Sir Ralph Rochford III of Fenne (died 1440)

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Chart 5: Rochford of Fenne, 1370-1450
Chart 5: Rochford of Fenne, 1370-1450

By way of a recap, John de Rochford the Younger’s eldest brother, also called John, had been a knight in the service of John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster. He joined many of Gaunt’s campaigns, and when the duke became the most powerful man in the kingdom in 1377, Sir John was elected to parliament and began a career at the forefront of royal administration in Lincolnshire. By this time their father, Sir Sayer de Rochford, was dead and Sir John, as eldest son, was heir to the family estates at Fenne and Scrane, Stoke Rochford, and also the Limesy inheritance at Arley and Bascote.

In 1396 an inquisition into the estates of the late Roger Corbet of Leigh reported that when Corbet had died in 1381, he held part of the manor of Arley under Sir John, 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”. Corbet’s heir was still a minor, so Sir John and Ralph had custody of the property. The last certain record of Sir John alive is a 1392 commission with his brother John the Younger to deal with rebellious Lincolnshire chaplains. Sir John appears to have died soon after, leaving his son Ralph as heir to the family estates.

The famous joust at St-Inglevert in 1390, from Froissart’s Chronicles (BL Harley MS 4379, f. 43r)
The famous joust at St-Inglevert in spring 1390. Ralph Rochford III was probably there with Henry Bolingbroke. Immediately afterwards at Calais, Henry hired Ralph as an esquire, and in summer they departed on expedition to Lithuania. From Froissart’s Chronicles (BL Harley MS 4379, f. 43r).

The earliest records of Ralph appear in the financial accounts of the great expeditions of John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke in the 1390s. The first of these is from May 1390, when Henry hired Ralph to join his retinue as an esquire for eight pence a day. They were in English-owned Calais at the time. Henry had just taken part in a famous jousting tournament hosted by French knights nearby at St-Inglevert. There had been much talk of a new crusade to the Barbary Coast, and Henry was getting his retinue in order. Ralph was probably at the joust, and he certainly planned to join the crusade.

Ralph was presumably of age by this time, but it is interesting that he was not on the list of Lincolnshire men who swore allegiance to the Lords Appellant (of whom Henry Bolingbroke was one) just two years before in 1388. Ralph’s father, uncles and cousin Henry Rochford were all there. One possible explanation is that Ralph was still just under age at the time, in which case he was probably born around 1367-1370. Henry Bolingbroke himself was born in 1367, so they were close in age. Ralph’s father had been on Gaunt’s payroll since at least 1366, so Ralph and Henry must have known each other since childhood, and it is possible that Ralph even grew up in Gaunt’s household. Perhaps it was inevitable that Ralph would be joining Henry’s great expedition.

Back in England, however, politics precluded Henry from joining the Barbary campaign, so in summer 1390 they set off for Prussia instead to join the Teutonic Knights on a reysa fighting Lithuanian pagans in “the Wilderness” at the eastern edge of Europe. Henry’s entourage included about two dozen knights and esquires – Ralph was one of the esquires – and a bustling contingent of minstrels, grooms and servants. They sailed into the North Sea towards the straits of Skagerrak and Kattegat, past Copenhagen and into the Baltic, where they landed in several parties in Pomerania and Pomeralia on the north coast of what is now Poland. They hooked up with the Teutonic Grand Marshal Rabe at Neman and together they headed east to join the recently-baptised Lithuanian noble Vytautas in war against his pagan cousin Jogaila. They captured several pagan dukes in battle by the river Neris, and in September the joint forces besieged the city of Vilnius, where they succeeded in capturing and burning down the famous Crooked Castle. But the inner citadel held out and the besiegers were running out of gunpowder. Many, including Henry and Ralph, had fallen ill. On 20 October they returned to the Prussian city of Königsberg to recuperate and celebrate over winter.

Ralph’s wages had been increased to 12d a day for the military expedition, and now they reverted to 7½d a day. But here in Prussia over the next five months, the young esquire would have the experience of a lifetime with his 23-year-old lord Henry and their companions. They were guests at the court of the Grand Master, and by all accounts they had a whale of a time. Great sums were spent on feasting and gambling. They entertained local dignities with lavish spectacles, including a parade with a live ostrich and leopard. They forged friendships with foreign nobles by exchanging gifts, and they went on hunting expeditions in the forests beyond the city walls. To balance out the partying they visited shrines and other sites, left offerings for local churches, and placed ceremonial shields with their arms in the cathedral of St Mary. Henry’s mission had become as much a private embassy for the fame and glory of his family as it was a crusade.

They were clearly in no hurry to leave, but at last in March 1391 the party sailed home in a couple of ships piloted by men from Boston. They arrived in England after a tedious month at sea, and they were feted as heroes. Ralph’s pay ended on 30 April when he arrived back in England, at least as far the expedition accounts were concerned. He probably went to see his elderly father at Fenne, and his uncle Sir Ralph at Walpole. They were both in or near their sixties, still active in royal service, but they would not have long to live. Henry, meanwhile, headed to his birthplace at Bolingbroke, about fifteen miles north of Fenne, and from there he set out on pilgrimage to Bridlington Priory in Yorkshire.

The rapturous welcome Henry Bolingbroke received on returning home cannot have helped his strained relationship with his cousin King Richard II. Less than a year later Henry began to plan a new, even greater voyage to Prussia with the intention of then going on to Jerusalem. In summer 1392 he set sail, reaching Danzig (now Gdansk) on 10 August, where Ralph Rochford joined him two days later. But here they learned that Vytautas now ruled Lithuania and their help was no longer required. So after a pause of two weeks, Henry and his 300-strong travelling household set out on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They made their way through Germany, Poland and Bohemia, reaching Prague on 13 October, where they lay over for a couple of weeks as guests of Wenceslas, king of the Romans and Bohemia. They then proceeded to Vienna, where they paid a visit to Sigismund, king of Hungary, and on through Italy to Portogruaro near Venice, where they set up a winter base. Around 23 December the party set sail from Venice, stopping off en-route at Corfu and Rhodes, and arriving at Jaffa perhaps four weeks later. From there it was several days by donkey to Jerusalem.

Part of the Catalan Atlas of about 1370, with Henry Bolingbroke’s 1393-1394 journey superimposed
Part of the Catalan Atlas of about 1370, with Henry Bolingbroke’s 1393-1394 journey superimposed. Ralph Rochford III joined Bolingbroke’s retinue for this expedition – they travelled via the Baltic, Bohemia and Venice to Jerusalem, and back through France. The Catalan Atlas was probably the best map of the world at that time, although whether Bolingbroke knew of it is uncertain.

The expedition accounts don’t record what Henry Bolingbroke and his entourage did in the Holy Land, but they cannot have spent more than three or four weeks there, as they were back in Venice on 20 March with a few souvenirs in tow: a leopard and his keeper, a parrot and a converted Saracen. Around this time, perhaps in Jerusalem or perhaps in Venice, Henry knighted Ralph – from 5 April Ralph’s pay was hiked up to the knight’s rate of two shillings or 24d a day, and he was listed among the knights in the closing financial accounts for the expedition. It must have been a momentous occasion, in exotic surroundings so far from home before a tight-knit band of men who had already travelled together to the very edges of their continent.

Henry and his household did not linger in Venice as they had in Prussia two years before. In early May they moved to Milan, where they stayed for a week or so as guests of the local ruler, Gian Galeazzo Visconti. It may have been here that they first met the Italian esquire Francis Court, who would later become one of Ralph’s friends and a colleague in Henry’s household. Then around 17 May the party set out on the long journey home, travelling via Turin, Troyes, Paris, Calais and Dover. They finally arrived in London on 5 July 1393 after almost a year on the road. They had covered well over five thousand miles.

Ralph left the entourage the day before they reached London. Perhaps he needed to hurry home, where his ageing father, Sir John, may already have been dead. But Ralph’s two expeditions with Henry sealed a relationship between them that would continue for the rest of their lives: Ralph would become one of the house of Lancaster’s most trusted knights, serving three generations of the family over the next 45 years. He had also made a network of extraordinary friendships and contacts who would continue to influence his life until he was one of the few still living.

The knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Like Sir Ralph III, the knight in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales had just returned from a reysa in Prussia. Chaucer’s patron was Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, and he wrote his tales around the time of Bolingbroke’s expeditions. Surely one inspired the other. From the Ellesmere Manuscript, early 1400s.

There are few records of Ralph over the next six years, but he seems to have continued as a retainer of Henry Bolingbroke, or perhaps of John of Gaunt. On 4 August 1394 Ralph, Sir John Bussy, Sir John Daprichecourt and Sir Walter Blount stood as sureties together for Sir Hugh Shirley, who had got into a fracas with Sir Thomas Erdington. This was the same John Bussy who had gone to parliament with Ralph’s uncle Sir John de Rochford the Younger earlier that year, but Ralph’s only known connection with Shirley and the other sureties was that they were all retainers of the house of Lancaster. A few months later John of Gaunt himself joined Ralph and Bussy as a trustee for the manor of Thetford, which was to be the inheritance of Frederick Tilney and his wife Margaret Rochford, who was Ralph’s cousin.

Ralph also seems to have spent some time in Gaunt’s duchy of Aquitaine during this period, as his actions immediately after the coup of 1399 show that he had an intimate knowledge of who was who in the province.

*

It was in 1398 and 1399 that Richard II finally got his tyrannical revenge on Henry Bolingbroke for joining the Lords Appellant: Henry was first banished from the kingdom, and then disinherited after his father, John of Gaunt, died in February 1399. As if oblivious to the danger of the situation, Richard then sailed to invade Ireland with his private retinue, his supporters and the crown jewels in tow, leaving England unguarded. The whole charade was by turns vindictive and absurdly complacent: it would cost Richard his throne and, ultimately, his life.

Henry Bolingbroke, who was now in Paris, could hardly have believed his ears when he heard what was going on. Richard’s absence was too good an opportunity to miss. The disinherited duke quickly dispatched letters to his allies, rallied a small crew of retainers and servants, and at the end of June secretly set sail for England. Only a few of the names of the men who sailed with Henry that day are recorded. Most of them – Sir Thomas Erpingham, Sir Thomas Rempston, John Mowbray, Robert Waterton and the Italian esquire Francis Court – had been on the Prussia and Jerusalem expeditions. It is a safe bet that Ralph was with them, but if not, he must have been fully aware of the plan and lying low at Fenne awaiting news of their arrival.

They landed at Ravenspur in Yorkshire. News of Henry’s coming swept through the realm, and as he marched south towards Bristol men literally swarmed to his side. “There was no good mother’s son who did not go to the duke and offer him both his services and his goods” wrote the author of Traison et Mort at the time. It is said that when Henry reached Bristol, he had an army of 20,000. Richard was too slow and too complacent. By the time he returned from Ireland at the end of July, it was all too late and his men deserted him. On 19 August Richard surrendered to Henry at Flint Castle in northeast Wales.

Henry’s sworn intention was simply to recover his inheritance, but by the start of September, when he had Richard under lock and key in the Tower of London, it was clear where things were going. Were Richard to regain the throne, Henry would surely end up dead. The throne was Henry’s for the taking. And Sir Ralph Rochford was in the thick of it. The last entry in the Close Rolls of the reign of Richard II is an unfinished writ:

“To the treasurer and the barons of the exchequer. Writ … in favour of Ralph Richesforde and Reynold Hakebeche knights, appointed with others…”

This writ is undated, but it appears to be from between 28 and 30 September, the last two days of Richard’s official reign. But by this time the king was powerless: Henry Bolingbroke was the de facto ruler of England, and whatever the favour was to be, it was his. Perhaps the chancery thought it futile to act out the charade of issuing a writ in the name of a doomed king. Or perhaps whatever it was to contain was best left unwritten.

On 30 September a one-day parliament formally deposed Richard, and Henry Bolingbroke was proclaimed King Henry IV. But the new king’s position was far from secure and he moved fast to get men loyal to him into key roles. Ralph was tasked to ensure the valuable duchy of Aquitaine was on side, and only three days later, on 3 October 1399, the regime’s first official action in the province was to appoint John de Skelton as interim controller of Bordeaux on Ralph’s recommendation.

On 28 November the new regime made Ralph a justice of the peace for the Parts of Kesteven in Lincolnshire – this was his first royal commission. A few weeks later Ralph, his freshly-knighted uncle John de Rochford the Younger, and his cousin Henry Rochford were appointed as commissioners of array in Lincolnshire and Norfolk, to ensure the local inhabitants were on side and ready for war. By late December the counter-coup was underway, and although King Henry had the leaders executed in January, his reign would be beleaguered for the best part of a decade by rebellions across England and Wales, border raids from Scotland and omnipresent rumbles from Paris.

On 30 March 1400 the king appointed Sir Ralph Rochford permanently to the royal retinue as a king’s knight, with an income of fifty marks a year to be paid by the exchequer for rest of his life. This gave Ralph a prominent role defending the Lancastrian regime against its enemies, and like others in the royal party he was well rewarded. In October that year he was given the wardship of the young heir of Robert Coyne and his inheritance in Staffordshire and Shropshire, worth a further £40 a year, and around the same time Ralph Neville, earl of Westmorland, gave Sir Ralph the wardship of the young John Holbeche and his lands in Lincolnshire. By 1402 Sir Ralph was also receiving 100 marks a year from the king’s private lordship of Bolingbroke, presumably as a reflection that his loyalty was to the family, not just the crown.

By now England and France were officially at war. Henry set about stripping the French of their English assets, and some were sent Ralph’s way for the duration of the war. On 21 April 1402 the priory of Spalding was instructed to pay Ralph £40 a year, instead of sending the money to the abbey of Angers. In January the following year the priory of Stour Provost in Dorset, which belonged to the abbey of St-Leger in Preaux, Normandy, was handed over wholesale with all its assets, for which Ralph was to pay the exchequer forty marks a year, later reduced to nothing. And in March 1403 Ralph received all the assets of the priory of Newton Longville in Buckinghamshire, including several manors, all of which had belonged to the abbey of St-Foy in Longueville, Normandy. For this he was to pay the exchequer £80 a year, later reduced to just seventy marks.

In 1405 a rebellion erupted under Thomas Mowbray, earl of Norfolk, and Richard le Scrope, archbishop of York. The pair were tricked, arrested and beheaded outside York on 8 June. Ralph seems to have had some role to play in this on the king’s behalf, since soon after this Henry rewarded him further with the offices of chief steward and master forester of the Isle of Axholme, which had previously been the earl’s and came with an income of £50 a year. Henry also gave Ralph and another favourite knight of his, Sir John Tiptoft, all the dead earl’s “coats and other personal vestures … and all his other harness for peace and war, saddles of horses called ‘courses’ and high and low saddles for jousts, forfeited to the king on accounts of his insurrection”. Thus Ralph acquired the permission and the means to dress and ride like an earl.

King Henry IV suffered intermittent bouts of a mystery illness throughout his life. In mid-June 1408 he had a seizure while staying at Mortlake with his close friend Thomas Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury. The king was unconscious for several hours and even appeared to be dead. Afterwards he stayed on at the archbishop’s manor for a month as he recovered his health, and Ralph must have stayed with him, as during this time Ralph was described as the “king’s dapifer” or steward in the royal household. In early July Henry gave Ralph the castle, manor and lordship of Somerton in Lincolnshire, where Ralph’s grandfather Sir Sayer had guarded the French King John fifty years before.

As a sign of personal favour, Henry also gave Ralph a licence to hunt on the royal hunting estate at Whaddon Chase near Newton Longville. In November Ralph and others were tasked to sort out Beaulieu Abbey, as “the bad governance of certain late abbots” had left it in a state of severe disrepair and debt. And the personal theme continued in February 1410, when Ralph was granted a tun of wine from Gascony each year in lieu of 100 shillings rent he was due from the church of Westhenny that had been reallocated to the dean of Salisbury Cathedral.

By the end of the first decade of Henry IV’s reign, Ralph had rewards of estates and offices worth hundreds of pounds a year – far beyond anything his predecessors had had. For some of these, Ralph was required to find sureties or guarantors that he would fulfil his side of the deal, and he also often acted as a surety for others in their dealings. These reveal much about Ralph’s personal and professional relationships at the time. From the very start of Henry IV’s reign, when Ralph first began to appear in crown records, he already had far wider national and international networks than his father and uncles, whose connections were mostly based around their Lincolnshire and Norfolk homelands.

Ralph’s contacts in Aquitaine were evident in October 1400 when he acted as a surety for Henry Bowet, constable of Bordeaux, and Hugh le Despenser, who were two of the king’s proctors for Gascony, and also for John Bowet, who became controller of Bordeaux in 1401. Henry Bowet would go on to become the bishop of Bath and Wells, and afterwards the archbishop of York.

Ralph also nurtured close relationships with other members of the king’s retinue. In 1403 the king’s knights Sir Andrew Butler and Sir Thomas Swinburne, who was the captain of Hammes Castle in Calais, stood as Ralph’s sureties when he was granted the Newton Longville property. Later that year another king’s knight, Sir Richard Arundel, was Ralph’s surety when Ralph and his uncle John the Younger were given the guardianship of the late Sir James Roos’ young heir and estates – the heir was soon married to Ralph’s cousin Joan Rochford. In 1404, Ralph stood as a surety for the king’s knight Francis Court, who he had probably first met in Italy on their return from Jerusalem in 1393.

Ralph was particularly close to Richard Arundel, who was a kinsman of Archbishop Thomas Arundel. In 1404 Ralph was a trustee for Richard’s manor of Newham by Ellingham in Northumberland, with the archbishop and others, and Richard’s will of 1417 relates that Ralph was also a trustee for his manors of Brandon in Warwickshire and Witchampton in Dorset.

In 1402 Ralph had sold his property at Bascote in Warwickshire to Thomas Seyville, but he still had Arley from the Limesy inheritance, his family’s ancestral estates at Fenne and Scrane, and property at Stoke Rochford that was now described as a manor. And although Ralph had a wider network of associates than his predecessors, and royal grants of property in Dorset and Buckinghamshire, he still maintained close connections to his family and his home county of Lincolnshire.

In March 1401 Ralph stood as a surety for his cousin Sir Henry Rochford “to do no harm to Katharine Braunche, her men or servants”, for the large sum of 500 marks. He also continued to act as a trustee for his cousin Margaret Rochford and her husband Frederick Tilney’s manor of Thetford until they sold it in 1434: in March 1404 Ralph appointed two lawyers, Robert Cowton and Sir William Porter, to defend their interest against Thomas de Toppefield, who was suing them. Toppefield stood no chance, since the justice was to be Margaret’s father, Sir John de Rochford the Younger, who was Ralph’s uncle.

Like his father, uncles and grandfather, Ralph also served as a sheriff and a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire. He was appointed as sheriff three times, in 1404, 1405 and 1407 – in 1408 the post was given to John the Younger for the last time before he died. Ralph had first been appointed as a justice of the peace in 1399 just as Henry IV was securing his throne, but presumably he was tied up with military activities for the next few years, as the next occasion was in 1406. He was reappointed in 1407, 1411 and 1413, but after this it would be almost a decade until he was able to serve on another Lincolnshire commission, as his career in royal service took a new direction.

King Henry’s ill-health had worsened and 1412 was to be the last full year of his reign. Between February and April that year Henry stayed once more with his friend Thomas Arundel, this time at Canterbury, and it may be that Ralph was with them again. On 2 April Henry increased Ralph’s annual pay of fifty marks as a king’s knight to £38, to be paid direct by the abbot and convent of Winchcombe, who owed that amount yearly to the exchequer. The next month Ralph’s grant of the manor of Newton Longville was adjusted so that it was to be his for free for the duration of the war with France, in lieu of his pay of eighteen marks a year as steward of the royal household. Ralph was also to provide an annuity of fifty marks from the profits of the property to the famous knight Sir Thomas Erpingham, who had been with them on the Prussia expeditions of the 1390s. And in July 1412 Ralph, Archbishop Arundel and others were acting as trustees to several manors in Northumberland that belonged to Ralph’s close friend Sir Richard Arundel.

Soon after, in August that year, Ralph’s colleague Sir Thomas Swinburne, captain of the castle of Hammes, died, and on 11 September Ralph was appointed to replace him. This was a strategically important post: the castles of Hammes and Guînes together defended the English-owned Pale of Calais, which was vital for trade and also served as a potential beachhead for the future invasion of France.

In the spring of 1413, however, Ralph was in England rather than France. It is not clear whether he postponed his departure to support the ailing king, or departed and then returned on hearing the bad news. By December 1412 Henry’s illness had become severe. A parliament met in February 1413, but Henry collapsed in Westminster Abbey and died on 20 March in the abbot’s house nearby.

The very next day Ralph was appointed as a justice of the peace in Kesteven – presumably the royal administration was keen to stamp out any potential threat to the succession. On 9 April Henry’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was crowned King Henry V, and in June and July the new king confirmed his father’s grants to Ralph “so that he be not retained with anyone else”. These grants included the lordship of Hammes, the castle, manor and lordship of Somerton, the yearly tun of Gascon wine, the increased annual income as a king’s knight, and the additional £40 a year during the war with France.

But the accession of a new king was to lead Ralph in a new direction. He had spent decades by Henry IV’s side: in their twenties, before Henry was king, they had travelled to the edges of the known world together; in their thirties they had had fought insurgents together; and as they turned forty Ralph had served as his king’s personal steward in sickness. Ralph did not share this kind of history with Henry V, who had often clashed with his father and kept his own household. They were of different generations. But the new king must have known Ralph personally since childhood – Henry V was just three years old when his father, Ralph and the others set out for Prussia for the first time in 1390 – and he seems to have trusted Ralph deeply. Over the coming decade the new king would task Ralph to handle many delicate negotiations with Europe’s great power players as he set about his conquest of France.

*

On 20 July 1413 Sir Ralph Rochford was at his manor of Stoke Rochford to issue a charter granting it, together with his manors of Fenne, Scrane and Arley, and all his land in Lincolnshire and Warwickshire, to a large group of trustees, with letters appointing attorneys to oversee the handover. Perhaps Ralph was planning for the long haul in France, and uncertain whether he would return alive. His trustees included Richard Fleming, the rector of Boston who would later become bishop of Lincoln; John Bell, who had been a close associate of Ralph’s uncle John de Rochford the Younger; William Dogge of Somerset, a lawyer who had acted as a surety for Ralph in January 1403 and would aid him in many affairs in later life; John Wyche of Worcestershire, who had acted as a surety for Ralph in March 1403; and Robert Cowton who had been his attorney in the dispute with Toppefield over Thetford in March 1404, and had also been John de Rochford the Younger’s personal clerk and an executor of his will. Unlike Ralph’s colleagues from the royal household, these men would not be fighting in France.

A few days earlier, on 18 July, Ralph had received letters of general attorney as he prepared to travel abroad. A number of his retainers, including the trusty William Dogge, Thomas Comyn, Thomas Malgrave and a draper named John Serys had already arranged royal protection to head to Hammes in his retinue. And it seems that Ralph spent much of the rest of that year and the next there, where he was gradually joined by John Asketyn, Roger Massy, a rector named William Hornby, John Bell and John Grey. On 7 November 1414 Ralph’s office as “guardian of the lordship of Hammes” was confirmed for the next six years, but he is unlikely to have been there at the time as the king had just given him a task that would take him further afield.

The Council of Constance, 1414-1418, from Ulrich von Richental’s Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils
The Council of Constance, 1414-1418, with Emperor Sigismund on the right. Sir Ralph III was one of King Henry V’s ambassadors to the council, and he probably knew Sigismund from his travels with Bolingbroke. From Ulrich von Richental’s Chronik des Konstanzer Konzils, mid-to-late 1400s.

On 20 October that year Henry V had appointed Ralph to join the bishops of Bath, Salisbury and St David’s, as well as the earl of Warwick, the abbot of Westminster, the prior of Worcester, the Lord Chamberlain and Sir Walter Hungerford on an embassy to the great Council of Constance in Germany. This council had been called by Sigismund, king of the Romans, who was also the king of Hungary, Croatia and Germany, and one of the most powerful men in Europe. The council’s primary objective was to resolve the long-running Papal Schism in which three different men claimed to be the true pope. Henry’s ambassadors had an ulterior motive in attending, however: he wished for them to negotiate a treaty with Sigismund. Earlier in the year Henry had begun to impress on the French that he wanted back the English possessions in Normandy and Aquitaine that had been lost after Charles V broke the Treaty of Bretigny in 1369. War was brewing, and Henry would need powerful allies.

Ralph had almost certainly met Sigismund two decades earlier when he travelled through Austria en route to Jerusalem with Henry’s father, and this was probably the reason Ralph was selected as one of the ambassadors.

The Council of Constance would run until April 1418, but Ralph was back in England by spring 1415. He was reimbursed £102 6s 8d for his expenses on the embassy – they must have gone in style. And Ralph also agreed with Henry to hand the castle and lordship of Somerton over to the king’s brother Thomas duke of Clarence, in return for an income of forty marks a year “in consideration of his service about the king’s person”.

On 14 August Henry landed at the French city of Harfleur with an army of perhaps 10,000 men and set about a siege. On 22 September the city surrendered, and just over a month later, on 25 October, the English decimated the French army at Agincourt. On 29 October Henry and his army arrived at Calais, and on 23 November the king entered London to a rapturous reception. Ralph does not appear to have joined the campaign – presumably his task was to secure Hammes and Calais against a possible diversionary attack. But twelve prisoners from Harfleur were deposited with him at Hammes, where they languished in the dungeons for a year and half before being sent to the Fleet prison in London. By the time the survivors were released in 1432, there were only seven still alive.

Meanwhile, in April 1416 Sigismund travelled to England to secure King Henry’s support for his measures to end the Papal Schism, and also to try to broker a peace between England and France. Much of Ralph’s time over the next year was taken up with diplomatic missions from his base at Hammes, where he had been re-confirmed as captain on 28 December 1415.

In June 1416 the king briefed Ralph and two others – Robert Waterton, who had been with him on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and Master Philip Morgan, a doctor of laws – “to treat for truce with France, at the request of Sigismund, King of the Romans, and William duke of Bavaria”. The French had Harfleur under a naval blockade, which was finally broken on 15 August by the duke of Bedford, just as Henry sealed a treaty of mutual assistance with Sigismund.

By early September the two kings were in Calais together to try to achieve a final settlement with the French ambassadors. On 9 September King Henry appointed Ralph, Robert Waterton and Philip Morgan, as well the archbishop of Canterbury and Thomas Beaufort, earl of Dorset, as his ambassadors “to hear the charge of the French ambassadors”. On 1 October Sir Henry Ware, keeper of the privy seal, joined the negotiations, and two days later a truce was agreed until 2 February.

Nevertheless, King Henry told parliament that month that he planned to go to war in summer, and he set about preparing the campaign. In March 1417 Ralph, Sir Henry Ware and Sir William Bardolf were sent to negotiate a further peace with the French. But the king’s strategy was to divide and conquer: the previous year he had met the rebel French duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, for secret talks, and on 24 April he sent Ralph, Ware and Bardolf to conclude a backdoor treaty with the duke. The terms of this were agreed on 14 May. A few days later Ralph’s lordship of Hammes was confirmed to him for the next twelve years.

Henry V and the English camp at the siege of Rouen in 1418, from The Beauchamp Pageants c1480
Henry V and the English camp at the siege of Rouen in 1418. Sir Ralph III was a captain in Henry’s invasion force. It was from this camp that Henry briefed him to negotiate with Yolande of Jerusalem. From The Beauchamp Pageants, c1480 (BL Cotton Julius E IV), via J. R. Green, A Short History of the English People, v2.

On 1 August Henry V landed near Harfleur, now controlled by the English, again with an army 10,000 strong. This was to be the full conquest of Normandy, and this time Sir Ralph Rochford was on the ground as a captain with a personal retinue of 95 men – 19 mounted men-at-arms and 76 archers – under the command of the king’s brother Humphrey duke of Gloucester. Caen fell first, on 4 September, then Alençon, Falaise, Domfront, Cherbourg and Pont-de-l’Arche. In June the king sent Ralph fresh instructions to muster his men, and by the end of July 1418 Rouen, the capital of Normandy, was under siege. It would take five-and-a-half months for the city to fall.

On 24 November, from his siege camp before Rouen’s walls, the king dispatched Ralph, John Kempe, keeper of the privy seal, and Master John Holland on an embassy to to Yolande, queen of Jerusalem and Sicily, who was also the duchess of Anjou and countess of Maine. Their official brief was to negotiate a truce: she was the mother-in-law and protectress of the French king’s young heir, the Dauphin, and she controlled a large portion of the few resources still remaining to the French crown. But in January 1419 Rouen finally capitulated, and soon all Normandy was conquered. Ralph’s movements immediately following this are not certain; perhaps he returned to Hammes, where his standing force around this time was 34 men: 12 men-at-arms and 22 archers.

Sir Richard de Limesy’s arms in various rolls of around 1300, and Sir Ralph Rochford III’s from the Rouen Roll of about 1418.
Sir Richard de Limesy’s arms in various rolls of around 1300, and Sir Ralph Rochford III’s from the Rouen Roll of about 1418. Ralph quartered the arms of his ancestors with those of the Limesys, indicating inheritance. The most likely explanation is that Ralph’s grandmother, Sir Sayer’s first wife Elizabeth, was a Limesy heiress.

A roll of arms was prepared listing many of the lords and knights present at the siege. Sir Ralph Rochford was included with his friends and colleagues, Sir Richard Arundel, Sir Walter Hungerford, Sir Hugh Stafford and many others. Ralph’s arms were given as Quarterly, first and fourth, gules an eagle displayed or, second and third, quarterly gules and or, a border sable bezanty – he was wearing his Limesy inheritance, the gold eagle on a red field.

At length, in May 1420 Henry V was able to compel Charles VI of France to agree to a treaty: Henry would marry Charles’ youngest daughter Catherine, succeed to the French crown after his death, and rule as regent of France in the meantime. The Dauphin was disinherited. Of course, the Dauphin’s supporters held out. On 30 May 1421 Ralph received letters of royal protection, and in June King Henry was in Dover preparing to return to France with a force of about five thousand to quash the resistance.

The war was almost over. Several of Ralph’s most valuable property grants from Henry IV would end with the end of the war, according to the terms under which they were made. But while Henry V was at Dover, he personally told the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Winchester and others that he wished for Ralph to have new grants for the rest of his life to the same value as the property at Newton Longville and the £40 annually from the prior of Spalding. In November that year the Great Council passed two acts that Ralph could continue to hold those grants until a suitable alternative could be found.

Meanwhile, there were squabbles and uncertainties to sort out over who owned what in the freshly-conquered territories. In February 1421 Sir Ralph Rochford, Richard Bokeland, the treasurer of Calais, and others were tasked to survey the king’s properties belonging to the castles and lordships of Calais, Merck, Sangatte, Hammes, Colline, Wale, Oye and Guînes, and to clear up disputes between their various castellans. In April 1422 Ralph held an inquisition at Merck Castle into the rights and titles of the freemen and tenants there, and in June he held another inquisition at Cancey in Guînes into the properties of the castles of Sangatte and Guînes itself.

But by this time Henry V was severely ill and on 31 August 1422 he died at the royal castle of Vincennes near Paris. This was a crisis. The English had fought for almost a hundred years for the throne of France, and here it was, written on paper, only for the extraordinary king who was supposed to unite the two realms to die unexpectedly at the age of just 35. As if to mock this twist of fate, Charles VI of France died less than two months later, on 21 October, after a life-long struggle with psychosis. Henry V’s only son, whom he had never met, was now heir to the thrones of England and France. He was King Henry VI, but he was not yet one year old.

Rochester Castle in Kent, by llamnudds, Flickr (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
Rochester Castle in Kent. When Henry VI became king in 1422, the new regime gave Sir Ralph III the keeping of this castle and town for seven years. Photo by llamnudds, Flickr (CC-BY-SA-2.0).

A regency council was quickly formed to govern the two realms, with Henry V’s brothers at its head. In October and November the new administration confirmed Henry IV’s gifts to Ralph, and also gave him the keeping of the castle and town of Rochester for seven years, for which William Dogge once again stood as his guarantor. Curiously, “two towers in the said castle” were specifically excluded from the grant – “to wit, the tower over the gate of the castle, with the keeping of the same gate, and the great tower by the foot of the bridge of the said town”.

Writs of royal protection were drawn up for some of Ralph’s men in Hammes, including a haberdasher named Nicholas Pekeleer and a brewer named John Frensche. War in France would continue for the rest of Ralph’s life, but the Pale of Calais was well away from the front lines. There was sufficient peace and stability in the area as local administration got back to normalcy for Ralph to spend more time at home in Lincolnshire. He had already been appointed as a justice of the peace there in February 1422, for the first time in nine years. And after this Ralph was able to hold royal commissions in his home county almost every year for the rest of his life. He served as a justice of the peace in 1423, 1424, 1428, 1430, 1431, 1432, 1424, 1435, 1437 and 1439. He served as a commissioner of the walls and ditches, as his predecessors had done so many times, in 1426 and 1435. And during this period Ralph was appointed to a number of ad hoc local commissions as well as one commission of array and a commission to collect a tax.

It is during this period that Ralph’s sons were born: the eldest, also called Ralph, between 1419 and 1426, then John between 1420 and 1432, and the youngest, Henry, between 1421 and 1433. Their mother was Margaret Russell, the daughter of Sir John Russell of Strensham, who had been Richard II’s Master of the King’s Horse. Margaret’s mother was John Russell’s second wife, Margaret Hastings, who was also a niece of Isabelle Hastings, the first (intended) wife of Ralph’s father Sir John de Rochford II. When Gervase Holles recorded the arms in the stained glass windows at Stoke Rochford church in the mid-1600s, one window in the south chapel had the arms of the Rochfords, Russells and Hastings combined in memory of Ralph and Margaret’s marriage. On one side there were the Rochfords’ quarters of gold and red in a black border with gold bezants on it. On the other side, the Hastings’ artful red sleeve slashed across a gold field was quartered with the Russells’ classic black chevron and three tapered crosses on a silver field. The technical heraldic description of this was, Quarterly or and gules, a border sable bezanty, impaling Quarterly, Or a manche gules, and Argent, a chevron between three crosses botony fitchy sable.

Margaret’s mother had died in 1397. In her will she had left “to Margaret my daughter, my chare, newly made” and the large sum of 400 marks for her marriage. Margaret’s father remarried in late 1398 or early 1399 to Elizabeth de la Plaunk, the widow of John, Lord Clinton. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Hillary, who was the only sister of Sir Sayer de Rochford’s second wife, Joan Hillary. So Margaret’s step-mother Elizabeth was the cousin of Ralph’s uncle John de Rochford the Younger, and coheir with him to the Hillary estates: it was probably John the Younger and Elizabeth who brokered the marriage between Ralph and Margaret.

Margaret was born some time between 1389 and 1396, so she was at least nineteen years younger than Ralph, and perhaps even thirty years younger – he was born by 1370. It is not known when they married. In May 1413 the pope had granted permission for “Ralph Rochefort, knight, nobleman, of the diocese of Lincoln, and his present wife” to have a portable alter, so Ralph was married by that time, but whether this was to Margaret is not known. The couple were certainly married by December 1419 when Margaret’s aunt Elizabeth Hastings, who had married William Elmham, wrote her will. In it, Elizabeth left a gift of “a jewelled clasp called an ‘ouche’ with three large pearls, three rubies and a sapphire” to her niece “Margaret Rocheford”. And in January 1421 the pope sent permission for a portable alter again, this time to “Ralph Rocheford, knight, of the diocese of Lincoln, and Margaret his wife, noblewoman”. Margaret was offered plenary remission for all her sins into the bargain.

The tomb of Elizabeth, Lady Clinton, who died 11 September 1423, at St Mary's, Haversham
The tomb of Elizabeth, Lady Clinton, who died 11 September 1423, at St Mary’s, Haversham. Engraving from Daniel and Samuel Lysons’ Magna Britannia, Volume 1, Part 3, published in 1813.

The next year, in October 1422, Margaret was remembered in another will, this time by her step-mother, Elizabeth, who continued to use the title Lady Clinton from her previous marriage to John, Lord Clinton. Elizabeth wrote in her will: “I be whethe to dame Margaret Rocheford, if she be with me at my deying, a girdull of goolde to have me in hir remembrance”.

There are less records of Ralph from the early years of the time of Henry VI. No letters of protection for himself or his retainers were issued between 1423 and 1427, and his focus seems to have been in Lincolnshire. In 1424 the royal council re-confirmed his grants of Newton Longville and £40 a year from the prior of Spalding. At some point before 1426 Ralph engaged Henry IV’s half-brothers Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, and Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, as well as Sir Thomas Erpingham and Sir Walter Beauchamp, to be trustees to his manors of Fenne and Scrane. In that year and in 1428 he was appointed to raise loans for the government from Lincolnshire. And in 1427 he extended his lands at Stoke Rochford by purchasing “two messuages, one mill, two hundred acres of land, sixty acres of meadow, sixty acres of pasture and twenty shillings of rent in Southstoke, Northstoke and Magna Paunton” from Sir William Malory and his wife Margaret. Ralph’s trustees in this transaction were Richard Leek esquire, and two clerks, Robert Leek and John Rayncock. In the future these men would often play central roles in his most important transactions of family property.

As Ralph grew older and his friends from the days of Prussia and Jerusalem and Henry IV passed away, he came to depend more and more on a circle of trusted friends and retainers from near his home. These men were not famous knights, but local squires, lawyers and clerics who he could trust to get the job done and not be consumed by the emerging factional politics of court and the war in France. Ralph was planning for his family and the day he too would pass away. He was, after all, almost in his sixties, if not already – about the same age his father and uncles had been when they died.

*

Ralph’s extraordinary story was not over yet, however. In May 1428 his career took another remarkable turn when he was called back into royal service. Henry VI had recently turned six, and his personal household was to be revamped to suit the needs of a growing young king. Richard Beauchamp, the earl of Warwick, was appointed as his governor and tutor, and on 8 May the Privy Council appointed Ralph and three other knights and four esquires to take care of the king’s person. Ralph’s colleagues included Sir Walter Beauchamp, Sir William Philip and Sir William Porter. They were each to be paid a generous 100 marks yearly for their expenses and comfort at court. They were to stay with the young king in summer at the castles of Wallingford and Hertford, and in winter at Windsor and Berkhampstead.

Henry VI sails for Calais, from Wavrin’s Chronicles (Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 133 A 7 III, f. 197r).
Henry VI’s journey to be crowned king of France in Paris, 1431. As Henry’s personal guardian, Sir Ralph Rochford III’s last great task was to escort him there safely with a retinue of bishops, lords and knights, in the midst of a war. From Wavrin’s Chronicles (Koninklijke Bibliotheek MS 133 A 7 III, f. 197r).

This new role would soon take Ralph back to France. In 1429 a remarkable teenage peasant girl, Joan of Arc, revived the spirit of the French resistance, broke the English siege of Orléans and turned the tide of war. On 17 July the French rebels crowned Charles VI’s twenty-six-year-old son as King Charles VII at Reims, in direct contravention of the treaty agreed between the late French and English kings. According to this treaty, Henry VI of England was to be king of France too, but he had not yet been crowned in either country. Not to be outdone, the English regency hastily arranged a coronation for 6 November at Westminster, when Henry was barely eight years old. Then in March and April the following year the English lords, knights and esquires of the royal household made preparations to travel to France, where they intended to hold a second coronation for their child king on French soil, in the middle of a war zone. Ralph himself secured letters of attorney on 20 April, and on 23 April the 300-strong royal entourage arrived in Calais with a large army. Ralph’s armourer, John Laton of Boston, secured letters of protection to join him there a few weeks later.

Joan of Arc was captured by the Burgundians on 23 May, but the situation on the ground in France remained dangerous. The royal entourage delayed until July before proceeding to Rouen, and there they waited for more than a year before they were able to safely reach Paris. They had hoped to reach Reims, but fearful of any further delay King Henry VI was at last crowned king of France at Notre-Dame on the Île de la Cité in Paris on 16 December 1431. It was a very English affair. The Parisians complained about the food. The duke of Burgundy was not present. Apparently the young English king could not even speak publicly in French, as his forefathers could, despite the fact that his own mother was French. The royal entourage did not hang around for long in the French capital: after brief Christmas celebrations, they headed back to Rouen around 27 December and on 29 January they returned to England. King Henry VI would never set foot in France again.

Ralph was now over sixty years old. A few further grants of protection were made to his retainers travelling to France – William Dogge in 1432 and John Danglada, a merchant of Bayonne, in 1434 – and Ralph continued to hold the post of captain of Hammes. But he spent much of his time over the final years of his life nearer home, working on royal commissions and acquiring property.

In 1431 Ralph bought some land in Fenne called “Elwarland” from the executors of John Symond of Fenne, which he would later entrust in his will to finance an obit: prayers for his soul to be sung yearly at Stoke Rochford church forever more. Ralph’s trustees for this purchase include many familiar names from his life: William Dogge, Robert Cowton, John Kyme of Friskney, Robert Leek the clerk and Richard Leek, esquire.

In July 1433 the forgetful abbot of Winchcombe was reminded to pay Ralph his £38 a year – the increased annuity Henry IV had given him as a king’s knight – in a letter patent that helpfully recaps all the other grants that that king had made to him: “for life the castle or lordship of Somerton without rendering aught, 140 marks of the lordship of Bolyngbroke, £40 of a pension of the abbot of Spaldynge, £40 of the Isle of Axholm, the office of steward of Boston with a fee of ten marks a year, the priory of Stoureprewes and all lands, rents and possessions thereto belonging, and the manor of Newenton Longeville without rendering aught to the king, but paying to Thomas Erpyngham knight deceased fifty marks a year thereof” and also “one tun of wine of Gascony a year”. The total value of the cash grants alone was £218 a year. Stour Provost must have been worth at least forty marks annually, and Newton £80, as these were the initial rents Ralph was to pay for them. In fact, a 1412 feudal survey had valued Ralph’s Stour Provost property at £33 6s 8d, or fifty marks, and his property at Somerton and Stoke at £20 annually. Subtracting the fifty marks Ralph was to pay Sir Thomas Erpingham, his total annual income from these grants must still have been £300 or more, an extraordinary sum for the time.

In November that year Ralph added further to the family estates at Stoke Rochford by buying half of a manor at South Stoke from Sir John Byron and his wife Margery. Byron is said to have inherited this property through his mother, Joan Colwick, who inherited it through her mother, Joan Pecche, who inherited it through her mother, Alice Hayward, who inherited it through her mother, Joan, who was a daughter and heiress of Sayer de Huntingfield of South Stoke. It seems that the other half of this manor was Ralph’s ancestors’ original property in the village inherited by his grandfather Sir Sayer de Rochford about a century before – Sir Sayer’s mother Alice was probably Sayer de Huntingfield’s other daughter and coheiress.

The following year, in April 1434, Ralph attended a Great Council in the parliament chamber before the twelve-year-old Henry VI. Besides the usual council business, Ralph was able to gain royal confirmation of a series of grants of free warren – the right to hunt – that had been given to his predecessors at Stoke Rochford and other properties, “by advice and assent of the lords spiritual and temporal and of the commonalty of England in the parliament held at Westminster”. The first of these was a grant made in 1263 to “Geoffrey Wilekers, and his heirs” of free warren on his demesne estates at Stoke Rochford, which now belonged to Ralph. It is not known who Wilekers was, but he appears to have been Sayer de Huntingfield’s predecessor there. The second was a grant made in 1310 to “Peter de Lymesy, and his heirs” of free warren on his lands at Arley, which Ralph also now held. And the third was a grant made in 1295 to “Saer de Huntyngfeld, and his heirs” of free warren on his lands at Riseholme and Scrane. This Riseholme property was the estate that Ralph’s grandfather Sir Sayer de Rochford inherited from his mother in 1316. It is not known what happened to this property after Sayer de Rochford was last recorded there in 1352, but the Scrane property was probably merged with the Rochfords’ ancient family properties in the hamlet to create their manor there. Each of these grants adds weight to the theories that Sayer de Huntingfield and Peter de Limesy were among Ralph’s ancestors.

In January 1436 Ralph was appointed as a commissioner in Lincolnshire for a graduated tax. He himself was assessed in the manner that nobles were, before the treasurer and chancellor at Westminster rather than by local commissioners. It turns out that Ralph had the highest annual income of any Lincolnshire resident by far – £349 a year, swollen by the many valuable grants he had earned in royal service. The next highest earner was Ralph’s cousin Philip Tilney at £198, a snip by comparison. A few months later the royal council added even further to these gifts by granting Ralph the manors of Banstead and Walton in Surrey to hold for seven years after the death of Alice, the widow of his late close friend Sir Richard Arundel. The ever-faithful William Dogge was one of Ralph’s sureties once again. Initially it seems that Ralph was to pay 86 marks rent a year for the two manors, but by January 1438 they were considered to be worth only £50 or 75 marks a year, and Ralph was allowed hold them free of charge in lieu of three-quarters of his 100-mark annual salary as a knight of the body to Henry VI.

Being so close to the king was not always good for finances, however. In April 1437 Ralph was one of about seventeen men who agreed with the Privy Council to lend the young king Henry just under £2000 in total. Ralph’s own contribution to this slush fund was 100 marks, but as he lay on his deathbed it would emerge that the crown in fact already owed him thousands of pounds in back payments for the salaries of himself and his men at Hammes. These were mind-boggling sums for man who had once been paid just 7½d a day as an adventurous esquire for the present king’s grandfather. The crown’s finances were getting into a parlous state, and the French project was a mess.

There was little Ralph could do. Over the next two years he continued as a justice of the peace in Lincolnshire, and he was appointed to two ad-hoc royal commissions into rather serious local matters, but his name was probably there primarily to lend some old-guard authority to the commissions’ work. One, in June 1437, was a complaint by Richard de la Launde that John Bellers of Sutton, Leicestershire, and sixty men “arrayed in manner of war” had broken into Richard’s property, stolen £40 worth of goods and imprisoned his servant. The other, on 8 February 1439, was a complaint by the king’s kinsman Sir John Beaumont that Walter Tailboys of South Kyme in Lincolnshire had maliciously damaged a dyke causing some 600 acres of land to flood.

This was to be Ralph’s last royal commission, with the exception of his ongoing role as a justice.

*

Sir Ralph Rochford III’s last testament of 1439, will of 1440, and probate documents, in the Westminster Abbey Muniments Room, copyright the Dean and Chapter of Westminster
Sir Ralph Rochford III’s last testament of 1439, will of 1440, and probate documents, in the Westminster Abbey Muniments Room. Copyright the Dean and Chapter of Westminster.

On 26 March 1439 Ralph was at his family’s 300-year old manor of Fenne when he wrote his last testament confirming the names of his executors and several gifts to religious foundations for the well-being of his soul on the other side. But it was not until almost a year later, on 12 March 1440, that he gave his last will, the original copy of which still survives in the Westminster Abbey Muniments Room. It is an unusual document, written in English in the third person, so Ralph probably dictated it rather than write it himself. And no wonder: it is long – several thousands words long – and contains remarkably detailed instructions about exactly how his estates were to be managed, his wife provided for, his sons educated and their inheritance divided up after his death.

The picture that emerges from this is of a very practical, disciplined and perhaps authoritarian husband and father. They do not show much emotion or affection towards his family, and they do not give away of the adventurous spirit that once took Ralph to very edges of Europe and beyond. But the gifts themselves also reveal thoughtfulness, lavish generosity, loyalty to his servants and their families, and a keen sense of what Ralph saw as the fair and right order of things. He was at pains to ensure that all this continued after his passing.

First, Ralph’s wife, Margaret, was to have an annuity of twenty marks from his manors of Fenne and Scrane, and another of £10 from the properties Henry IV had granted him at Stour Provost and Newton Longville for the rest of their terms – and this was to be on top of her lawful dower in his inherited estates. Ralph’s executors were to manage the remaining profits from his inherited manors of Fenne, Scrane, Stoke and Arley for seven years, and to oversee his sons’ education at school and at court until they came of age.

After seven years Ralph’s eldest son, also called Ralph, would be of age and the executors were to give him the four inherited manors. A year later they were to give him the property at Stoke Rochford bought from Sir John Byron in 1433, together with other property bought in Arley, Fenne and Scrane. And finally the executors were to earmark 500 marks to secure the young Ralph a good marriage. When Sir Ralph’s second son John came of age, meanwhile, he was to inherit the property at Stoke that Ralph had bought from Sir William Malory in 1427. Until then the executors were to manage this property for John’s benefit, and they were also to arrange 300 marks for his marriage. The third and youngest son, Henry, was to have some property in Southend near Boston when he came of age, and 300 marks for his marriage.

Ralph did not identify any other family members in his will, but he did make numerous bequests of annuities and property to his retainers, servants and other associates. Robert Caileflete, who was one of Ralph’s executors, was given an annuity of fifty shillings from the manor of Newton Longville, as well as property called Botiller Place in Easton near Stoke Rochford for the rest of his life. William Stanlowe, another executor, was given property in Dembleby and Water Willoughby for twenty years, and Richard Leek, a third executor, had his annuity from the manor of Arley confirmed for life. Ralph’s servant Jenyn Beranger was given property called Burton Place in Fenne for the rest of his life, as well as an income of 13s 4d from the manor of Newton Longville “by way of reward for his long service”. Another servant, John Coke, was given Prest Place in Stoke for a rent of ten shillings. Ralph also left annuities to Margery Loughton, John Newberry, John Cornwall, John More, William Basse and Nicholas Pembroke: we do not know what their connections to Ralph were, but each was to have an income of 26s 8d from the estates at Stour Provost and Newton Longville. And there were smaller grants to others.

Ralph’s religious bequests were numerous too. He left his best horse for his burial fee. He left Lincoln Cathedral and St Giles Cripplegate in London twenty shillings each, and he left the chapel of St Michael in Fenne and the church of Stoke Rochford far more: £10 each. Ralph’s executors were to arrange for a priest and three “bedmen” at Stoke, a priest at Newton Longville and a priest at Fenne “to synge and pray for his sowle dailly”. Ralph was particularly fond of one chaplain, Friar Barton, who Ralph’s uncle John the Younger had joined in property transactions in 1396 and 1393. Ralph asked that “yf Fryre Barton will a-bide and synge at Fenne” he should have a salary of five nobles yearly. At Stoke, meanwhile, Ralph asked his executors to arrange twenty shillings a year from the property called Elward Place that he had bought from John Symond in 1431, to fund a yearly obit of prayers for his soul.

Ralph’s executors were to be John Tamworth, John Langholme, Richard Leek, William Massyngham, the clerk John Rayncock, Robert Caileflete and William Stanlowe, and they were each to receive the fine sum of £100 for their work. Ralph also asked two men of suitable status to supervise and lend authority to their work: William Alnwick, the bishop of Lincoln, to whom Ralph left a gift of a gold ring with a large sapphire, and Ralph, Lord Cromwell, Treasurer of England, to whom he left a fascinating gift: “my cup called Vulture’s Egg”.

As a final note, Ralph instructed that should his wife or any of his sons “worke the contrarye of this his present wille”, they were to lose everything they had to gain under it. He was especially concerned about Margaret demanding greater rights in the family property, and he insisted that “that she kepe hir in honeste and worshupfull gouernaunce, or elles that she be maried to hir worshipe and to hir estate, by assent of … the most partye of his executours”. At face value this might seem to suggest that Ralph was distrustful of his wife integrity. But this is probably not correct. He was far more worried about her being tricked or compelled into marriage by some unscrupulous lord who could try to control, bleed dry, or even make off with the family property. It was a real problem. The wording of Ralph’s will gave his executors some legal defence against such roving nasties.

Ralph’s choice of executors might point towards further family members. Over the last few decades Richard Leek and John Rayncock had both served as trustees to his property transactions, but his last will is the first record of a close connection to John Tamworth, John Langholme and the others. It is thought that Ralph’s mother may have been a Tamworth, in which case John Tamworth was most likely a cousin. Meanwhile, the 1562 Visitation of Lincolnshire claims that a John Langholme of Conisholme married Agnes, a daughter of Robert Leek of Freiston and his wife Mary, who was a daughter of one of the Ralph Rochfords. There is lots of evidence that the Rochfords and the Leeks intermarried, probably more than once. There used to be coats of arms and even portraits of men and women from these families together in the windows of the churches of Stoke Rochford and Walpole St Peter’s. There is no primary evidence to confirm who married who between the two families, but it could well be that Richard Leek and John Langholme were Ralph’s cousins or nephews.

Ralph’s executors were already busy getting his estates in order when he gave his last will. It had emerged that the crown still owed him £2,115 12s 4d for the time he was captain of Hammes, in unpaid salaries for himself and his retinue. On 8 December 1439 the executors had hurried to Westminster, unsure how much longer Ralph would last or whether they would be able to secure repayment if he died before the matter was sorted. Here the king agreed that they could continue to hold the Newton Longville property rent-free for 26 years after Ralph’s death, in lieu of repayment.

Ralph probably died in the second week of May 1440. On 15 May chancery became aware of the fact and announced at end of a writ that “Ralph Rochefort, chivaler … is deceased”. There was an instant flurry of activity. The government had back in its hands a batch of valuable gifts that could be doled out as favours to others. On the very same day, Ralph’s tun of Gascon wine was given was given to John Merston and his wife Rose. The next day his office of steward of Boston and his fifty-mark annuity were given to John, Viscount Beaumont, who was deemed to be poorly paid for man of his nobility. Moments afterwards a £40 annuity, now in the king’s hands due to Ralph’s death, was given to John Hampton, esquire for the body. And three days later, on 19 May, Ralph’s executors had approval from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury to act on his will. They were instructed to be back in court with an inventory of his possessions this side of the feast of St Michael, 29 September. On 29 May Ralph’s supervisor William Alnwick, bishop of Lincoln, gave his own approval to the will.

Unusually, Ralph gave no instructions in his will about where he wished to be buried.

According to John Strype’s 1720 Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, he was buried in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, to which he had left twenty shillings in his will. Strype wrote that Ralph died in 1439, while John Stowe’s original edition of this survey printed the date as 1409. Both have caused much confusion since. This church was severely damaged by fires and bombing in 1545, 1897 and 1940: there is no surviving evidence of a monument there today.

Stoke Rochford church - photo copyright Jinjabird Photography, www.jinjabird.com
Stoke Rochford church. The large window to the left is the south chapel, built in memory of Sir Ralph Rochford III and his wife Margaret in 1448. The window to the right is in the north chapel, built around the 1470s for his son Henry Rochford of Fenne. The central window is in the chancel above the alter. These and the other windows were once full of stained glass memorials to the Rochfords. Photo © Jinjabird Photography, http://www.jinjabird.com.

But if bricks and mortar qualify, there is still a monument standing to Ralph today at Stoke Rochford. The £10 he left to the church was used to build its beautiful south chapel. When Gervase Holles visited in the mid-1600s, the three windows in this chapel were full of stained glass in memory of Ralph, Margaret and some of their close friends. One of them had an inscription in it, most of which was still legible:

“Orate specialiter et devote pro aia Radi Rochford et … uxoris suae, … qui hanc capellam et has tres fenestras fieri fecit A° Dni 1448.”

Which in English reads:

“Pray especially and devoutly for the souls of Ralph Rochford and … his wife, … who caused this chapel and these three windows to be made in the year of our lord 1448.”

The view from the chancel into the south chapel at Stoke Rochford church, by Acabashi, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0)
The view from the chancel into the south chapel at Stoke Rochford church. The arms of Sir Ralph III and the supervisors of his will, Ralph Cromwell and William Alnwick, bishop of Lincoln, were in the east window, left of centre. Behind the pillar to the right is the window that had the Rochford arms impaling those of the Hastings and Russell families, representing Ralph and Margaret’s marriage. Photo by Acabashi, Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA-4.0).

This date has also caused confusion about when Ralph died. The old glass in the windows is no longer there, so it cannot be verified, and Holles had a habit of making irritating errors. He mistakenly described this inscription as being in the north chapel, but it is clear from the context that this was not what he intended. But whether correct or not, the date in the inscription is for when the chapel was built, not when Ralph died, and it might well have taken several years for everything to get sorted out.

All three windows in the chapel were full of coats of arms. In the east window above the alter were Ralph’s own arms of gold and red and black. Beside these were the arms of the two supervisors of his will, William Alnwick, bishop of Lincoln, and Ralph, Lord Cromwell. The other two chapel windows were in the south wall. In one of these were the arms of Margaret’s family – the Russells and the Hastings – with the Rochfords’ beside them. In the other were the arms of the Leeks, the Tilneys and the Rochfords side by side. There was also a carved wooden sculpture in this chapel of the Rochford and Limesy arms together, with greyhounds back-to-back on either side.

The £10 Ralph left to the chapel of Fenne was probably spent on something very similar. Sadly, there is not a stone still standing, or even to be seen lying about in fields nearby, of this chapel.

Coats of arms in the windows of the south chapel at Stoke Rochford
Coats of arms in the windows of the south chapel at Stoke Rochford, recorded by Gervase Holles in the mid-1600s. Sadly, none of these survive today.

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Sir Ralph Rochford III was at least 69 years old when he died. Like his grandfather in particular, Ralph had proved himself a knight of great skill and energy. If Sir Sayer’s achievement had been to establish the family as major force in Lincolnshire, then Ralph’s was to propel it into the heart of the royal household. His relationship with Henry IV, who he had served for at least 23 years, was remarkably close. They had, after all, shared great adventures and taken extraordinary risks together. Henry V, meanwhile, had trusted Ralph to undertake critical foreign policy negotiations during the conquest of France. And when the young, vulnerable Henry VI reached boyhood, Ralph was selected as a model guardian and mentor in chivalry for him.

A note of Henry VI’s lasting respect and affection for Ralph appears in writ from the king himself, dated May 1442, two years after Ralph died. Ralph had evidently been complaining about “the ruinous state of the king’s palaces, castles and manors” before he died, and at length Henry appointed “on the petition of Ralph Rocheford, knight … Master John Somerseth as lieutenant of the manor of Shene and surveyor of the works of the said manor, the palace of Westminster, the Tower of London and Eton College”.

There was much for Ralph’s executors to organise after he died. Most of his trustees for the manors of Fenne and Scrane had died – Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter, Sir Thomas Erpingham, William Dogge and Robert Cowton, to name a few. But some were still alive, most notably Henry IV’s aging half-brother Henry Beaufort, who was now Cardinal of England. The surviving trustees soon settled the manors of Fenne and Scrane on Ralph’s widow, Margaret, for the rest of her life, and in May 1441 they completed the legal arrangements for these to pass to her eldest son after her death.

The Newton Longville property would prove trickier to manage. After Ralph died Henry VI gave it to New College, Oxford. The college was expected to repay the crown’s debts to Ralph’s estate out of the profits of this property, after which it could keep the ongoing profits for itself. Naturally the college tried legal action to dispute whether such a debt was owed at all. But at last, in 1443 payments of £40 a year began to come through, and exactly 26 years later, in 1469, the diligent William Stanlowe signed off the final installment. Of course, this adds up to just £1040, rather less than the full £2000-plus that Ralph’s estate was owed. Perhaps his executors had to compromise in the end, or perhaps they were repaid in some other way.

Margaret lived on for some fifteen years after Ralph’s death, but she did not remarry. At some point she got into a fight with her nephew Robert Russell, who was the son and heir of her brother William Russell. It was over a manor named Bolneys in Haversham, Buckinghamshire, which her family had acquired in 1423 after her step-mother Elizabeth, Lady Clinton, died. Margaret’s father had left it in his will to another of Margaret’s brothers, John Russell, a clerk, who died childless. Margaret claimed that the family agreement was that she should now inherit the manor, and that Robert should have received the original deed confirming this. But Robert denied ever having seen such paperwork and took the manor for himself. There was much back-and-forth in court as each party accused the other of disturbing the peace, breaking-and-entering and generally causing trouble. It is not known how the matter was worked out in the end, but a Robert Russell had the property when he died in 1502.

By 1453 Margaret was too old or ill to travel to Westminster, and she had to make a sworn statement for chancery remotely before a local justice in Fenne. In 1455 she joined the Boston Guild of Corpus Christi, perhaps aware that her end was nearing and keen to arrange an obit for her soul. It is not known when she died.


Next: Ralph Rochford IV & John Rochford III (both died 1444) →

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