|Sketch of Rich by Holbein|
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Little is known about Rich's early life. We're not even certain of his parents. They may have been Richard Rich and his wife, Joan Dingley. Or they could have been John Rich and Agnes - her family name is unknown. He was born around 1496 or 1497 because a document from 1551 says that he was fifty-four years old "and more."
He studied law; tradition has it that he studied at Cambridge, and at one time, vied unsuccessfully to be chancellor of the university. He was an acquaintance of Thomas More, as they were members of the same parish.
His career began as a commissioner of the peace in Hertfordshire, and he held a variety of positions on his climb to power. He became a member of Parliament in 1529 and in 1533, Rich was made the solicitor general - what Americans would call the "attorney general." He worked for the king in establishing the royal supremacy and the Act of Succession.
Rich was very skilled in figuring out how to get the king what he wanted, by any means necessary. Thomas More spoke of what Rich's reputation had been, even before he took the position of solicitor general:
"You know 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."
When Bishop Fisher was arrested for denying the royal supremacy, Rich visited him in the Tower and coaxed Fisher into revealing his opinions on the matter, swearing the only person he would tell about it would be the king. Rich lied. He used Fisher's statements to convict him, and the outraged, betrayed Fisher denounced Rich in court for it.
Mr. Rich, I cannot but marvel to hear you come in and bear witness against me of these words, knowing in what secret manner you came to me. [...] To that he told me that the king willed him to assure me on his honour, and on the word of a king, that whatsoever I should say unto him by this his secret messenger, I should abide no danger nor peril for it; neither that any advantage should be taken against me for the same, no, although my words were never so directly against the statute, seeing it was but a declaration of my mind secretly to him, as to his own person. And for the messenger himself, he gave me his faithful promise that he would never utter my words in this matter to any man living, but to the king alone.
|Thomas More, by Holbein|
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
More denounced Rich as a perjurer and as a man untrustworthy of any confidence.
"[I]n good faith, Mr. Rich, 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."
Henry, around 1536, by Holbein
In 1536, the year of Anne Boleyn's execution, Rich gave a speech at the opening of Parliament in which he compared the king to Solomon for his wisdom, and Absalom for his beauty, and compared the king's love for his subjects to the sun's benevolent rays warming the earth, and driving away the noxious vapors. Rich apparently liked to lay it on thick.
Rich busied himself with dissolving the monasteries when not occupied by his legal duties. He became enormously wealthy, and admittedly, he did use some of that wealth to found a school and an almshouse (poorhouse.) But his terrible reputation remained. The rebels of the Pilgrimage of Grace demanded his removal from office
"...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."
|Elizabeth Jenks, Lady Rich, by Holbein|
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Speaking of wills, when Katharine of Aragon died, Henry was in a quandary. She had made a will, distributing her property; he wanted her assets for himself. If she was his wife, her will had no legal force and he could simply ignore it. But if she wasn't his wife - as Henry had insisted for about ten years - she had the legal right to dispose of her own property as she saw fit. Richard Rich stepped in to save the day, finding a nice legal loophole to allow Henry to claim her estate without having to admit to being her husband in the process. Rich even helped out by making a complete inventory of her possessions.
In 1539, Rich was appointed as a Groom of the Privy Chamber for the new queen, Anna von Kleefes, and was sent to greet her when she landed in England. But the king was very unhappy with his new wife, and the brunt of his displeasure fell on Cromwell, who had arranged the union. Cromwell had been a mentor and friend to Rich, who now turned around and acted as the chief witness against him.
He zealously prosecuted those who denied the supremacy, including the famous martyr Anne Askew, who wrote that Rich had tortured her with his own hands. As a woman of gentle birth, Askew should have been exempt from such tactics, but Rich was never one to let the law get in his way. He knew how bendable the law was, after all, having made a career of doing so. He was trying to get information from her about Kateryn Parr that could be used to destroy Henry's last queen. Though he could break Askew's body, he couldn't break her silence. Anne Askew went to the stake, her body so broken she unable walk or stand, but having never betrayed her friends.
He was the executor of Henry's will when the king died - a will of questionable authenticity. It is believed by some that Henry's will was never signed by him. It was instead signed with a wooden stamp and the depressions it made in the parchment inked in.
Rich continued his career after Henry died, through the reign of his son Edward VI. Edward's reign was a mire of quicksand alliances shifting by the moment. A story of Rich's political machinations from that time has been preserved. It's one time he gambled and lost.
An event, however, occurred on the 21st December following (1551) which relieved him of carrying forward this unpleasant business, for on that day he surrendered his chancellorship. The Duke of Somerset was at that time in the Tower, and it is said that, though he was there through Rich's instrumentality, Rich now wished to befriend the late Protector and wrote him a letter warning him of something designed against him by the Privy Council. Being in haste, he addressed the letter merely 'To the Duke'. His servant, fancying it was for the Duke of Norfolk, carried it to that duke. He, to make Northumberland his friend, sent the letter to him. Rich, realizing the mistake, and to prevent the discovery, went immediately to the king, feigned illness, and desired to be discharged, and upon that took to his bed at St. Bartholomew's, whither Lord Winchester, the Duke of Northumberland, and Lord D'Arcy repaired, and there they took the surrender of the Great Seal. It is assumed that Rich took this measure to save his neck, and if so he was successful.
When Edward died, he left the throne to his protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey. Edward had no legal authority to do so; the succession had been enshrined by his father in an act of Parliament. Rich signed a document of the council declaring Mary a bastard and Lady Jane queen, but high-tailed it from court down to Mary's side, where he declared her queen. Despite the fact Rich had been one of the men sent to harass Mary by both her father and her brother, Mary kept Rich in her employ.
During most of Mary's reign, he remained in Essex, vigorously prosecuting protestants, and helped restore some of the very monasteries he had dismantled. Unfortunately for him, it meant giving back some of the monastic properties he had purchased from the crown, and he was never fully compensated for them.
|Tomb of Richard Rich|
Image courtesy of FindAGrave
He died in June, 1567 and was buried almost a month later in Felstead. His tomb shows his effigy reclining, reading a book. On it is inscribed his ironic motto: Garde la foy. Keep the Faith.
In 2006, he was voted one of the ten "Worst Britons" of the last thousand years.