Friday, April 29, 2016

Tudor England's Most Infamous Villain: Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez

by Beth von Staats

Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
(Hans Holbein the Younger)


Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, Essex -- was there ever a more manipulative man in 16th century British history? Simply stated, no. In fact, many historians would be hard pressed to find any British man who walked the earth with less redeeming qualities. With no moral center, not even the zealous religious fanaticism common for the era, the Baron Rich of Leez lived his life flip-flopping to the whims of the monarchs he served, resourcefully allying with and then stepping on anyone in his way to advancement and wealth.

Unfortunately for many in the realm, Rich was long-lived, spreading his venom throughout the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I, amazingly remaining unscathed. With the varying political and religious agendas of these monarchs, ranging from staunch Roman Catholicism to near Calvinist Protestantism and everything in between, just how did he pull this off? Well let us count the ways through this admittedly incomplete list.
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Ten Dastardly Deeds of Sir Richard Rich

Saint John Fisher
1. Sir Richard Rich, by 1535 Attorney General of Wales and Solicitor General of England, is famously known for his persecution of those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy during the reign of King Henry VIII, a vow that assured the King was the acknowledged Head of the Church in England inclusive of the clergy and all religious liturgy and tenants. In the case of Bishop John Fisher, Rich tricked the man into admitting his loyalty to the Roman Catholic papacy, promising to tell no one. Rich then testified to Fisher's statements at trial.

In Thomas More's case, Rich flat out lied to the same. Thomas More reportedly told him at trial, "In faith, Mr. Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril, and you shall understand that neither I, nor no man else to my knowledge, ever took you to be a man of such credit as in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you."

Though the source of the quote is actually from More's son-in-law William Roper, truer words were never spoken. Both Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More were executed by decapitation for high treason based on Rich's dubious testimony.

Ruins of Holywell Priory, Middlesex

2. In 1536, along with his other titles, Sir Richard Rich was appointed Chancellor of the newly created Court of Augmentations. In this role, he worked in partnership with the Vice-gerant and King's Principal Secretary Thomas Cromwell to dissolve all abbeys, monasteries and nunneries in England and Wales, displacing thousands and completely upending a way of life going back centuries.

What did Sir Richard Rich have to gain by this? Well, he acquired wealth and territories, of course. At bargain basement prices, he procured the monastery at St. Bartholomew, the priory of Leez, the manors of Lighes Parva, Magna Lighes, Folsetd and Fyfield in Essex. Not satisfied, he added to his land gains by procuring the nunnery of St. Bride at Syon, several manors in Essex once belonging to Christ Church, Canterbury and several more manors once owned by St. Osth's at Chic and the Holywell Priory, Middlesex.

Our Baron Rich of Leez was on his way.

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
3. In 1540, Sir Richard Rich turned on his close ally and benefactor of his great wealth and land acquisitions, again performing commendably as a "chief witness", this time against Thomas Cromwell, who was just four months earlier elevated to Earl of Essex. Cromwell was soon executed by decapitation for sacramentary heresy and treason, the charges and testimony falsified.

Thomas Cromwell made his opinions of Rich known to King Henry VIII in a letter after his arrest. From prison he wrote, "What master chancellor has been to me, God and he knows best; what I have been to him your Majesty knows."

The Baron of Leez was "off the hook" for perjuring himself in court this time, though. Cromwell was condemned on attainder, thus Rich's lies were solely to Parliament, the Privy Council and the King.

4. Sir Richard Rich was an incredibly resourceful villain. As King Henry VIII's religious views swayed from evangelical to conservative and back again, Rich went along for the ride, playing the role of henchman brilliantly. In July 1540, on the heels of Cromwell's execution, three men were burned at the stake, declared heretics for preaching doctrines opposed to King Henry's Six Articles of Faith.

On the same day -- that's right, the same day -- three more men were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the Royal Supremacy. Think about that for a minute. Three Evangelicals and three Roman Catholics were put to death at the hands of Sir Richard Rich on the same day. Was there anyone more expert in riding the waves of King Henry VIII's ever changing religious doctrine? I think not.

Perhaps Queen Catherine Howard
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
5. Well, yes, this time in 1541 the parties were actually guilty of wrong doing both from a legal and moral standpoint, so perhaps we can give Sir Richard Rich the benefit of the doubt that his extensive involvement in the fall of Queen Catherine Howard, as well as his participation in the special Commission for the trials of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham, were solely done for the benefit of the King's honor and the realm's security.

If you are shaking your head disbelievingly, I don't blame you.

6. In 1546, the Baron of Leez was a busy guy. Along with Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Rich engaged in a witch hunt, working to discredit and upend minor evangelicals in the hopes of snagging the major players, most notably Katherine Parr, Queen of England; Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk; and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
One such "minor evangelical" was martyred preacher Anne Askew. Unwilling to testify with whom she associated, Sir Richard Rich and his cohort Wriothesley tortured the woman, racking her by turning the wheeled levers themselves. To punctuate the evilness of the act, the Constable of the Tower of London refused to participate and rushed to court to inform the king. Before he could gain an audience, the damage was done. Anne Askew became the only known women to ever be tortured at the Tower of London in its' over thousand year history.

With arms, legs, elbows and knees dislocated from the rack, Anne Askew was burned at the stake on July 16, 1546.

William Paulet,
1st Marquess of Winchester
(Hans Eworth)
7. Upon the death of King Henry VIII and ascension of King Edward VI in 1547, Sir Richard Rich once again did what he did best, turn on one of his closest allies to seek his own advancement. To reach his goal, Rich successfully worked with his other "allies of the moment" and secured the fall of his "interrogation and torture partner" Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley.

Things did not work out quite as planned. William Paulet was appointed in Wriothesley's place. No problem -- Baron Rich of Leez quickly convinced Lord Protector Edward Seymour and the Privy Council of Paulet's "incompetence", securing the Lord Chancellorship for himself.

8. Throughout the reign of King Edward VI, Lord Chancellor Rich was a "staunch Protestant". Thus, along with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, he insured the destruction of all "images and idols" in the realm's churches. Throughout the realm great roods and stained glass were destroyed. All church and abbey walls were white washed, covering priceless works of art replaced with the Ten Commandments -- in English, of course.

Stephen Gardiner
 Bishop of Winchester
Just how "staunch" was Rich's Protestantism? Baron Rich of Leez was heavily involved in proceedings leading to the arrests and imprisonments of conservative and later avowed Roman Catholics, Bishop Edmund Bonner and Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Taking things a step further, in his role as Lord Chancellor, Rich worked tirelessly to insure the Eucharist mass was not celebrated, arresting those performing mass for the ever defiant Lady Mary Tudor.

Sir Richard Rich dutifully delivered a letter to the King's Roman Catholic sister from Edward VI himself commanding her to cease and desist. The Lady Mary's response? She commanded that Rich keep his lecturing short. Her celebration of the Eucharist continued.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
9. What goes around comes around, even for the brilliantly manipulative Sir Richard Rich. In December 1551, he was compelled to resign his long sought powerful position as Lord Chancellor of England and Wales, feigning illness. The poor man took to his bed at at his estate at St. Bartholomew's.

Why? Like those in modern times who carelessly hit the "send button" before insuring they are emailing or private messaging the correct person, a befriending letter of manipulative warning intended to be sent to the imprisoned Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset was delivered instead to the also imprisoned Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

I suppose addressing the wax sealed parchment "The Duke" was not quite specific enough for a missive sent to the Tower of London. After all, throughout Tudor history, there always seemed to be a few Dukes, Earls or Barons in the pokey.

What a great opportunity for Norfolk to gain potential release! Though ultimately unsuccessful (for now), the Duke sent the missive along to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Rich's days as Lord Chancellor were over.

Phew! Finally we are done with him. Or are we?

10. Upon the death of King Edward VI in 1553, both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor were usurped in favor of the King's cousin, Jane Dudley. Sir Richard Rich was solicited for support of the new queen. Knowing this was his chance to regain power within the realm, the Baron of Leez did what he is now infamous for. Rich flipped his support to whom he gauged would ultimately reign and proclaimed his loyalty to the woman he previously persecuted, Mary Tudor.

Queen Mary Tudor
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
The Baron of Leez always the ultimate host, Queen Mary Tudor spent a few days visiting with Rich and his family at his home in Wanstead before heading to London to take her rightful crown.

What was Sir Richard Rich's most noteworthy service to the realm in Queen Mary's reign? This should come as no surprise. Baron Rich, loyal subject that he was, became one of Queen Mary's most active persecutors, orchestrating the arrest and execution by burning of all convicted Protestant "heretics" in his home county of Essex.

Perhaps to make amends for his previous work as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, the Baron of Leez worked towards the large and unfinished task of restoring the monasteries. He granted the Queen what remained of the monastery at St. Bartholomew, where she established Black Friars.
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Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
Felsted Church, Essex
After five years supporting the Roman Catholic agenda of Queen Mary Tudor, Sir Richard Rich rode into London with Queen Elizabeth Tudor when she ascended the throne. In his likely only act showing disagreement with a reigning monarch, Rich refused to support Queen Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity, voting against it in Parliament's House of Lords in 1559 with the Roman Catholic minority. 

Sir Richard Rich mellowed in his last years, perhaps in penance and preparation for meeting his God. The Baron of Leez founded a grammar school in Felsted, which in time educated two sons of Oliver Cromwell. He also founded almshouses to care for the poor and built the tower of Rochford Church.

The father of at least 15 children, 11 legitimate from his long suffering wife and at least 4 known bastards, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, died on June 12, 1567. He rests under his magnificent, albeit disconcerting tomb and statue at Felsted Church, Essex.
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The "resting place" of Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez.

Do you have other stories detailing the manipulations and evilness of Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez? If so, feel free to share them in the comment section below.
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SOURCES:

Author Unidentified, Chapter X: Sir Richard Rich, British History Online

Author Unidentified, Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, Luminarium Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors. The article notes that it was excerpted from the following: 1. Pollard, A. F. "Richard Rich, first Baron Rich."; 2. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XVI. Sidney Lee, ed.; and 3. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909. 1009-1012.

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Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 


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This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on July 23, 2014.

21 comments:

  1. No stories about YOUR Richie Rich, but there was another one by that name in the 17th century, the Earl of Warwick. Also very wealthy, and a friend of Sir Henry Vane the Younger (whose descendant today is Lord Barnard of Castle Raby).

    Wouldn't it be cool if Edward Rutherford wrote a multiple-generation epic novel about the Riches, like he did for London and the New Forest?

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    1. Is this the Sir Richard Rich who founded his "Redneck Plantation" in what is now Newport News, Virginia? (Sometimes I just can't make this stuff up.)

      Yes, with so many direct descendants of Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich out there, it would be a wonderful source material for an outstanding writer such as Edward Rutherford. What a delightful idea.

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  2. The first time I came across this guy was in A Man For All Seasons, in which he was portrayed, indeed, as slimy, but this is a hoot! I can't help but think of "The Vicar Of Bray" on steroids! ;-) Does he really have descendants now? How they must cringe when soeone says, "Oh, you're descended from THAT Richard Rich?"

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    1. Does Richard Rich have descendants? Well, is the Pope Catholic? Oh my, there must be hundreds. He was very prolific.

      I can imagine the Vicar of Bray asking himself, "Now what would the Baron of Leez do?". That is a great analogy.

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    2. I am a descendant. You can't judge the 16th century by 21st century standards. There were a lot a slimy people. I read that Elizabeth when her council was pushing her to marry, sent for Richard because she wanted his advice.

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  3. First I must say his tomb effigy is very creepy, almost leaning towards sleazy. Thank you for this article, I have read several things about him, but they were all from different sources. It is nice to see this many in one place.

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    1. I have received many comments and messages about the tomb today. All agree 100% with you! I am sure they do exist, but this is the only tomb I have seen where the person is immortalized ALIVE rather than resting as if asleep or dead. I think the book is a nice touch, don't you? Thank you for your kind comment.

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  4. Rich also helped Henry take possession of Katherine of Aragon's property after her death, which he had no right to since he himself claimed they had never been married. He was in the thick of Anne Boleyn's downfall, acting as solicitor general. Although everyone else that plays a prominent role in Tudor history had religious beliefs that motivated them, or loyalty to king and country to explain their behavior, Rich has no redeeming qualities.

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    1. Did Baron Rich take possession of the property at the King's command? If so, well he could hardly refuse. Your point is well taken. I agree Baron Rich was up to his neck with Anne Boleyn's fall, as well as the 5 men who died with her. Feel free to share what his actions were if you are interested. Thank you for sharing!

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  5. What a foul man! He reminds one of Martin Borman.

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    1. Oh my.... funny observation, but TRUE.

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  6. In my college 16th English Literature class, I can still remember a poem by, I think, Wyatt, "Rich Fools.." a piea to the future Penelope Rich not to marry him. It turns out that Wyatt was right, he wasn't just a lovelorn jealous swain.

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    1. I will look for that poem Soft Fuzzy Sweater, and if I find it, I will post it here. There was also a fun song the rebels who participated in the Pilgrimage of Grace sang referring to "Crim, Cram and Rich" (Cromwell, Cranmer and Rich). I should try and find that, too.

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    2. Soft Fuzzy Sweater, the poem you are recalling was actually composed by Sir Philip Sidney during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. As you correctly recall, the poem is a veiled attack on Penelope Deveraeux's husband, Richard Rich. This, however, was Richard Rich, 3rd Baron Rich of Leez, our subject's grandson. Evidently, Philip Sidney had a very poor opinion of him. Perhaps the apple did not fall far from the tree? I don't know, but it is fun to speculate. Here is the poem.

      Astrophel and Stella

      XXIV

      Rich fools there be whose base and filthy heart
      Lies hatching still the goods wherein they flow,
      And damning their own selves to Tantal's smart,
      Wealth breeding want, more blest, more wretched grow.
      Yet to those fools heaven such wit doth impart,
      As what their hands do hold, their heads do know;
      And knowing, love; and loving, lay apart
      As sacred things, far from all danger's show.
      But that rich fool, who by blind fortune's lot
      The richest gem of love and life enjoys,
      And can with foul abuse such beauties blot,
      Let him, deprived of sweet but unfelt joys,
      Exiled for aye from those high treasures which
      He knows not, grow in only folly rich!

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  7. I was hoping to find a youtube video on Rich but all I found was this. However, you still might find it interesting.

    His mausoleum.

    Haunted?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cX7VC2xAuU

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    1. Thank you for sharing. His mausoleum if not haunted is at the very least creepy. :-)

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  8. A very interesting post. First time i came across this guy was in Sansom's books and Shardlake, his hero, and Rich are deadly enemies. I have always wanted to know more about him and thanks to you I do.

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  9. "What a great opportunity for Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk to gain potential release! Although unsuccessful (for now), Howard sent the missive along to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, Essex's days as Lord Chancellor were over."

    Does anyone know what position Northumberland held to make this action by Howard the end of Rich's "career"?

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    1. That is a great question. Dudley was never Lord Protector of the realm. Instead, after the fall of the Duke of Somerset, he was named Lord President of the Council and Grand Master of the Household. Dudley was less autocratic than Somerset had been, but obviously he had the authority to remove Rich from his role as Lord Chancellor. His influence over the decision making of Edward VI is widely debated.

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  10. At More's trial Rich said that he had asked More, in a private interview 'Parliament has made our King Head of the Church in England. Why will you not accept this?'. Rich then said that More then replied 'Parliament hath not the competence.' The question is, whose version of that do we accept. Inevitably, most people accept More's version because of Rich's shadiness. However I think there is a possibility that Rich was telling the truth. Maybe More was tired; or uncertain. Or perhaps we thought of Rich as a person of no great import. Maybe More, with his love of disputation, simply forgot himself and thus condemned himself. It's a possibility

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