The earliest record of Ralph de Rochford of Walpole is his appointment with his older brother Sir John de Rochford II as an assistant to the Boston Guild of Corpus Christi in 1350. Since one of the other assistants, John of Gaunt, was still only ten years old, young age was clearly no barrier to entry. But in 1352 “Ralph de Rocheforde son of Saier de Rocheforde” granted some land in Norfolk to Thomas de Oxwyk. The details of this grant are not yet known, but Ralph must have been of age by this time; he would have been born by about 1332, so his mother was Sayer’s first wife, Elizabeth.
Ralph had a remarkably good start in life for a younger son, so he was certainly Sayer’s second son and may even have been John’s twin. He based himself at Walpole in Norfolk, where his father already had property in 1348. It is about 25 miles south of Fenne, in an area then called Marshland Hundred, on the southwest coast of The Wash.
Unlike his older brother, Ralph’s first royal appointment was early in life, in November 1352 as a commissioner of the walls and ditches in Marshland Hundred. Like his father Sayer, Ralph was frequently reappointed to such commissions throughout his life, both there and in neighbouring parts of Cambridgeshire, reaching a total of nine commissions between 1352 and 1391. For three of these, in 1355, 1363 and 1368, Ralph and his father served together. For one, in 1377, Ralph’s brother John the Younger joined him.
Around 1353-1355 Ralph and his wife Matilda acquired properties from his father Sayer, Robert de Stikenay and Ralph de Bigeney in the villages of Walpole, Hindringham, Barsham, Kettlestone, Creake and Guist, all in the north of Norfolk. It is not known who Matilda was, but this property probably formed part of their marriage agreement.
In March 1356 Ralph was granted royal protection to join Sir Reginald Cobham and others in the company of the Black Prince for his invasion of France. They set out in August from English-owned Aquitaine, raiding their way north to meet the forces of King John II of France at Poitiers. The French were outmanoeuvred and several thousand of their men were captured, including the king himself and his youngest son. It was one of the great English victories of the Hundred Years’ War.
It is probably in connection with this that Ralph was knighted. He was granted royal protection again on 24 August 1358, and on this occasion he was explicitly called a knight for the first time. There were no major English campaigns in France in that year – the focus was on securing the best possible terms in return for releasing the French king. So it is not clear what Ralph’s movements were that summer, but he was probably back in Norfolk by November when he was appointed to another commission of the walls and ditches in Marshland Hundred, with his father.
From 1365 Sir Ralph’s range of royal commissions expanded. In July that year he was appointed as a justice of the peace in Norfolk, and in 1366 he was appointed as a commissioner of array for the Parts of Kesteven in Lincolnshire, shortly before his older brother Sir John was given royal protection to join John of Gaunt’s expedition to Castile.
King John of France had been released in 1360 under the Treaty of Bretigny, which granted the English a fair chunk of France and a ransom of three million gold crowns to be paid by installments. But the French king died in 1364 and in 1369 his son, Charles V of France, ripped up the treaty, confiscated Aquitaine and all other English possessions in France, and declared war on England. In July Sir Ralph de Rochford and his brother Sir John joined John of Gaunt on a punitive expedition into the north of France. They pillaged Normandy and marched on Harfleur, but dysentery and plague set in amongst their forces. They returned to England in autumn having achieved little. In November Ralph was appointed as a justice of the peace for Norfolk once more.
It was around this time that Ralph’s father, Sir Sayer, died, and it may be that Ralph inherited or acquired some property in Lincolnshire, as he became more involved in that county’s matters from the 1370s. In 1371 he was party to a settlement of Hippetoft Hall and property in Freiston and Toft, and in a remarkable charter of 1373 he manumitted or made free a serf, “Thomas the son of Alexander Benrige dwelling in Benington with all his posterity begotten and to be begotten … that neither I, the aforesaid Ralph, nor my heirs, nor anyone … in our name, shall henceforward be able to demand or sell any claim of the right of servile tenure upon the aforesaid Thomas and his posterity in any manner whatever.”
Ralph joined his brother on two further campaigns under John of Gaunt. In August 1373 they set out from Calais with their captain Sir Robert de Willoughby in an army of some ten thousand men for a great raid through French territories, finally reaching Bordeaux in December. Their intention was to relieve Aquitaine, but their forces were severely depleted and in April the next year Gaunt sailed home. The Rochford brothers were back in England by July 1374 when they witnessed a charter together for Andrew de Leek regarding property at Leake and Leverton, both near Fenne.
In summer 1378 Sir John and Sir Ralph joined Gaunt’s last campaign in France, the siege of St Malo. Their forces were limited and the enterprise was a failure. They returned to England in autumn that year. But by this time King Edward III was dead, and with his successor Richard II being only eleven years old, Gaunt was the most powerful man in England. Ralph’s brother Sir John de Rochford’s career was in the ascendant, and Ralph’s own soon followed, if not to quite the same degree.
In early 1379 Ralph and Sir John Auncell were elected as knights of the shire to represent Lincolnshire at the Westminster parliament at Easter – a post to which Ralph’s older brother had been elected only two years before. Ralph was also appointed to two ad-hoc Lincolnshire commissions in that year. One, in August 1379, was to investigate suspected corruption in the collection of taxes in the Parts of Lindsey, Kesteven and Holland. The other, for which his brother John the Younger joined him, was to deal with “the persons who by night scaled with ladders the walls of the house of Friars Preachers in Boston … broke their doors and windows” and assaulted the prior and his friars in their beds. But the king seems to have determined that the victims deserved it, as in February the next year the commission was cancelled and Ralph and his colleagues were instructed to free anyone they had imprisoned as a result.
Ralph’s year at the forefront of county politics did not persist – it would be seven years before he received another royal commission. But he continued to be involved in local property transactions, mainly in Lincolnshire. In 1381 he acquired (or became a trustee for) some property in Hagworthingham that had belonged to John del Chaumbre of Walpole and Sarah his wife, with the help of his brother John de Rochford the Younger. In 1382 Ralph was involved with Robert de Leek in property deals at Leake and Leverton, in 1383 with Thomas Claymond at Pettistree in Suffolk, and in 1385 with Robert de Cumpton at Ashby by Partney near Hagworthingham.
By this time French plans for a major invasion of England were well underway. The panicked English administration summoned men from all over the country to London to form a defence force. Traders in Lincolnshire and elsewhere sniffed an opportunity to make a quick buck, hiking their prices as local men-at-arms and archers kitted themselves out for war. The royal council was not impressed, and in September 1386 it sent instructions to Sir Ralph, his brother Sir John and others to proclaim throughout Lincolnshire that “armourers and vendors of arms, armour and horses” were not to sell their wares “at a dearer rate than their reasonable value heretofore, under pain of forfeiture”.
By a stroke of good luck for the English, bad weather on the channel prevented the French fleet from mounting its invasion. But Richard II’s reign was already in crisis. In 1388 the self-styled Lords Appellant seized control of the kingdom. Sir Ralph, his eldest son Henry, and his brothers Sir John and John the Younger were among the Lincolnshire knights and gentry who swore allegiance to the Appellants on 20 March that year.
Ralph was now at least 56 years old and nearing the final years of his life, during which he returned his focus to his Norfolk home. In May 1388 he was appointed to one more ad-hoc commission with John the Younger, to investigate a quarrel over the manor of Denver in Norfolk; and on 3 July 1391 he was appointed to his final commission of the walls and ditches around Marshland Hundred.
This is the last record of Ralph, and he probably died soon after, around the same time as his older brother Sir John. Ralph was definitely dead by May 1400 when a royal investigation into flooding around Marshland Hundred found that he had not received his last commission and therefore the treasurer and the barons of the exchequer were to halt any proceedings against his executors.
Ralph was buried in Walpole St Peter’s church beside his wife, Matilda, who had died some time before in 1369. Most of the church had been destroyed by a sea flood in 1337, after which rebuilding was delayed by the Black Death. The new nave and aisles were completed only in the late 1300s, during Ralph’s time. He must have been one of the major benefactors to the project, and possibly funded the whole of the north aisle. In the 1700s, when Francis Blomefield and Charles Parkin wrote their History of Norfolk, the stained glass windows of this aisle and north side of the nave were full of arms and portraits of Ralph’s family, and the east end of the aisle was “taken in by a screen, and was the chapel and burial-place of the Rochfords”. In this chapel there was a large brass alter monument of Sir Ralph and Matilda.
The chapel is still there, but neither the stained glass nor the monument survive today. Fortunately, in 1796 Richard Gough printed an engraving of the monument in his Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain. In it, Sir Ralph is kitted out as a knight in full armour with a dagger on one belt and a sword on another, flowing curly hair around his shoulders and a long curly beard. He is standing on a lion. Beside him, Matilda wears a flowing robe with a cape, a jewelled girdle around her waist, a reticulated head-dress and veil, and a double necklace of beads with a large jewelled pendant. At her feet are two dogs with decorative collars. Above Ralph’s figure are two shields with the arms of the Rochfords, with what appears to be a fleur-de-lis in the first quarter of each. This device was also added to the family arms in the east windows of Stoke Rochford church and Lincoln St Mark’s, where they were impaled with the Hillary arms in memory of Sayer de Rochford and Joan Hillary. Sadly, the arms on the two shields above Sir Ralph’s wife were missing when Gough’s engraving was made, and there is no other record of what they were – they would have represented her family. But fragments of an inscription around the monument were recorded in Blomefield and Parkin’s History of Norfolk:
“=== Domina Matilda, uxor ej. que obijt === Anno Dni. Millesimo tricentesimo, sexagesimo nono”
The antiquarian John Weever also noted this monument in his 1631 Ancient Funerall Monuments, but he wrote only the barest summary:
“Walpoole … Radulphus Rochford, miles …”
Piecing these fragments together, parts of the inscription presumably read:
“Ralph Rochford, knight … lady Matilda, his wife, who died … AD 1369 …”
The History of Norfolk reports that Matilda may have been a member of the Walpole family, but no primary evidence has been found to indicate whether or not this is correct.
Around the time of his death Sir Ralph appeared in a roll of arms alongside his older brother, Sir John. In this Ralph’s arms had a silver annulet in the second quarter, and ten bezants on the border, rather than the eleven that were on his brother’s arms.
The May 1400 investigation into flooding in Marshland Hundred indentified Sir Ralph Rochford of Walpole’s heir as his eldest son, Henry Rochford. (It was during his time that the “de” was gradually dropped from many English surnames, the Rochfords’ included.) Henry went on to become a knight, but he was less prominent than his uncles or his cousin Sir Ralph Rochford III, so I will give a brief account of him here.
Henry must have been born by about 1368, since he joined his father and uncles in swearing allegiance to the Lords Appellant in 1388. In fact, it is possible that he was born much earlier, since his father, Sir Ralph, and mother, Matilda, were married by 1355 at the latest. So Henry was certainly of age when his father died, and by the time of 1400 investigation he was in possession of all of his father lands around Walpole and elsewhere.
Henry Rochford was almost constantly in trouble for ten years from 1397 to 1407, starting with a violent feud with a family named Gedney. On 15 January 1397 three of this family – John, Thomas and William Gedney – were bound over for £200 to do no harm to Henry. But he seems to have taken the fight to them, as John and William Gedney went before the chancellor, Bishop Edmund Stafford, to complain that they “greatly feared their deaths, and dared not go out of their houses”, and asked that Henry be bound over “on pain of a great sum of money” to keep the peace. Stafford supported their case, but within a few years the feud erupted again and Henry was condemned in the exchequer to pay a fine of 800 marks for breaking the peace towards the Gedneys.
Nevertheless, by 1400 Henry was knighted, probably in return for supporting Henry IV’s coup, and he was retained by the king’s private honour of Bolingbroke for forty marks a year (although his pay was initially diverted to repay his fine). In August that year Sir Henry joined his uncle John de Rochford the Younger on campaign in Scotland as a captain, with his own retinue of one man-at-arms and eight archers.
In 1401 Henry got into another fight, this time with Katharine Braunche, and in March he was bound over for 600 marks to do no harm to her, for which his cousin Sir Ralph Rochford III stood as his surety. By 1403 Henry was a king’s knight, and the king pardoned him the remaining 180 marks of his fine for fighting with the Gedneys “in consideration of his great expenses in the king’s service and because he has delivered to the king Richard Horkesley who owed him £40 and more”.
In 1406 yet another fight broke out. On 19 April that year Henry was bound over to do no harm to John Gauthorp, Walter Godard of Terrington, William Maysoun, chaplain, and others, on pain of a fine of £500. Robert Kerville stood as his guarantor, and at the same time Henry stood as a guarantor that Kerville would do no harm to William Lovell and others. But Henry’s uncle John the Younger somehow got involved too, and he was bound over to refrain from attacking Robert Kerville. Just a few days later, on 3 May, Henry was working with Thomas Lovell and a group of others, including Sir John Colville and Sir Laurence Everard, to grant some property in King’s Lynn to the “order of the hermits of St Augustine” there so they could enlarge their mansion. At some point during that year, someone called Thomas Marham made off with “twenty quarters of malt and four quarters of barley worth £10” that he was supposed to give to Henry, but Marham was pardoned on 6 July.
In 1407 Sir Henry Rochford was in trouble again, this time for helping a suspected felon, Henry Smith, escape while the bailiff of the bishop of Ely was transferring him to the bishop’s prison at “Esterham”. Sir Henry was indicted, but eventually pardoned on 4 June.
Less than a week later Henry was appointed to his first royal commission – a commission of the walls and ditches in Norfolk with his uncle John the Younger. Perhaps the king hoped John could bring him under control. But it appears that Henry was not interested, as he would not be appointed to another royal commission for seventeen years.
Indeed, the next record of Henry is not until 1417, by which time he seems to have calmed down. On 1 July that year Sir William Cromwell enfeoffed him and several others of the manors of Driby, Brinkhill, Tydd St Mary and Baston, presumably as trustees. In 1420 Henry became a trustee for Sir John Colville’s manor of Newton by Leverington with Thomas duke of Clarence, Humphrey duke of Gloucester and others. And in 1423 he was a trustee with John Fordham, bishop of Ely, Sir John Colville and others for a dyke in Marshland Hundred that Thomas duke of Exeter had created for their protection against floods. In 1424 Henry took up his second commission of the walls and ditches in Norfolk.
Sir Henry Rochford’s popularity as trustee to property arrangements continued in 1425 when he became a co-feoffee with Sir Robert Willoughby, Sir Ralph Cromwell, Sir Robert Roos and others for a portion of a manor in Fleet in Lincolnshire called “Lucyes”. In that year Henry was also among a party who acquired property in Dampgate in King’s Lynn, and early the next year he was a witness to a transaction between Master Peter Pryour, rector of Hellesdon in Norfolk, and Alice the wife of Sir John Howard. In 1428 Henry became a co-feoffee with Sir Ralph Cromwell, lord of Tattershall, and several others of the manor of Tydd St Mary.
The last records of Henry are two final commissions of the walls and ditches, one in Lincolnshire in 1431, and the other in Cambridgeshire in 1435. He probably died soon after – he was certainly dead by 1442 – and was buried in the Rochfords’ chapel in Walpole St Peter’s.
Very little is known of Henry’s family life. In 1418 he had a wife named Margaret, who held a small portion of half of the manor of Moulton – the rest of the half manor belonged to the late Sir John Harrington. It seems likely that she was related to the Harrington family, but this is all that is known of her.
There was also a Thomas Rochford who had property in Walpole – he may well have been Henry’s son and heir. Thomas was married to another Margaret, a daughter of John le Strange, by 1435, when her father’s trustees granted the couple a property called Snoring Hall near Ringstead in Norfolk. But Thomas did not live for long after. He wrote his will on 30 January 1438, asking to be buried in the chapel of St Mary in Walpole St Peter’s. He named his wife Margaret as his executrix, gave her all his lands at Ringstead and Holme, and asked that “if she should be with child” then the child should have them – the implication being that they did not already have children. Thomas also gave Margaret her dower in his property at Walpole, which he had perhaps inherited from Sir Henry. Thomas was dead by 25 February that year when his will was proved. By 1450 Margaret was remarried to Thomas Barnard, esquire.
Blomefield and Parkin have more to say in the History of Norfolk about this branch of the Rochfords, but much of it is muddled and confuses them with their Lincolnshire cousins, the descendants of Sir Ralph’s eldest brother Sir John de Rochford II. I have not yet tracked down the primary sources to piece together a reliable account.
The next account is of Sir Ralph’s brother John the Younger, after which we return to their eldest brother Sir John’s eldest son and heir, Sir Ralph Rochford III.