much that had been achieved in the previous year’s Good Parliament to control corruption in the royal council was unravelled under Gaunt’s unrestrained influence.
Given that Sir John de Rochford had no prior experience of public life, his long association with Gaunt must have had some part to play in his sudden election to parliament. Within a few days of the parliament ending Sir John was appointed to his first two royal commissions, one as a justice of the peace and the other as a commissioner of the walls and ditches, both in Lincolnshire. Around the same time his younger brothers Sir Ralph and John the Younger were appointed as commissioners of the walls and ditches in Norfolk. Ralph was an experienced royal official but this was also John the Younger’s first commission.
Most records distinguish clearly between Sir John and John the Younger, who was not knighted until 1399, after the older John’s death. There are a few records where the wording and context do not make it clear, but in these cases the brothers’ relative precedence can be used to identify who is being referred to. William de Spaigne was a frequent colleague on royal commissions and serves as a particularly useful marker: he was junior to Sir John but senior to John the Younger, and therefore named after and before them respectively in records of royal commissions. Thus it was Sir John who was commissioned on 29 April 1377 to array the men of Holland, Lincolnshire, “as the king has heard that his enemies and their adherents are arraying themselves from all parts with a great number of people and a great multitude of ships and boats to assail and destroy the king, his realm and navy by land and sea”.
Edward III died of a stroke on 21 June. His young grandson was shortly crowned Richard II. Sir John’s recent commissions were confirmed, and by summer the next year he was on campaign again with his brother Sir Ralph in France under John of Gaunt, this time for the siege of St Malo. The campaign was a failure and Gaunt’s forces returned ingloriously to England in September.
Back at home, in January 1379 Sir John de Rochford was appointed as a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire for a second time, and afterwards he would be reappointed to this role in 1380, 1381 and 1382. On 20 March 1380 he was commissioned “to array and equip all the men” of the Parts of Holland in Lincolnshire “between the ages of sixteen and sixty, and to keep them, the men-at-arms, hobelers and archers, in readiness to resist foreign invasion”.
The ongoing war with France was putting huge pressure on the finances of the nation. The parliament at Northampton in November 1380 passed a third poll tax, and on 7 December Sir John was appointed as one of the commissioners to supervise its collection in Lincolnshire. The records of this tax for Skirbeck wapentake survive. They list 195 individuals in the parish of Toft, with “John de Rocheford, knight” and “Beatrix his wife” at the head of the list. Their assessment of 13s 6d was the highest of anyone in the wapentake, while John the Younger, who was taxed in Boston, had the next largest assessment at ten shillings. The sums demanded from ordinary villagers were far smaller, typically 12d or 4d, but they were enough to trigger an uprising in Essex that spread rapidly and violently across the county in June 1381: the Peasants’ Revolt.
On 6 June that year Sir John was granted protection to go on campaign with John of Gaunt in Aquitaine, and on 4 July he appointed attorneys to represent him in his absence, but the expedition appears to have been shelved. Gaunt was a primary target for the rebels – they wanted him beheaded, and his palace of Savoy in London was burnt to the ground. Gaunt fled to Scotland for safety while the revolt was speedily repressed, but unrest continued to simmer across the county. On 10 July one of the John de Rochford brothers – probably Sir John – was commissioned “to array the king’s lieges in the county of Lincoln … to resist the insurgents”. And on 14 December Sir John was appointed “to preserve the peace, with power to arrest those who congregate in unlawful assemblies or who incite insurrections” in Lincolnshire, and “to put down the rebels and with armed force, if necessary, suppress the said assemblies”.
On 8 March the following year, 1382, the two Johns were commissioned together with several others to keep the peace in Lincolnshire, and “to arrest, imprison and punish such rebels and any who incite rebellion, to suppress their meetings, arrest their goods, or take security as they think fit. If the meetings are suspicious or excessive in number they are to take the county posse, both knights and esquires, lead them against the rebels, seize any found committing the offences aforesaid, and do justice upon them without delay.” In December the commission was renewed, and the two Johns were also appointed as justices of the peace together for the county.
This was Sir John’s last stint in that role, but he continued to hold positions on ad-hoc royal commissions into the early 1390s. In 1384 he was appointed to investigate troublemakers at a market in Wragby belonging to Beatrice, the widow of Sir Thomas de Roos of Helmsley. In July 1386 he was appointed to a commission of the walls and ditches with John the Younger, and on 25 September that year he was appointed with their brother Sir Ralph “to make proclamation … that no armourers or vendors of arms, armour of horses sell the same at a dearer rate than their reasonable value heretofore … on information that because men-at-arms, archers and others are coming to London on the king’s summons to join his army to resist the French invasion, the dealers are raising prices”.
Meanwhile, John of Gaunt had sailed for Spain in the hope of winning the throne of Castile. On this occasion Sir John de Rochford was not with him, and the knight appears to have left the duke’s service, since the last year he appears on the payroll is 1385.
In Gaunt’s absence, twenty-year-old King Richard II’s reign rapidly descended into crisis. A group of nobles calling themselves the Lords Appellant staged a coup and set about ruling the country in Richard’s name. At the Merciless Parliament of 1388 they sentenced Richard’s favourites to death. Sir John de Rochford, Sir Ralph, John the Younger and Ralph’s son Henry all appear on a parliamentary list of Lincolnshire knights, esquires and merchants who swore allegiance to the Lords Appellant. Matters were diffused only when Gaunt returned the next year, albeit without the crown of Castile on his head.
During this period Sir John supported a number of local property transactions for his Lincolnshire associates. In 1381 he witnessed an agreement between Gilbert de Umframville, earl of Angus, and Richard de Ravenser, archdeacon of Lincoln. In 1384 he was involved in John son of William de Flete’s purchase of property in Holbeach from John son of Thomas de Segeford and Alice his wife. In 1388 Sir John witnessed a charter from Elizabeth, the widow of Simon Simeon of Grimsthorpe, to the parson of Gosberkirk. And in 1390 he was a trustee in the conveyance of the manor of Cottesmore by Richard Saling and Lora his wife to John Bozon. Sir John also dealt a little in his own property, granting a field in Arley to John Burzate and Agnes his wife. In 1386 he also had some interest at Skidbrooke, about forty miles north of Fenne, where Elizabeth daughter of Thomas de Dotheby held a little property under him.
During the final years of his life Sir John de Rochford carried out a few further royal commissions. In May 1391 he and his brother John the Younger were appointed to deal with some Lincolnshire chaplains who were refusing to carry out their duties. It is not clear which of them was appointed as sheriff of Lincolnshire in 1391, but whichever it was must also be the one appointed in February 1392 to investigate serious allegations that men were counterfeiting the king’s seal at Lincoln. In May 1392 the two Johns were appointed together once more to deal with rebellious chaplains in Lincolnshire.
This is the last certain record of Sir John alive. In 5 June 1395 Sir Robert de Willoughby of Eresby, who had been John’s captain on their great expedition to France in 1373, wrote a will leaving “siz esquiells and siz sawesers marked Sir John de Rochefort” to his son John de Willoughby. Presumably Sir John de Rochford had left these to his old captain in his own will, although no record of such a document survives.
In 1396 an inquisition post mortem was carried out into the estates of the late Roger Corbet of Leigh, long after he had died in 1381. The inquisition reported that Corbet had held a third part of the manor of Arley “of John Rochforde, knight, by knight’s service” and that “the said John Rochford, knight, and Ralph his son and heir have taken the issues and profits since the said Roger’s death by reason of the minority” of Roger’s heir. It is not clear from this whether Sir John was still alive at the time of the inquisition, or had died in the interim – if not, presumably he died soon after as nothing more is heard of him.
Around the time of his death Sir John appeared in a second roll of arms, this time alongside his younger brother Sir Ralph. Here John’s arms had eleven gold coins or bezants in the border, as they had in Powell’s Roll of around 1350, while Ralph’s had ten bezants and an annulet in the second quarter.
Sir John’s life had been dominated by, and to a large extent dependent upon, his association with John of Gaunt. Its standout features are the mostly ill-fated campaigns in France and Spain (John joined at least five) and his sudden appearance in public life when the balance of power swung in Gaunt’s favour. He was perhaps not as brilliant as his father Sayer was, or as his brother John the Younger and his son and heir, Ralph, would be. Nevertheless, Sir John competently maintained his family’s status and property in Lincolnshire and Warwickshire, and his allegiance to Gaunt set the stage for their extraordinary rise under the house of Lancaster in the next century.
Ralph was Sir John’s only known child, and he was born by about 1370. It is not known when John’s intended first wife Isabelle de Hastings died, or when he married Beatrice, or which, if either, was Ralph’s mother. Ralph himself went on to marry a lady whose mother was Isabelle de Hastings’ niece, but this neither supports not precludes his mother being a Hastings. And there are no records to suggest any particularly strong connection between Ralph and the Haunsards, which might be expected if they were related. Meanwhile, the Lincolnshire Visitation of 1562 reports under an entry for the Tamworth family that Maud daughter of Nicholas de Tamworth was Sir John’s wife and Ralph’s mother. This is entirely plausible: Nicholas de Tamworth was alive in 1372, when he had custody of the castle of Calais, and he died by 1383, so he could have been Sir John’s father-in-law. Moreover, a member of the Tamworth family would be an executor for Ralph’s will in the next century. Nevertheless, no primary evidence has been found to confirm any marriage between the two families.
The next two accounts are of Sir John de Rochford II’s younger brothers Ralph de Rochford of Walpole and John de Rochford the Younger, after which we return to Sir John’s son and heir, Ralph III.