Like nearby Rayleigh, Rochford was part of a hundred of the same name and of the Honour of Rayleigh. The hundred lay within the peninsula-like area of south-west Essex bounded by the Thames on the south, the North Sea to the east, and the River Crouch to the north, with the River Roach traversing its centre before emptying into the Crouch estuary. The settlement of Rochford is at a fairly central point in this peninsula, less than a mile west of where the Roach estuary narrowed into a river; the saltwater estuary was navigable that far but, although relatively deep, was not wide enough (except perhaps at the mouth) to host sea-going vessels, and so Rochford itself never came to function as a port. This despite Rochford being somewhat distanced from any major cross-country roads, which would encourage an assumption that water transportation ought to have played some importance in Rochford's development. Rochford at least had more convenient access to the coast than did Rayleigh; that some vessels attempted the passage might explain why the manorial lord found himself defending, in a quo warranto enquiry of Edward I's reign, his claim to rights known as wreck of the sea. Settlement in the area as far back as the Mesolithic is partly explained by river access, as well as by a terrain that was easy to clear and easily cultivated; however, the site of Rochford itself has not yet given up prehistoric archaeological finds.
It would be tempting to assume that Rochford was named for the crossing-point of the Roach, above which the village developed on rising ground. But the earliest recorded name of the river is the Walfleet and it seems likely the river came to be named after the settlement, whose name instead seems to be Old English for 'ford of the hunting dogs'. South of the crossing later spanned by what was known as the Salt Bridge the road continued, through Eastwood, to Prittlewell. North of the crossing, South Street ascended the river-valley slope, to level out where it crossed what would become the other main streets of Rochford, notably West Street and East Street; the former led past church and manor-house to Rayleigh, from where travel could continue into central Essex and London, while the latter's curving, diagonal route into the junction of the north-south through-road with West Street may point to beginnings as a footpath. From the north side of Rochford, a road led to a ferry-crossing of the Crouch. This basic street pattern had not been greatly elaborated when the earliest surviving town map was created (1777).
The central junction of South Street and North Street with East and West Streets none of which was later renamed as High Street appears to fit a rectilinear pattern of fields which may be associated with the modest (non-urban) Roman settlement evidenced in the area [Rochford District Council, Rochford Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Plan, 2007, p.7]. There is little, if any, archaeological evidence for Saxon occupation within the area of the town, however, and we rely largely on Domesday to reveal a small village existing within one of the manors owned by Suein, lord of the hundred and the honour, though in 1086 the tenant under Suein was one Alured; unsurprisingly, quite large numbers of sheep are recorded, but only modest numbers of other livestock. That the manor-house and the parish church stood next to each other, less than a mile west of the town centre, suggest that they may have been the original focus for aggregation of settlement.
After Suein's descendant, the disgraced Henry de Essex, forfeited the Honour of Rayleigh, the manor of Rochford was granted by Henry II to a family that adopted the place-name as its surname. Consequently, it was a Guy de Rocheford who in 1257 acquired for his manor a licence for a Tuesday market and a three-day fair in Whitsun week. In 1264 he obtained what looks like a replacement licence, substituting an autumn fair (around All Saints) for the original, though leaving the Tuesday market in place; this might have been grant of a second fair but, if so, it would seem odd to reiterate the market grant without reiterating that of the Whitsun fair. The licence does not preclude the market from having pre-existed it, of course: in 1235 Hubert de Burgh, some years after having been granted the honour and the hundred, gave the tenants of St. Paul's cathedral at Barling the right to exercise, unobstructed, their liberties in the hundred, including in fairs and markets there. Granted by Edward the Confessor to the dean and chapter, Barling, neighbour to Little Wakering, stood by a creek that connected to the Roach and had a fishery; its men may have desired toll-free access to markets for purposes of selling the products of the fishery, or the grain which they also transported via the Roach and the Thames to London. In 1225 three Sandwich men were authorized to ship twenty sacks of grain from Rochford Hundred to their home town, and the following year a Shoebury man is documented shipping grain to London via the Thames. We know too that, at the same period, vessels were carrying grain from Rochford Hundred to provision the monks of Canterbury. Wool too was undoubtedly a component of local commerce, but has left no trace in extant records of the period, nor, indeed, has any branch of trade.
Likewise, there is little surviving evidence of industry. Although surname evidence suggests the presence in late fourteenth and early fifteenth century Rochford of a small number of men engaging in cloth-finishing, only one of the numerous Fleming cloth-workers who fled to England in the early fifteenth is seen to have settled at Rochford. One or possibly two tailors are heard of at Rochford in 1386, in connection with a homicide; a break-and-enter case of 1410 identified the stolen goods as cloth worth 6s. 8d, but there is nothing to suggest the Rochford victim was a retailer of cloth. Overall, the evidence hardly gives the impression of a thriving cloth industry there.
Benton [The History of Rochford Hundred, v.2 (1888), p.797] maintained that the de Rochefords were a branch of the same family that produced the Lacy Earls of Lincoln, the lords of Ewyas Lacy, and the de Say line licensees of markets at Sawbridgeworth (Herts., 1222) and Linton (Cambs., 1246), and connected by marriage with the de Mandeville earls of Essex; however, he cited no supporting evidence, nor have I found anything beyond circumstantial connections. Parkin [An Essay Towards a Topographic History of the County of Norfolk, vol.9 (1808, p.104], on the other hand, believed the family had been feoffees of Rochford since the Conquest, something equally unsubstantiated and even less likely. It seems more probable the family were sub-tenants of the holders of the honour from around the mid-twelfth century, when we encounter the earliest known Rocheford, in a context that suggests him related to the Cheney family ["A history of Coxford Priory," Norfolk Archaeology, vol.17 (1910), p.332]; the earliest known Guy de Rocheford (d. ca.1183) held property at Rochford of Henry de Essex and presumably of the king after Henry's disgrace. The Guy who was market licensee and holder of the advowson of the parish church, and was referred to after his death as a tenant-in-chief , acquired (1271) from John de Burgh sen. successor of Hubert as holder of the honour, but in 1274 relinquishing most to Edward I (in return for a cash income, and custody of the Tower of London and Colchester castle) all John's marshes in Rochford. This transaction, part purchase, part exchange, was not the first land transaction between Guy and de Burgh, and Guy acted as witness to at least one de Burgh deed; but all this is too little to judge whether Guy or his father had in any way been associated with Hubert de Burgh's regency government. Guy's successor later cited and showed the charter recording this transaction before quo warranto proceedings, as the basis for his claim to wreck of the sea, and stated that Edward I had confirmed the transaction; on the same occasion he defended his rights to administer the assize of bread and ale by referring to Guy's market licence, and claimed that the transaction also entailed freeing the vill of Rochford from jurisdiction of the hundred at least in regard to holding view of frankpledge which seems to be upheld by the text of the charter, known from Edward II's confirmation to Robert de Rocheford (1324).
The inquisition post mortem on this Guy in 1274 suggests his holdings may have been limited to Essex although individuals bearing the surname are also associated with estates in Norfolk, the Home Counties, the Midlands, and northern England (none having known association with any other market); they comprised, besides Rochford:
Guy's widow, Margaret, at her death in 1292, left houses in Smithfield, London, to be sold for pious uses; it is unknown whether these were acquired by Guy, had been part of Margaret's property when she married him, or came into her possession after his death.
Guy's tenure of part of the estates of the de Burghs might help explain the reference in 1256 to Guy de Rupe Forti (the Latin version of Roquefort ) being allowed a Whitsun fair at Colchester, evidently as an appurtenance to his custody of the castle and farm of the territory of Colchester borough and hamlets; both grants were specified as only for his lifetime, an uncommon arrangement in the case of fairs. Ten years earlier, Henry III had granted de Rupe Forti a July fair at Honiton (Devon) while he had custody of that manor, among others, during the minority of Baldwin de Redvers, heir to the earldom of Devon; this was in lieu of an All Saints fair granted (1220) to Falkes de Breauté, who had been guardian to Baldwin's like-named predecessor as earl. Baldwin came of age in 1257, depriving Guy of some income from his custody of the Redvers estates (he having, with royal approval, farmed out some of the manors). Conceivably the grant of commercial institutions at Rochford could have been to compensate him for that. However, there existed a Poitevin of that name, providing valued military and other services to Henry III, and vastly more favoured with royal largesse. It was this Guy de Rupe Forti who in 1256 was given lifetime custody of Colchester castle and the demesnes of the borough, followed later that year by the fair grant. This was part of Henry III's continuing effort to keep one of his most faithful enforcers provided with a variety of sources of annual income; this arrangement tantamount to having a new mesne lord interposed between them and the king can hardly have been palatable to Colchester's burgesses one aggravation being a fine imposed on the burgesses for infringing the standards of measures used in their market and in 1258 Guy lost custody of the town after complaints of maladministration. In 1262 he was given the farm of the town of Kingston upon Thames, but that did not work out either, and Andover was substituted the following year. Other evidence similarly indicates the Honiton grant was to that Guy.
The Guy de Rocheford who is our market licensee at Rochford is much less evident in royal records and it is harder to judge if his market grant is associated with any service(s) performed for the king. Four years previously he, along with a Walter de Rocheford (perhaps a brother?), had been granted lifetime exemptions from serving on assizes or other juries, but these privileges could as easily have been purchases as rewards. This Guy was probably born in the 1220s, and a minor at the death of his like-named father (ca. 1232), but had come into his inheritance before 1248, when granted the right of free warren on his estates at Rochford, Berden, and Elsenham [Nick Nettleton, Rochford of Rochford and Berden, 1140-1309, online blog, 2017, https://therochfords.wordpress.com/2017/04/13/rochford-of-rochford-and-berden/, last visited 20 August 2017]. Our Guy was followed as lord of Rochford and Berden by his nephew John (ca. 1250-1309), and he by his son Robert (ca.1279-1337), and grandson Thomas, all still holding of the Honour of Rayleigh, though seemingly increasingly weighed down by debt. But by 1340 the male line of this branch of the family had died out and, despite another branch rising to prominence in Lincolnshire, its Essex manors escheated to the king, who granted them to William de Bohun, to help provide an income to support him in his new role as Earl of Northampton. He, despite using the manor-house as a residence on occasion, not long after alienated Rochford manor to Sir John Giffard of Bures (Bowers, Essex), owner of Horndon's market. In the fifteenth century it was taken, by marriage of a Bohun heiress, to the Earls of Ormond and later still to the Boleyn family and to Lord Rich. Some of these lords were prepared to invest in improvements to the manor-house and parish church, thus providing business for local merchants and artisans. By contrast, the manorial issues were being used to pay staff wages and expenses at the Tower of London and its zoo during Richard III's reign.
None of Rochford's lords, however, erected a castle nor founded a monastic or otherwise collegial ecclesiastical institution there. Rochford may have been the principal base of the Essex branch of the Rocheford family and, presumably, the meeting-place of the hundred court. It is also thought to have been the sometime location of a baronial court known as the Lawless Court, though this, with its peculiar traditions, is of uncertain jurisdictional scope it appears to have been limited to tenants paying suit and rent; in its origins and antiquity, it was perhaps associated with the Honour of Rayleigh [see H.W. King, "The Lawless Court of the Honour of Rayleigh," Transactions of the Essex Archaeological Society, n.s. vol.4 (1892), pp.179-95, 286-87; Courtney Kenny, "The Lawless Court of Essex", Columbia Law Review, v.5 (1905), 529-36]. Rochford's role as an administrative centre does not seem sufficient to warrant the licensing of a market there. The market must rather have been to support the manor-house and local population, and to capitalize on commerce plying the peninsula by land and water.
The Market Square, as still known (though partly lost to infill), is to one side of the crossroads, flanked by the opening stretches of West Street and North Street; but archaeology suggests (tentatively) that this area and the standardized plots fronting it, backed by a boundary ditch, were laid out in the fourteenth or, more likely, early fifteenth century, perhaps the initiative of some particular manorial lord of that period [Eddy, "Excavations in Medieval Rochford," Essex Archaeology and History, ser.3, vol.16 (1984-85), pp.20-21]. This would disconnect it from the acquisition of market licence, but does not preclude that licence formalizing an existing street market or such an event at some other location in Rochford. A long triangular area between the initial stretch of East Street and Old Ship Lane appears to have once been part of the marketplace (as too the lane), but had become largely infilled by the close of the sixteenth century; however, there is uncertainty whether East Street was a medieval feature of Rochford, as it seems to have built partly over a watercourse. Yet excavation of a former shop site at one corner of the triangle revealed, several feet below the modern surface, what may have been the historical marketplace: gravelled floor surfaces on which had stood small and relatively short-lived timber structures, dating back to about the thirteenth or fourteenth century and possibly reflecting the process of stalls becoming more substantial buildings (eventually a timber-framed, jettied house incorporating a shop facing onto South Street); excavation in the north-west corner of Market Square revealed something similar, in terms of gravel layers with ever-encroaching timber structures on top.
The market and crossroads area remains the focus of retail commerce in modern Rochford. South of the square, parallel to West Street, Back Lane runs from South Street and, at its farther end, curves to connect with West Street; this suggests the possibility of a planned tenemental (perhaps burghal) unit along one side of the marketplace, continuing along the south side of West Street; the area between Back Lane and West Street is quite narrow and the shallow plots into which divided might represent a row of cottages contemporary with the layout of the marketplace, or of stalls eventually transformed into shops [Maria Medlycott, Rochford - Historic Towns Assessment Report, Essex County Council,1999, p.4; Rochford Conservation Area Appraisal, p.10], or perhaps a combination of both. Whether these plots and the rectangular marketplace represent planning contemporary with the market licence grant or an extension later in the Middle Ages cannot be confidently stated. It is also hard to say whether planning included further tenemental units along the other streets coming to the junction, though this is likely enough.
Still, it is not impossible that the elongated area at, and even beyond, the crossroads was a marketplace prior to the issue of a licence. Beyond the town centre, West Street was earlier known as Church Street, indicating the original linkage of the manorial village to crossroads. Early medieval pottery has been found in East Street and ceramics from twelfth to fifteenth centuries at other sites in the town centre and at the manor-house; but the oldest building fabric, in South Street, dates back only to the fourteenth century, the church being mostly a late medieval rebuild, possibly incorporating some older walls. Nonetheless, it is conceivable that Guy de Rocheford acquired his market licence as part of a town planning initiative, though landless messuage transactions are as scarce at Rochford as they are at Rayleigh, and there is no evidence that burgage tenure was ever implemented. Yet archaeologists have identified a medieval tenement plot of about 3 perches in width, facing onto the marketplace, and perhaps divided into two 1.5 perch plots by a wooden fence. Furthermore, the distance between the postulated original focus of settlement and the market area encourages the idea that the latter was a later extension of an original village, as took place at many other places in England. Expansion of the church, by addition of the north aisle, in the early fourteenth century might reflect population growth stemming from initial, if modest, success of Rochford as a market settlement.
Rochford's population, economy and street-plan did not grow much from the close of the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century; expansion during the Late Middle Ages may have been accommodated mainly by marketplace infill and by ribbon development along South Street towards the river, as well perhaps along North Street and West Street; development along East Street might have been hindered by a large stream or ditch cutting across the street, discovered during archaeological excavations. In fact the Tuesday market may have become inoperative by the end of the Middle Ages, the present Tuesday market representing a modern revival [Rochford Conservation Area Appraisal, p.41].