Sir Richard Rich

A portrait of Sir Richard Rich, as Speaker of the Huse of Commons 1537

Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, gained notoriety during the reign of Henry VIII, working initially with his Chief Minister, Sir Thomas Cromwell. He became Lord Chancellor under Edward VI and served under Queen Mary and then Queen Elizabeth.

Early Life  

Richard Rich was born in the city of London in about 1497. In 1516, he entered the Middle Temple as a lawyer, before becoming an MP in 1527. He worked in a number of legal roles, and in 1533 was knighted and became Solicitor-General to Henry VIII. 

A notorious political fixer 

Sir Richard worked with Thomas Cromwell to secure the Act of Supremacy, recognising Henry VIII as the Head of the Church in England and requiring subjects to swear an oath of allegiance.

Sir Richard played a prominent role in the trial of Sir Thomas More, his distorted testament of a friendly conversation helping to secure his conviction, leading to his execution in 1535.  In the play and film "A Man for All Seasons", by Robert Bolt, Sir Richard is portrayed as a great villain.  

In 1536 he became Speaker of the House of Commons.

He was involved in the torturing of numerous opponents of the King, including the only recorded torture in the Tower of London of a woman, Anne Askew.  She was Protestant radical and had already been found guilty of heresy before being transferred to the Tower.  She alleged that Sir Richard had personally operated the rack, after the Constable of the Tower had refused to carry out what would have been an illegal act.  She was subsequently burned at the stake in Smithfeld, in 1546.

Wealth generation 

Sir Richard also worked with Thomas Cromwell on the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  In 1536, he became the first Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, set up to dispose of monastic revenues. In doing so, he acquired a large fortune. 

A survivor 

Sir Richard was a key mover in the downfall of Sir Thomas Cromwell, in 1540.  He survived this and went on to become an executor of the will of Henry VIII.  As a consequence, he was ennobled, as Baron Rich of Leez, in 1547. He remained in royal favour, serving under the next King, Edward VI, as Lord Chancellor, until 1551.  

He continued to serve under Queen Mary, in spite of being involved in her earlier mistreatment, and then Queen Elizabeth. Although a practicing Catholic in private life, he managed to serve and survive under a succession of Protestant monarchs. 

A benefactor 

Lord Rich acquired Leez or Leigh’s Priory near Felsted, which became his home. He used some of his wealth to found nearby Felsted School, in 1564, and the associated almshouses, in 1565.

He died in 1567 and is buried in a magnificent 4m high canopied monument, with reclining statue, in a specially built side chapel at Holy Cross Church, Felsted. 

Association with Hatfield Forest

After the downfall of the then owner , third Duke of Buckingham, in 1521, Hatfield Forest was confiscated by the Crown and again became a Royal property.  It was given to Lord Rich in 1547 by Edward VI, whilst he was Lord Chancellor.  

A fictional villain

Readers of C. J. Sansom's series of novels featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake will be familiar with the portrayl of Sir Richard as a thoroughly unpleasant and untrustworthy character.  The torture of Anne Askew is a prominent aspect of the sixth novel in the series "Lamentation".