In 1550 Ralph was born to John and Constance Sherwin of Rodsley in rural Derbyshire. He was baptised in Longford church in the baptismal font still in use today. John and Constance had almost certainly conformed to the Elizabethan religion at the time and we find no record of them at all until six years after the martyrdom of Ralph. By the time we encounter written record of them they have, likely inspired by their son, reverted to the Catholic faith, Constance having been imprisoned under the accusation of being a papist but released to care for her ninety-two year old bedridden husband in his last days.
Ralph also had a brother, John, who many years later would be brought to the Tower of London by the establishment to try to bring pressure on Ralph to renounce his Catholic faith. We know also of his uncle, Father John Woodward, who is thought to have financed his education at Eton and subsequently his studies at Oxford and is known to have had great influence with Ralph. John Woodward would eventually be the voice that persuaded Ralph to leave Oxford and head to the continent to pursue his vocation to the priesthood. Ralph would write to his uncle on the eve of his death as his ‘loving and sweetest benefactor.’
The Sherwins of Rodsley would certainly not have been wealthy but must have been comfortably off. The exact location of their home cannot be traced but the crossroads at the center of the village is shown on very ancient maps and we can presume that it was somewhere not too far from there that the young Ralph Sherwin grew up. It is also at these crossroads that the plaque pictured here was erected in 1976 by the Sherwin Society to commemorate the birth and death of Saint Ralph in this place he must have known and loved so much.
Ralph was a brilliant scholar, especially in Greek and Latin, obtaining his BA in 1571 and his MA in 1574. It is known that in 1570 when he had been at Oxford two years he was not yet seriously concerned with matters of faith but rather dedicated to pursuing a very promising academic career, he was known to have caught the attention of the Earl of Leicester, favourite of the Queen, for his great brilliance in public debate. It was in this same year of 1570 that Ralph saw the Rector, Dean and close friend John Howlet imprisoned when the Royal Commission visited the college to purge it of popery and it can’t have escaped Ralph’s notice that another Oxford resident, Edmund Campion, left for the continent at this same time on his journey to become a priest. Saint Edmund Campion would later be martyred alongside Ralph, brothers in Christ upon the Tyburn gallows. These events called faith to the forefront of Ralph’s mind and it was at this point that he was reconciled with the Catholic Church.