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Portrait of Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich

Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich  (1496?-1567)

RICHARD RICH, first Baron Rich (1496?-1567), lord chancellor, second son of Richard Rich and Joan Dingley, his wife, was probably born in 1496, since early in 1551 he is officially described as fifty-four years of age and more. The family was of Hampshire origin, and the chancellor's great-grandfather, Richard Rich (d. 1469), a prominent member of the Mercers' Company, served as sheriff of the city of London in 1441. He left two sons, John (d. 1458), from whom are descended the baronets of the Rich family, and Thomas, grandfather of the lord chancellor. The visitation of Essex in 1512 represents the chancellor as second son of John Rich, who died on 19 July 1468, which is impossible. Robert, a brother of the chancellor, died in 1557.

Rich was born in the parish of St. Laurence Jewry, in the church of which several of his family were buried. Cooper states that he was at one time a member of Cambridge University, and in 1539 be was an unsuccessful candidate for the chancellorship of that university against the Duke of Norfolk. He was bred to the law, entered the Middle Temple, and formed an acquaintance with Sir Thomas More, a native of the same parish and member of the same inn. 'You know,' said More to Rich at his trial, 'that I have been acquainted with your manner of life and conversation a long space, even from your youth to this time; for we dwelt long together in one parish, where, as yourself can well tell (I am sorry you compel me to speak it), you were always esteemed very light of your tongue, a great dicer and gamester, and not of any commendable fame either there or at your house in the Temple, where hath been your bringing up.'1

Rich, however, in spite of his dissipation, acquired an intimate knowledge of the law. In 1526 be was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of common serjeant against William Walsingham, the father of Sir Francis. In 1528 he wrote to Wolsey urging a reform of the common law, and offering to describe the abuses in daily use, and to suggest remedies. In the following December he was placed on the commission for the peace in Hertfordshire, and in February 1529 was made a commissioner of sewers. In the autumn he became reader at the Middle Temple, and in November was returned as one of the burgesses of Colchester to the 'reformation' parliament which sat from 1529 to 1536. In June 1530 he was placed on the commission for gaol delivery at Colchester Castle, and in July was one of those appointed to make a return of Wolsey's possessions in Essex. In March 1532 he was granted the clerkship of recognisances of debt taken in London, and on 13 May was appointed attorney-general for Wales and the counties palatine of Flint and Chester.

On 10 Oct. 1533 he was made solicitor-general, and knighted. In this capacity he took the leading part in the crown prosecutions for non-compliance with the acts of succession and supremacy. In April 1535 he assisted at the examination of the three Carthusian monks who were executed shortly after at Tyburn. Baily's story2 that Rich was sent to Fisher with a secret message from Henry to the effect that he would not accept the supremacy of the church if Fisher disapproved is improbable; but in May Rich came to the Tower and endeavoured to ascertain the bishop's real views on the subject, assuring him on the king's word that no advantage would be taken of his admissions, and promising that he would repeat them to no one but the king. Nevertheless this conversation was made the principal evidence on which Fisher was condemned, and at his trial he denounced Rich for his treachery in revealing it.

Similarly base was Rich's conduct towards Sir Thomas More. On 12 June he had an interview with More in the Tower, in which, according to his own account, he 'charitably moved' the ex-chancellor to comply with the acts. But at the trial he gave evidence that More had denied the power of parliament to make the king supreme head of the church; the words rested solely on Rich's testimony, and More charged Rich with perjury, 'ïn good faith, Mr. Rich,' he said, 'I am more sorry for your perjury than mine own peril; and know you that neither I nor any one else to my knowledge ever took you to be a man of such credit as either I or any other could vouchsafe to communicate with you in any matter of importance.' Rich attempted to substantiate the accusation by calling Sir Richard Southwell and Palmer, who had attended him in the Tower; but they both professed to have been too busy removing More's books to listen to the conversation. More was condemned, and Rich reaped his reward by being appointed before the end of the year overseer of liveries of lands, and chirographer of common pleas.

Meanwhile the lesser monasteries had been dissolved, and to deal with their revenues there was formed the court of augmentations of the revenue of the crown. This court was a committee of the privy council, and Rich, who was probably at the same time sworn of the council, was made its first chancellor on 19 April 1536. He was returned probably as knight of the shire for Essex to the parliament which met on 8 June and was dissolved on 18 July 1536, and was elected speaker. In his opening speech he compared the king with Solomon for justice and prudence, with Samson for strength and fortitude, and with Absalom for beauty and comeliness, and in his oration at the close of the session he likened Henry to the sun which expels all noxious vapours and brings forth the seeds, plants, and fruits necessary for the support of human life.

He was now perhaps, next to Cromwell, the most powerful and the most obnoxious of the king's ministers. When in the same year the northern rebellion [cf. Pilgrimage of Grace] broke out, the insurgents coupled his name with Cromwell's in their popular songs, and in the list of articles they drew up demanded his dismissal and punishment, describing him as a man of low birth and small reputation, a subverter of the good laws of the realm, a maintainer and inventor of heretics, and one who imposed taxes for his own advantage. The failure of the rebellion was followed by the suppression of the remaining religious houses, and Rich devoted himself zealously to the work, being described as the hammer, as Cromwell was the mall, of the monasteries. Occasionally he visited a monastery himself, but his chief occupation was the administration of their revenues, and it was natural that some of the enormous wealth which passed through his hands should stick to his fingers. In 1539 he was appointed, as groom of the privy chamber, to meet Anne of Cleves at Calais; but he deserted Cromwell in the disgrace which consequently overtook him, and was one of the chief witnesses against his friend and benefactor.

Cromwell's fall was followed by a reaction against the Reformation, and Rich took an active part in the persecution of the reformers, working with Gardiner, and being described by Foxe as one of the papists in Henry's council. He was constant in his attendance at the privy council, and in April 1541 one John Hillary was committed to the Marshalsea for accusing Rich of deceiving the king as to the possessions of the abbey of Keynsham. In 1544 he resigned the chancellorship of the court of augmentations, and in the same year was treasurer of the wars against France and Scotland, accompanying Henry to Boulogne, and assisting in the negotiation of a treaty with France.

On 30 Dec. he was again returned to parliament as knight of the shire for Essex. In June 1546 he took part in the examination of Anne Askew, and was present when she was tortured in the Tower; according to her own explicit statement, Wriothesley and Rich 'took pains to rack me with their own hands till I was well nigh dead.'3 The story has been much discussed but never disproved, and 'is perhaps the darkest page in the history of any English statesman.'4

In spite of these proceedings, Rich's position was improved by the accession of Edward VI. Henry had appointed him an assistant executor of his will, bequeathed him £200, and, according to Paget, left instructions that he should be made a peer. On 20 Feb. 1547-8 he was created Baron Rich of Leeze (Leighs), Essex. In March Wriothesley was deprived of the lord-chancellorship, owing, it is said, to Rich's intrigues, and on 23 Oct. Rich was appointed lord chancellor. He acquiesced in the violent religious changes made by Somerset, signing the orders in council for the administration of the communion in both kinds and for the abolition of private masses. In 1549 he took part in the proceedings against the Protector's brother, Lord Seymour of Sudeley; having obtained an opinion from the judges and council, he conducted the bill of attainder through parliament, and afterwards signed the warrant for his execution.

On the outbreak of the rebellion in the same year he summoned the justices before him, and rated them for their neglect to preserve the peace in an harangue printed in Foxe. In October he accompanied Somerset to Hampton Court when the young king was removed thither; but, finding the Protector's party was deserting him, he took the great seal and joined Warwick at Ely House, Holborn. There, on 6 Oct., he described before the lord mayor the abuses of which Somerset was accused; he made a similar harangue at the Guildhall on the 8th, and on the 12th rode to Windsor bearing the news of the council's proceedings against Somerset to the king. He presided at Somerset's examination before the council, drew up the articles against him, obtained his confession, and brought in the bill of pains and penalties, by which the Protector was deprived of all his offices.

Rich may have thought that Warwick would reverse the religious policy of his predecessor, or perhaps the marriage of his daughter Winifred with Warwick's son. Sir Henry Dudley induced him to side against Somerset; but Warwick's triumph failed to improve his position. Probably against his will, he took part in the proceedings against Bonner and Gardiner. The eighth session of the court appointed to try the latter was held at Rich's house in St. Bartholomew's on 20 Jan. 1551, though at another stage of the proceedings Rich appeared as a witness in the bishop's favour. Similarly he was burdened with the chief part in the measures taken by the council against the Princess Mary. In 1560 he was sent to request her to move to Oking or come to court; she refused, but professed herself willing to accept Rich's hospitality at Leighs Priory. The visit was prevented by a dangerous sickness which broke out in the chancellor's household, and necessitated his absence from the council from June to November. More to Rich's taste were the measures he took against Joan Bocher and the sectaries of Booking.5

In August 1551 he was again sent to Mary at Copped Hall to forbid mass in her household. On 26 Oct. a commission was appointed to transact chancery business because of Rich's illness, and on 21 Dec. he resigned the great seal. Fuller, in his 'Church History,' relates a story communicated to him by Rich's great-grandson, the Earl of Warwick, to the effect that Rich had written a letter to Somerset, who he thought might yet return to power, warning him against some design of Northumberland. In his haste he addressed it merely 'to the duke,' and his servant handed it to the Duke of Norfolk, who revealed its contents to Northumberland. Rich, hearing of the mistake, only saved himself by going at once to the king and resigning the great seal. It is improbable, however, that Norfolk, who made Rich one of his executors, would have betrayed him; at any rate, Rich did not resign the great seal to the king, but to Winchester, Northumberland, and D'Arcy, who were sent to his house for the purpose, and there can be no doubt of the genuineness of his illness. The great seal was entrusted for the time to Goodrich, bishop of Ely; but Rich's ill-health continuing, the bishop was definitely appointed lord chancellor on 19 Jan. 1551-2.

Rich now retired to Essex, where he was placed on a commission for the lord-lieutenancy in May; but he was still identified with the government of Northumberland, whom he appointed his proxy in the House of Lords. In November he recommenced his attendances at the privy council, and continued them through the early part of 1553. He was one of the commissioners who decided against Bonner's appeal early in that year, and on 9 July he signed the council's answer to Mary's remonstrance, pronouncing her a bastard and proclaiming Lady Jane Grey. But immediately afterwards he went down into Essex, and, paying no attention to a letter from the council on 19 July requiring him to remain faithful to Jane, declared for Mary. On the 21st a letter from the council ordered him to retire with his company to Ipswich 'until the queen's pleasure be further known;' and on 3 Aug. he entertained Mary at Wanstead on her way to London. His wife attended Mary on her entry into the city, and Rich was at once sworn of her council, and officiated at the coronation.

During Mary's reign Rich took little part in the government, and his attendances at the council were rare. He was one of the peers summoned to try Northumberland, and he was the only peer who voted against Gardiner's bill for the restoration of the see of Durham. But he vigorously abetted the restoration of the old religion in Essex; at Felsted he at once established masses for the dead, and he was a zealous persecutor of the heretics, examining them himself or sending them up to London, and being present at numerous executions. The excessive number of martyrs in Essex is attributed by Foxe to Rich's persecuting activity.

In 1557 he was raising forces for the war in France and defence of the Essex sea-coast, and in the following February attended Lord Clinton on his expedition against Brest. In November 1558 he was appointed to accompany Elizabeth to London, and in December was placed on a commission to inquire into lands granted during the late reign. He dissented from the act of uniformity, and in 1566 was summoned to discuss the question of the queen's marriage. He died at Rochford, Essex, on 12 June 1567, and was buried in Felsted church, where a recumbent effigy represents him with a small head and keen features; the inscriptions have been obliterated. His will, dated 12 May, with a codicil dated 10 June 1567, was proved on 3 June 1568. His portrait, by Holbein, is preserved among the Holbein drawings in the Royal Library at Windsor; it has been engraved by Bartolozzi and R. Dalton.

Rich has been held up to universal execration by posterity; catholics have denounced him as the betrayer of More and Fisher, and protestants as the burner of martyrs. A time-server of the least admirable type, he was always found on the winning side, and he had a hand in the ruin of most of the prominent men of his time, not a few of whom had been his friends and benefactors — Wolsey, More, Fisher, Cromwell, Wriothesley, Lord Seymour of Sudeley, Somerset, and Northumberland. His readiness to serve the basest ends of tyranny and power justifies his description as 'one of the most ominous names in the history of the age.'6 But his ability as a lawyer and man of business is beyond question.

His religious predilections inclined to Catholicism; but he did not allow them to stand in the way of his advancement. Few were more rapacious or had better opportunities for profiting by the dissolution of the monasteries; the manors he secured in Essex alone covered a considerable portion of the county. It should, however, be acknowledged that he used some of his ill-gotten wealth for a noble object, and that he was a patron of learning. In 1554 he founded a chaplaincy at Felsted, and made provision for the singing of masses and dirges and the ringing of bells. These observances were abolished at the accession of Elizabeth, and in May 1564 Rich founded a grammar school at Felsted, which afforded education to two sons of Oliver Cromwell, to Isaac Barrow, and to Wallis the mathematician. Rich also founded almshouses in Felsted, and built the tower of Rochford church. His own seat was Leighs Priory, which was purchased in 1735 by Guy's Hospital. His town house in Cloth Fair, Bartholomew Close, afterwards called Warwick House, is still standing (1896).

By his wife Elizabeth (d.1558), daughter and heiress of William Jenks or Gynkes, grocer, of London, Rich had five sons and ten daughters. Of the sons, Sir Hugh, the second, was buried at Felsted on 27 Nov. 1554; the eldest, Robert (1537?-1581), succeeded to the title, and, unlike his father, accepted the doctrines of the Reformation. He was employed on various diplomatic negotiations by Elizabeth, and was one of the judges who tried the Duke of Norfolk for his share in the Ridolfi plot. He was succeeded in the title by his second son, Robert (afterwards Earl of Warwick). Of the daughters, Elizabeth married Sir Robert Peyton (d.1590); Winifred (d.1578) married, first, Sir Henry Dudley, eldest son of the future duke of Northumberland, and, secondly, Roger, second Lord North, by whom she was mother of Sir John North; Ethelreda or Audrey married Robert, son of Sir William Drury of Hawsted, Suffolk, and cousin of Sir William Drury; Frances married John, lord D'Arcy of Chiche (d. 1580), son of the lord chamberlain to Edward VI. Rich had also four illegitimate children, of whom Richard was father of Sir Nathaniel Rich.

1. Cresacre More, Life of Sir T. More, ed. Hunter, p. 263. link
2. Baily, Life of Fisher.
3. Foxe, Acts and Monuments, p. 547. link
4. Froude, History of England, v. 208. link
5. cf. Dixon, History of the Church of England, iii. 212.
6. Dixon.

      Excerpted from:

      Pollard, A. F. "Richard Rich, first Baron Rich."
      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XVI. Sidney Lee, ed.
      New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909. 1009-1012.

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Rump Parliament
Kentish Petition, 1642

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford
John Digby, Earl of Bristol
George Digby, 2nd Earl of Bristol
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax
Robert Devereux, 3rd E. of Essex
Robert Sidney, 2. E. of Leicester
Algernon Percy, E. of Northumberland
Henry Montagu, Earl of Manchester
Edward Montagu, 2. Earl of Manchester

The Restoration

King Charles II
King James II
Test Acts

Greenwich Palace
Hatfield House
Richmond Palace
Windsor Palace
Woodstock Manor

The Cinque Ports
Mermaid Tavern
Malmsey Wine
Great Fire of London, 1666
Merchant Taylors' School
Westminster School
The Sanctuary at Westminster


Chart of the English Succession from William I through Henry VII

Medieval English Drama

London c1480, MS Royal 16
London, 1510, the earliest view in print
Map of England from Saxton's Descriptio Angliae, 1579
London in late 16th century
Location Map of Elizabethan London
Plan of the Bankside, Southwark, in Shakespeare's time
Detail of Norden's Map of the Bankside, 1593
Bull and Bear Baiting Rings from the Agas Map (1569-1590, pub. 1631)
Sketch of the Swan Theatre, c. 1596
Westminster in the Seventeenth Century, by Hollar
Visscher's View of London, 1616
Larger Visscher's View in Sections
c. 1690. View of London Churches, after the Great Fire
The Yard of the Tabard Inn from Thornbury, Old and New London

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