Ranulf was born sometime in the first decade of the twelfth century. His parents were Ranulf le Meschin, 3rd Earl of Chester and Lucy de Tailleboise of Bolingbroke. The palatinate of Chester was hugely powerful and included estates across the Midlands. It came into the family with the sinking of the White Ship and death of Richard d’Avranches. Henry I made Ranulf’s father yield the lordship of Carlisle and pay a huge fine before licensing le Meshchin to enter it. Together with this and Lucy of Bolingbroke’s inheritance which included lands in Lincolnshire as well as the castellanship of Lincoln Castle he became the king of powerful magnate who might challenge a king. Henry I treated the 3rd earl with suspicion and withheld some of the lands which were rightfully his because he recognised the threat which the third earl presented.
Ranulf de Gernon became earl in his turn in 1129. He resented the debt that he inherited from his father and the loss of the honour of Carlisle. However, he did nothing to challenge Henry I unlike his half brother William de Roumare who rebelled when the king would not return the lands that belonged to his mother and which his step-father had given up in order to secure the earldom of Chester.
Before Henry’s death, the king sought to bind Ranulf closer to his family by permitting an advantageous marriage between the earl and his own granddaughter, Maud of Gloucester – the daughter of his illegitimate son Earl Robert of Gloucester. It was a miscalculation. The only loyalty Ranulf had was to himself; his half-brother, the son of his mother’s second marriage; and the land which Ranulf believed to be rightfully his.
In 1136 King Stephen agreed that Carlisle should be Scottish. The land he ceded to David I’s son Henry was the honour of Carlisle which Ranulf believed to be rightfully his. To make matters worse Stephen arranged a marriage between Henry of Scotland and and Adeline de Warenne whose half-brothers Waleran and Robert de Beaumont were Ranulf’s main rivals for power in the Midlands.
Ranulf and his half-brother, William de Roumare, seized Lincoln Castle in January 1141. Stephen arrived with an army to besiege them but Ranulf escaped, returned to the Marches and raised his levies. He also sought the help of Robert of Gloucester whose daughter was still trapped behind the walls of the castle. Robert took the opportunity not only to rescue his child but to demand that Ranulf switch allegiance to the Empress Matilda – which Ranulf duly did.
On 2 February 1141 Stephen found himself captured on the battlefield – and he remained in captivity for the next seven months until Robert of Gloucester was captured in his turn. A prisoner exchange put Stephen back on the throne. Matilda had lost her opportunity to be crowned and win the civil war.
In 1145, Ranulf changed sides once more. Matilda had come to terms with David of Scotland in 1141 meaning that if Ranulf wanted to pursue his claim to the honour of Carlisle, that Stephen was now the man for him. Also the king had briefly besieged Lincoln Castle in 1144 – and now the king agreed that it should remain with Ranulf and his half-brother. When it seemed that Stephen would be victorious Ranulf was much more active on the king’s behalf
But in 1146 he went to Northampton to ask the king to lead an army into Wales. Men more loyal than Ranulf believed that the earl was plotting treachery. After all, men from Wales had joined the earl at Lincoln in 1141 as part of a mutual alliance between Ranulf and Llewelyn of Gwynedd. Instead of providing an army Stephen had the earl arrested. The Welsh, on hearing the news, took the opportunity for a spot of light raiding and plundering.
Having exacted a promise of good behaviour and hostages – the king released Ranulf once more. Inevitably – the earl changed sides – he died in December 1153