RADCLIFFE, Sir Ralph (d.1406), of Blackburn and Smithills, Lancs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1386-1421, ed. J.S. Roskell, L. Clark, C. Rawcliffe., 1993
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Sept. 1397
Jan. 1404

Family and Education

s. and h. of William Radcliffe (d.c.1369) of Blackburn and Smithills by Katherine, da. and coh. of Adam Norleigh of Pemberton. m. (1) prob. 3s. inc. Ralph*, 1da.; (2) by 1389, Margery (d. Jan. 1417), da. of Robert Ince, wid. of Sir Henry Trafford (d.c.1386) of Trafford. Kntd. by 1382.1

Offices Held

Commr. to make arrests, Lancs. May 1376, Dec. 1381,2 Aug. 1396,3 Feb. 1399; of oyer and terminer Feb. 1382,4 Mar. 1384 (trespasses on John of Gaunt’s estates);5 array Feb. 1384, Aug. 1402, July, Sept. 1403, May, June 1405; to raise and lead men to serve under Gaunt at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Mar. 1385, in Spain Mar. 1386,6 to serve against the northern rebels Aug. 1405; of inquiry, Derbys., Staffs. May 1399 (illicit use of hunting dogs).

Sheriff, Lancs. 14 Mar. 1384-23 July 1387, 10 Oct. 1398-30 Sept. 1399, 20 Sept. 1404-d.7

J.p. Lancs. Mar. 1385, July 1394, Feb. 1404.8

Receiver of the Lancs. and Cheshire estates of the duchy of Lancaster 13 Aug. 1403-27 Feb. 1405.9


Just before his death William Radcliffe became involved in litigation over land in Flixton and Blackburn; and in 1369 his son, Ralph, the subject of this biography, took over the case, securing a division of the property between his own family and their kinsmen the Radcliffes of Ordsall. In addition to these and other estates at Smithills and Harwood which made up the bulk of his patrimony, Ralph was heir through his mother to extensive holdings worth at least £10 p.a. in the Lancashire villages of Croston, Eccleston, Walton, Leyland, Standish and Much Hoole. He also advanced a title to the manor of Chadderton, since it had belonged to his uncle John, a priest, whose own son was illegitimate and therefore disqualified at law from succeeding. Somewhat later, in 1376, Ralph went to court over the custody of an estate in Turton which he claimed during the minority of the young Henry Trafford, but he did not otherwise seek to extend his possessions in this way. As a feudal tenant of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, Ralph was naturally enough drawn into the latter’s retinue, which he joined in March 1380 as an esquire, being promoted to the rank of knight some two years later. He also obtained from his patron the farm of certain wasteland near Salford, and other holdings in Crompton, although the dates of these two awards are not known.10 It was likewise through Gaunt that he became sheriff of Lancashire, remaining in office for over three years until financial problems led to his removal. These clearly resulted from his offer, made almost certainly under some form of pressure, in 1385, to render double the usual farm of £40, which had itself in the past proved difficult to collect. Two years later Gaunt agreed to cancel recognizances of £160 if this sum were promptly paid, tempering his magnanimity with a demand for additional securities of £100 as a guarantee that Sir Ralph would render a proper account. Faced with debts in excess of £237 at the time of his ignominious dismissal, the latter naturally harboured a deep-seated sense of grievance, which accounts for his unfortunate involvement in the turbulent political events of the late 1380s. It is, indeed, hardly surprising that he responded with such alacrity to King Richard’s entreaty for support against his enemies, the Lords Appellant, among whom was Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke. In an attempt to retain power and protect his favourites from attack, Richard sent Robert de Vere, duke of Ireland, to raise men in the north-west; and our Member was among the first adherents to his cause. After the ensuing rout at Radcot bridge in Oxfordshire, the duke fled into exile and orders were sent out by the Appellants for the arrest of nine Lancashire gentlemen, including Sir Ralph and his illegitimate cousin, John Radcliffe of Chadderton. All were summoned to appear before the King and his newly constituted council in the Parliament of February 1388, Sir Ralph in particular being singled out for victimization. Never one to miss such a perfect opportunity for extracting his pound of flesh, Gaunt (who had, in fact, been absent in Spain during the crisis) insisted upon further recognizances to the tune of £700, and it was not until 1391 that the knight obtained his final and long awaited quietus. Sir Ralph’s notable absence from any royal commissions for another three years, until Richard II had firmly recovered the political initiative, suggests that he remained under a cloud throughout the period.11

This dramatic reversal of fortune was, luckily, offset by Sir Ralph’s marriage to his second wife, Margery, the widow of Sir Henry Trafford, upon whose estates, as we have seen, he had already cast a covetous eye. She brought him the manor of Chorlton, together with land in Edgeworth, Whitefield, Rusholme and other parts of Lancashire. In 1389, her son, Henry Trafford (whom Sir Ralph shrewdly married to his only daughter, Elizabeth, thus hoping to retain permanent control of his inheritance) confirmed her in possession of some of his own property in Chorlton at a annual rent of £4 6s.8d., which left her with at least £26 in clear profits from her dower lands every year. Furthermore, in 1392, Sir Ralph took on the lease of other farmland in Tonge, adding further to his holdings there at a later date.12 The process of rehabilitation (which naturally coincided with King Richard’s gradual resumption of real authority) was by now getting under way. In about 1393 Sir Ralph served on a jury in Liverpool; and one year later he resumed his seat on the Lancashire bench. By the summer of 1397, Richard II was poised to take revenge upon his old adversaries, the Lords Appellant of 1388, and the Parliament which met on 17 Sept. proved a willing tool in his hands. The electors of Lancashire rightly sensed that Sir Ralph, himself a former victim of the Appellants, would be a more than acceptable choice as representative, and he was duly returned to Westminster. The Commons was still sitting when he received a royal annuity of £40, charged upon the revenues of certain mills in Cheshire; and two weeks later the King rewarded him further with a grant of the wardship and marriage of the young (Sir) John Byron*. In keeping with his policy of appointing trusted supporters of the court party as sheriffs, Richard allowed Sir Ralph to resume his former office in Lancashire, at the traditional render of £40 a year. Being now in a position to settle old scores by undermining the authority of Gaunt’s adherents, Sir Ralph was only too happy to move against such notable Lancastrians as Robert Worsley*, whom he arrested and sent to the Tower, in open defiance of the duke’s palatine jurisdiction. Even so, the question of allegiance was not quite so clear cut, and Richard evidently harboured some misgivings on the score of his retainer’s continuing loyalty. Certainly, in May 1399, both Sir Ralph and a leading Cheshire knight named Sir Robert Leigh (to whom he was related on his mother’s side) were obliged to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, promising that they would reveal any plots or conspiracies which came to light while Richard was away in Ireland. Perhaps these fears were justified, for Sir Ralph’s widespread connexions with the local gentry made it unlikely that he would offer any prolonged resistance to the Lancastrian usurpation of 1399, especially as his new son-in-law, Ralph Staveley*, was a leading member of Henry of Bolingbroke’s entourage. It is, indeed, worth noting that Bolingbroke did not actually remove Sir Ralph from the shrievalty until late September, being evidently satisfied as to his reliability.13

Yet Sir Ralph still found himself in serious trouble because of his failure to submit an account for the revenues which had passed through his hands over the previous year. Not content with simply taking sureties for future payment, the Crown seized his estates, which were not restored until February 1400 in return for heavy financial pledges that he would make good his arrearages. Although he had still to satisfy the royal auditors six months later, Henry IV agreed to offer him a royal pardon, albeit in return for yet more financial guarantees. Exactly one year later Sir Ralph managed to obtain further concessions by way of a reduction in the sum laid to his charge, so in the end he escaped quite lightly. King Henry was, in fact, only too anxious to make use of his services, and in March 1401 he allowed him to retain control of half the manor of Flixton during the course of a dispute with the duchy of Lancaster over ownership. Sir Ralph’s indebtedness was, as before, largely due to the problem of collecting money from others rather than personal incompetence or dishonesty. He eventually found himself with no alternative but litigation, which he began at the Lancaster assizes in August 1401 in his capacity as former sheriff. In all, he attempted to recover outstanding sums of £180, although he himself was then being sued for a render of £40. His position was somewhat eased, in April 1403, with the award of an annuity to compensate for the one which had been previously granted to him by Richard II; and when, in the following August, he took up office as receiver of the duchy of Lancaster estates in Lancashire and Cheshire a further 20 marks p.a. came to him in fees and wages. This latter appointment is of particular interest, coming as it did shortly after the battle of Shrewsbury, in which Sir Ralph’s old friend, Sir John Massey of Tatton, was killed fighting in open rebellion against the Crown. Sir Ralph had recently strengthened their connexion by marrying his baby grandson to Massey’s daughter, so there is a strong possibility that the offer of the receivership constituted a reward for loyalty in the face of considerable personal pressure. Moreover, when Sir Ralph’s pension began falling into arrears, Henry IV obligingly allowed him to make good the deficit out of his own shortfall as receiver. Sir Ralph’s political volte face from supporter of Richard II to servant and retainer of the Lancastrian regime was complete by January 1404, the date of his second and last appearance in the House of Commons. Notwithstanding his record of poor book keeping and financial difficulties, King Henry was prepared to allow him a third term as sheriff of Lancashire soon afterwards, wisely deciding to reduce the farm before the submission of accounts.14

Sir Ralph did not survive to experience further harassment at the hands of the duchy auditors, since he died in office in the spring of 1406. He was still active in March of that year, when he incurred criticism for arraying a jury favourable to his kinsman, Sir Nicholas Atherton*, but nothing more is heard of him afterwards. He left three sons, the eldest of whom, Ralph, was named (along with Thomas Trafford) as his executor. Ralph Radcliffe the younger had already, in May 1401, received from his father’s trustees the property in and around Leyland which constituted his grandmother’s inheritance, and he now entered the rest of the family estates. His younger brother, or perhaps half-brother, George, took holy orders, becoming a doctor of decretals and eventually rising to occupy the archdeaconry of Chester. Ralph’s widowed stepmother lived on until 1417, a wealthy woman in possession of two dowers and jointures from each of her husbands.15

Ref Volumes: 1386-1421

Author: C.R.


  • 1. Chetham Soc. xcv. 96-97, 127-8; xcix. 34-36; DKR, xxxiii. 13-14; VCH Lancs. iv. 127, 253; v. 46-47; Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, p. 9; J. Foster, Lancs. Peds. sub Trafford; C.P. Hampson, Bk. of Radclyffes, 212.
  • 2. Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, no. 631.
  • 3. Chetham Soc. n.s. xcvi. 84.
  • 4. DKR, xliii. 370.
  • 5. DKR, xl. 526.
  • 6. Ibid. 522, 525.
  • 7. Ibid. 522, 532; PRO List ‘Sheriffs’, 72; Somerville, Duchy, i. 461; Chetham Soc. n.s. lxxxvii. 67.
  • 8. DKR, xl. 523, 532; Chetham Soc. n.s. xcvi. 84.
  • 9. Somerville, i. 493.
  • 10. VCH Lancs. v. 46-47, 125, 274; Reg. Gaunt 1379-83, p. 9, no. 34; DL42/15, f. 19; DKR, xliii. 369.
  • 11. DKR, xxxii. 360, 364, 365; xliii. 368; CCR, 1385-9, p. 393; VCH Lancs. ii. 210; Somerville, i. 59; S.K. Walker, ‘John of Gaunt and his retainers, 1361-99’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil. thesis, 1986), 182-3.
  • 12. Chetham Soc. xcv. 57-58, 96-97, 127-8; VCH Lancs. iv. 253; v. 87.
  • 13. Chetham Soc. xcv. 46; CPR, 1396-9, pp. 195, 204, 211; CCR, 1396-9, p. 505; DKR, xxxvi (2), 397; Reign Ric. II ed. Du Boulay and Barron, 276; Walker, 192-3.
  • 14. DL29/738/12100; DL42/15, ff. 63, 65v, 114, 153v, 16 (3), ff, 5v, 46v; Chetham Soc. n.s. xcvi. 41, 43-44; DKR, xl. 530; CPL, v. 406.
  • 15. Chetham Soc. xcix. 34-36; n.s. lxxxvii. 102; DKR, xxxiii. 5, 7, 13-14; VCH Lancs. iv. 127.