Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich

Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496/7 - June 12, 1567), was Lord Chancellor during the reign of King Edward VI of England. He was the founder of Felsted School in Essex in 1564.

Many people will know of him from the play and film "A Man for All Seasons", although there is some dispute about whether this was entirely fair in its treatment of Richard. In the film he was played by John Hurt.

Thomas More told Rich at the time of More's trial that he was reputed light of his tongue, a great dicer and gamester, and not of any commendable fame; but he was a commissioner of the peace in Hertfordshire in 1528, and in the next autumn became reader at the Middle Temple.

Early life and education

He was the son of John Rich of Penton Mewsey, Hampshire and Agnes Rich. He was described as being 54 in 1551 which gives him a birth year of around 1497. He may have had connections with a Rich family prominent in the Mercer's Company in the 15th Century but early pedigrees linking him to a Richard Rich of St Lawrence Jewry are incorrect. Rich may well have grown up in London, as Thomas More at his trial said that he knew him. Beyond that we have little knowledge of his early life.

He may have studied at Cambridge before 1516. In 1516 he entered the Middle Temple as a lawyer and at some point between 1520 and 1525 he was a reader at the New Inn. By 1528 we know that Rich was in search of a patron and wrote to Cardinal Wolsey, in 1529, Thomas Audley succeeded in helping him get elected as an MP. As Audley's career advanced in the early 1530s so did Rich's through a variety of legal posts, before he became truly prominent in the mid-1530s. [for all this information, see P.R.N. Carter 'Richard Rich' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, available online with an Athens password here]


Other preferments followed, and in 1533 he was knighted and became solicitor-general, in which capacity he was to act under Thomas Cromwell as a "lesser hammer" for the demolition of the monasteries, and to secure the operation of Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy. He had an odious share in the trials of More and Bishop John Fisher. In both cases his evidence against the prisoner included admissions made in friendly conversation, and in More's case the words were given a misconstruction that could hardly be other than wilful. More expressed his opinion of the witness in open court with a candour that might well have dismayed Rich. In an irony, Rich would also play a major part in the fall of Cromwell, whom he despised, using similarly dubious methods.


Rich became the first chancellor (April 19, 1536) of the Court of Augmentations established for the disposal of the monastic revenues. His own share of the spoil, acquired either by grant or purchase, included Leez (Leighs) Priory and about a hundred manors in Essex. Rich also acquired -- and destroyed -- the real estate and holdings of the Priory of St Bartholomew-the-Great in Smithfield. He built the Tudor-style gatehouse still surviving in London as the upper portion of the Smithfield Gate. He was Speaker of the House of Commons in the same year, and advocated the king's policy. In spite of the share he had taken in the suppression of the monasteries, and of the part he was to play under Edward VI, his religious convictions remained Roman Catholic. His testimony helped the conviction of Cromwell, and he was a willing agent in the Catholic reaction which followed. Anne Askew stated that the Chancellor Wriothesley and Rich screwed the rack at her torture with their own hands.

Baron Rich of Leez

Rich was an executor of the will of King Henry VIII, on which much suspicion has been thrown, and on February 26, 1548 he became Baron Rich of Leez. In the next month he succeeded Wriothesley as chancellor, an office in which he found full scope for the business and legal ability he undoubtedly possessed. He supported Protector Somerset in his reforms in church matters, in the prosecution of his brother Thomas Seymour, and in the rest of his policy until the crisis of his fortunes in October 1549, when he deserted to Warwick (afterwards Northumberland), and presided over the trial of his former chief. His daughter had married Warwick's eldest son, Henry (1526-1544/5; died at Boulougne). He was one of the subscribers of the device of 21 June 1553 settling the crown on Lady Jane Grey, but swiftly abandoned his support (as indeed almost everyone did). During the final years of Henry's, Edward's, and Mary's reigns, he was in favor of whatever religion was in power; he was not Catholic enough to oppose the persecution of the Church under Somerset and Northumberland, and he enthusiastically persecuted Protestants during Mary's reign.

Prosecution of bishops

Rich took part in the prosecution of bishops Stephen Gardiner and Edmund Bonner, and had a role in the harsh treatment accorded to the future Mary I of England. However, Mary on her accession showed no ill-will to Rich. He retired from the chancellorship on the grounds of ill-health in the close of 1551, at the time of the final breach between Northumberland and Somerset. He was now sixty years old, and there is no reason to suspect the sincerity of his plea. There is an improbable story, however, to the effect that Rich warned Somerset of his danger in the Tower of London, and that the letter was delivered by mistake to Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, who handed it to Northumberland.

Lord Rich took an active part in the restoration of the old religion in Essex under the new reign, and was one of the most active of persecutors. His reappearances in the privy council were rare during Mary's reign; but under Elizabeth he served on a commission to inquire into the grants of land made under Mary, and in 1566 was sent for to advise on the question of the queen's marriage. He died at Rochford in Essex, on 12 June 1567, and was buried in Felsted church.

In Mary's reign he had founded a chaplaincy with provision for the singing of masses and dirges, and the ringing of bells in Felsted church. To this was added a Lenten allowance of herrings to the inhabitants of three parishes. These donations were transferred in 1564 to the foundation of a grammar school at Felsted for instruction, primarily for children born on the founder's manors, in Latin, Greek and divinity. The patronage of the school remained in the family of the founder until 1851. By his wife Elizabeth Jenks, or Gynkes, he had fifteen children. The eldest son Robert (1537?-1581), second Baron Rich, was the first husband of Catherine Knyvet and supported the Reformation, and his grandson Robert, third lord, was created Earl of Warwick in 1618.


Information on Rich's history with St. Bartholomew-the-Great is taken from E.A. Webb's "Records of St. Bartholomew's Smithfield" (2 vols., 1921).

The chief authorities are the official records of the period covered by his official life, calendared in the Rolls Series.
*A. F. Pollard, "England under Protector Somerset" (1900)
*P. Morant, "History of Essex" (2 vols., 1768)
*Richard Watson Dixon, "History of the Church of England" (6 vols., 1878-1902)
*J Sargeaunt, "History of Felsted School" (1889)
*Lord Campbell, "Lives of the Lord Chancellors" (1845-69)
*Charles Henry Cooper and Thompson Cooper, "Athenae Cantabrigienses" (2 vols., 1858-61).

[ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography by Parsons]


In 2006, he was selected by the BBC History Magazine as the 16th century's worst Briton. [ (BBC)]

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