British Statesman. As 1st Baron Rich of Leez, he served as Lord Chancellor of England under Edward VI from 1547 to 1551. One of the most ruthless figures in the history of British politics, he attained great wealth and power during his country's turbulent Reformation period. His duplicitous testimony secured the executions of Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher for treason in 1535. Rich was born in London, and studied law at the Middle Temple from 1516. He had an early reputation as a rake, and More, who lived in the same parish at the time, would dredge this up at his trial: "You were esteemed very light of your tongue, a great dicer and gamester, and of no commendable fame". By 1529 he had found a patron in the timeserving Thomas Audley, Speaker of the "Long Parliament" that began that year, and was duly elected to the House of Commons representing his new home base in Essex. From here his career trajectory was set. Rich was an efficient civil servant who got unpleasant tasks done - one of his earliest government jobs (1529) was as a London sewer commissioner - and this made his services desirable to those in power, regardless of their agendas. He would bank on their cynical pragmatism, outwitting enemies and allies alike with his amoral ambition. In 1532, the year Audley succeeded More as de facto Lord Chancellor, Rich was named Attorney General for Wales, and the following year he was knighted and became England's Solicitor General. Although he was a Catholic, Rich assisted Thomas Cromwell in the dissolution of the monasteries and the enforcement of Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy. This included interrogating the Carthusian monks who were executed for treason at Tyburn in May and June of 1535. His actions were decisive in silencing the Reformation's most outspoken critics, Bishop Fisher and More, both of whom he interviewed during their imprisonment in the Tower of London. He deceived Fisher into giving his honest opinion of the Supremacy Act by claiming the king wanted to know it in strictest secrecy, and was the only witness at Fisher's trial for treason on June 17, 1535. More was too shrewd a lawyer to fall for such a ploy, and at his trial on July 1 Rich falsely testified that rhetorical speculations More had exchanged with him were "malicious" rejections of the new law. Looking his accuser in the eye, More told Rich "I am more sorry for your perjury than I am for my own peril" before refuting the charge, noting he would never have confided in a man of such dubious character. More was found guilty and beheaded on July 6. (Fisher had gone to the block on June 22). Rich profited well from his treachery. He was elected Speaker for the 1536 Parliament and King Henry gifted him with the former Augustinian Priory in Leez, Essex, which he rebuilt into a handsome estate. During the failed Catholic "Pilgrimage of Grace" uprising in York (1536) Rich was linked with Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer and marked for death by the rebels. As first Chancellor of the newly-created Court of Augmentations (1536 to 1544) he supervised the transfer of vast revenues from dissolved Catholic institutions to the Crown, a position he used to acquire extensive properties in Essex. On two occasions he was accused of embezzlement, but the charges were dismissed; instead he was appointed Groom of the Privy Chamber (1539) and to the Privy Council (1540), signs of the confidence Henry placed in him. That Rich was his own favorite cause became transparent with Cromwell's downfall in 1540. He not only deserted his friend and benefactor but was a chief witness against him at his trial. In May 1544 he accompanied the king across the channel as Treasurer of the French War. He resigned in November, pleading ill health, but this occurred after the monarch discovered huge discrepancies in his accounts. Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley protected Rich at court by employing him as his secretary and he remained active in the Privy Council, persecuting Catholics as well as Lutherans who did not conform to the Anglican Church. With Wriothesley he personally tortured accused heretic Anne Askew in the Tower (1546), breaking her on the rack even though English law prohibited the use of torture on women. In his will of December 1546, one month before his death, Henry named Rich an assistant to the Council of Regents who would oversee the rule of his son Edward (then nine years old) until he reached 18. He also left instructions to elevate Rich to the peerage, and in February 1547 he was created 1st Baron Rich of Leez. Within days Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, had bribed the Regency Council into naming him Lord Protector of the Realm. His enemy Lord Chancellor Wriothesley could not be bought, so Rich helped engineer his patron's ouster on legal technicalities. As a reward he was appointed new Lord Chancellor on October 23, 1547. In this office he backed Edward's repeals of Henry's draconian treason laws (the ones he had helped use to kill More and Fisher), and pushed through a Parliamentary bill awarding land grants to himself. When the Protector's brother Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour plotted against him, Rich drew up the Act of Attainder that led to his execution without trial in March 1549. He was less successful in his attempts (on the king's behalf) to bully the Catholic Princess Mary Tudor into accepting the Anglican rites. Seymour proved inept as Protector, plunging the kingdom into civil and economic chaos, and in October 1549 Rich changed sides again and joined in his overthrow by John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later Duke of Northumberland). Despite this he fell out of favor with Dudley and in late 1551 was suspected of scheming to restore Seymour to power. Dudley had Seymour arrested and Rich saved himself by resigning as Lord Chancellor on December 21, 1551, again pleading illness. In June 1553 he was among the councillors who agreed to Edward's deathbed command making Dudley's daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey his heir, but after the king's death on July 6 the regents began squabbling over the right of succession. Seeing that support for Dudley was faltering, Rich went to Essex to raise troops in support of Mary, who deposed Grey and took the throne on July 19. The new queen appointed Rich to her council but apparently did not forget his earlier treatment of her. She confiscated several of the properties he had gained during the Catholic dissolution (including his London residence, the former St. Bartholomew Priory in Smithfield), and he would never again hold a major office. Instead he threw himself into the role of a Catholic inquisitor in Essex and oversaw the burning of some 40 heretics in his county between 1555 and 1558. Mary's Protestant successor Elizabeth I astutely kept Rich at arm's length, allowing him to keep the title "councillor" without calling him to serve and to repurchase some of the lands he had lost under Mary. Effectively neutralized at court, he sided with the Catholic minority in Parliament in voting against the Act of Uniformity (1559); his (unfulfilled) nomination as a Knight of the Garter was apparently a placatory gesture. Rich spent his last years as a justice of the peace in Essex and making occasional appearances in the House of Lords. In 1564 he established the "Free School of Richard Lord Rich" (now the Felsted School) near his Leez estate; ironically, its motto is "Keep Your Faith". He died peacefully in his bed, having prospered through four decades of savage political and religious upheaval. Around 1620 his descendents erected a lavish monument over his tomb at Holy Cross Church in Felsted, and the noble Rich dynasty he founded was influential in Essex for nearly three centuries. Posterity has been uniformly negative in its verdict on Rich. For Catholics he is a Judas who sent two saints to their martyrdoms, while Protestants despise him for his brutal role in the Marian Persecutions. Chroniclers have been left incredulous at the mercenary ease with which he jumped from one bandwagon to another, nearly always emerging on the winning side (and managing to keep his head when he didn't). Even in our revisionist 21st Century he has no apologists. In 2005, a BBC poll of historians rated Rich one of the "10 Worst Britons" of the last 1000 years.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards