RICH, Richard (1496/97-1567), of West Smithfield, Mdx., Rochford and Leighs, Essex.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. 1496/97, s. of John Rich of Penton Mewsey, Hants by Agnes. educ. Camb.; M. Temple, adm. ?5 Feb. 1516. m. by May 1536, Elizabeth, da. of William Gynkes or Jenks of London, at least 3s. 9 or 10da., 1s. illegit. suc. fa. ?1509. Kntd. 12 June 1536; cr. Baron Rich 16 Feb. 1547.4

Offices Held

Master of revels, M. Temple 1516, butler 1519-20, Autumn reader 1529.

J.p. Essex, Herts. 1528-d., member, council of 15th Earl of Oxford by 1529; commr. subsidy, London 1540, relief, Essex 1550, goods of churches and fraternities 1553; other commissions 1529-d.; clerk of recognizances 22 Mar. 1532-7 Dec. 1548; attorney-gen. for Wales 13 May 1532-28 June 1558; dep. chief steward, duchy of Lancaster, south parts, 1532-6; recorder, Colchester 30 Sept. 1532-44; solicitor-gen. 10 Oct. 1533-13 Apr. 1536; chirographer, ct. common pleas 27 July 1535-3 July 1537; surveyor of the liveries 20 Apr. 1536-14 Mar. 1537; chancellor, ct. augmentations 24 Apr. 1536-24 Apr. 1544, jt. (with (Sir) Edward North) chancellor 24 Apr.-1 July 1544; groom, privy chamber in 1539; PC by Aug. 1540-Nov. 1558; treasurer, French war 1 May-Dec. 1544; bailiff, manor of Northwold May 1546; ld. chancellor 23 Oct. 1547-21 Dec. 1551; trier of petitions in the Lords Parlts. of Oct. 1553, Nov. 1554, 1559, 1563; chief steward, honor of Rayleigh 4 July 1558.5

Speaker of House of Commons 1536.


Richard Rich was born at Basingstoke, Hampshire. A tradition deriving from Stow links him with a family prominent in the affairs of London and of the Mercers’ Company during the 15th century, but the genealogies illustrating this line of descent date from the 17th century and contain numerous variations and some errors. He was the son of one John Rich of Penton Mewsey, who in 1509 left a house in Islington, Middlesex, to a son Richard, on condition that he was obedient to his mother. When during the trial of John Philpot, the Edwardian archdeacon of Winchester, Philpot stated that he was a son of Sir Peter Philpot of Hampshire, Rich remarked that Sir Peter was his near kinsman, wherefore he was the more sorry.

Like many of his contemporaries in the service of the crown, Rich owed his initial advancement to his legal training. He is probably to be identified with one ‘Master Shreche’ who entered the Middle Temple in February 1516; by 1529 he was sufficiently advanced to be chosen Autumn reader. He first tried to establish himself in public life by seeking office in the city of London, but he lost the election to the common sergeantship in 1526 to the crown’s nominee, William Walsingham, although he was promised the office at the next vacancy. Two years later he sought to bring himself to the attention of Wolsey by expressing interest in the chancellor’s proposed reform of the common law; again he failed to secure an office, although his letter to Wolsey may have influenced his appointment to the Essex and Hertfordshire commissions of the peace in December 1528.

Rich owed his return for Colchester to the 15th Earl of Oxford, of whose council he was a member. However, as another servant of the earl’s, Richard Anthony, had already been elected by the time that Oxford preferred Rich for the seat, which Anthony then resigned, it is probable that the earl had yielded to persuasion to make the change, although from what quarter can only be guessed: one of Rich’s friends, Thomas Audley, had already been designated as Speaker and chosen knight of the shire, and he could well have been the intermediary in Rich’s favour. Three years later Audley, now chancellor, may have helped Rich to obtain his first important office, that of solicitor-general. In this capacity Rich followed Audley into the House of Lords and on 20 Dec. 1534 a warrant was issued to pay him £20 for his attendance there. He has been shown to have shared in the drafting of several bills passed during this Parliament, among them those forbidding appeals to Rome, dissolving the lesser monasteries and establishing the court of augmentations. Ten days after the dissolution of Parliament on 14 Apr. 1536 he was appointed first chancellor of augmentations, a post for which he was probably in mind when it was created: his occupancy of it was to move the French ambassador Marillac to call Rich ‘the most wretched creature ... the first inventor of the destruction of the abbeys and monasteries [and] the general confiscation of church property’, a stigma which has continued to tarnish his memory.6

Still greater obloquy attaches to Rich’s part in the state trials of these years. As solicitor-general he had to prosecute those who denied the validity of the King’s second marriage or the royal supremacy. He prepared the indictment against the Nun of Kent and her associates in 1533, and in the following year he took part in the examination of the priors of Bevell in Nottinghamshire and of the Charterhouse in Axholme, Lincolnshire, who refused to accept the King as Supreme Head. He also helped to examine Bishop Fisher, but was probably not responsible for the unscrupulous tactics ascribed to him in Hall’s ‘Life’ of the bishop. It was, however, Rich’s testimony which was the gravamen of the indictment against Sir Thomas More and his evidence at the trial which was decisive in securing a conviction: in Roper’s account More retaliated by denouncing Rich as a perjurer, and for good measure as an idler and a gambler, epithets which the circumstances of their origin have helped to make synonymous with Rich’s name. By contrast, his scarcely less decisive part in the condemnation of Cromwell five years later is seldom held against him.7

It was a different kind of demonstration of his subservience to the crown that Rich gave in the Parliament of 1536, to which he was probably returned as one of the knights for Essex. Asked to choose a Speaker by the second day of the Parliament, the Commons had to beg for more time before deciding on Rich on the third day: whether this means that his election encountered opposition we cannot tell. His opening oration compared the King to Solomon for prudence and justice, to Samson for strength and bravery, and to Absalom for beauty. Equally extravagant was his concluding address likening the King’s care for his subjects to the sun’s influence upon the world. Next to nothing is known about his part in the preparation and management of the legislative programme, but Bishop Gardiner later recalled that he and Rich had advised on the drafting of a bill enacted giving authority to such as should succeed to the crown of the realm (28 Hen. VIII, c.17). After the dissolution Rich was paid the customary fee of £100 as Speaker.8

Rich was returned to the Parliaments of 1539 and 1545 as senior knight for Essex, with Sir Thomas Darcy as his junior colleague. Darcy, who had married a daughter of the Earl of Oxford, had probably first entered the Commons at a by-election following the death of Thomas Bonham in 1532 and had thus almost certainly been Rich’s fellow-knight at the Parliament of 1536. During the Parliament of 1539 Rich obtained a private Act (31 Hen. VIII, c.23) to assure him certain lands and in the last session signed another (32 Hen. VIII, c.77) concerning the King and Sir Thomas Wyatt I. Although no indenture survives to furnish the names of the Essex knights in 1542, Rich and Darcy were doubtless returned again; Rich’s signature appears at the foot of four Acts, all passed during its final session, for exchanges of lands between the King and several of his subjects, and he bore a message from the Commons on 4 Feb. 1544 to the Lords for a conference on the King’s style.9

By 1540, when the last monastic houses had been dissolved, Rich was presiding over the largest of the revenue courts and was, consequently, an important member of the Privy Council. An able administrator, he acquiesced in the policy of alienating land to meet the financial needs of the crown which began with a commission to Cromwell and Rich in 1539 to sell lands to the annual value of £6,000. During his chancellorship of the augmentations Rich was able to build up a considerable estate in Essex, chiefly through purchase; his principal gift, made by the King in 1536, was the small priory at Leighs, which Rich shortly rebuilt, and four other small manors worth £26 a year. As chancellor Rich had to defend himself against several charges of corruption before the King and Privy Council, and when under Mary the court was merged with the Exchequer further accusations were brought against him of faulty drafting of indentures in exchanges of land and in sales of wood and lead. None of these attacks issued in formal prosecution.

In his final months at the augmentations Rich joined Sir Thomas Wriothesley in mobilizing financial resources for the forthcoming French campaign and on 1 May 1544 he became treasurer for the French war. He crossed the Channel in July and for five months was in charge of pay, supplies and transport. His final account does not seem to survive, but a memorandum puts his outgoings from 1 May to 18 Oct. 1544 as £424,692, a figure greatly in excess of his own and Wriothesley’s forecast of the previous spring. The King ‘marvelled’ at several of the discrepancies and it may not have been illness alone which caused Rich’s resignation and return in November. For the last three years of the reign he held no major appointment but he continued his association with the war effort, serving on special commissions for meeting its costs and for examining the royal revenues.

As the reign drew to its close Rich became increasingly identified with the conservative faction in the Privy Council. In 1546 he was involved in Bishop Bonner’s attempt to put down heresy in the diocese of London, especially in Rich’s adopted county of Essex, and according to Foxe it was Wriothesley and Rich who racked Anne Askew in order to discover her sympathisers at court. Yet he remained on good terms with Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who at one stage recommended him for an appointment at Boulogne. He also connived at the destruction of the 3rd Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Surrey, being one of the Councillors deputed to examine the duke. Henry VIII appointed him to be an assistant to the execution of his will and bequeathed him £200 for his pains.10

On the accession of Edward VI Rich was created a baron. He supported the assumption of the Protectorship by Hertford, now Duke of Somerset, and helped to engineer the removal of Wriothesley from the chancellorship. He himself was not the Protector’s immediate choice to hold the great seal, for William Paulet, Baron St. John, succeeded Wriothesley in March 1547, but in October, before the opening of the first Edwardian Parliament, he became chancellor. In this capacity he was instrumental in securing the passage of Somerset’s legislation during the first session. The bill repealing the Treason Acts of Henry VIII was committed to him after its first reading in the House of Lords and again after the fifth reading when he annexed certain provisos to it; when this bill was rejected by the Commons Rich was a member of the committee of both Houses which discussed the new bill introduced there. During the same session an Act was passed for the assurance of certain lands to Rich and (Sir) William Shelley (1 Edw. VI, no. 13). Both membranes of the Act for the King’s general pardon were signed by Rich and six other Privy Councillors.11

At first Rich put the power and dignity of the chancellorship behind the Council’s policy of gradual Reformation. He ordered the bishops to adopt the new rite ordained by the Prayer Book of 1549 and commanded the justices to ensure the conformity of lay people. He also confirmed the sentences of deprivation passed against Bonner and Gardiner. An enemy of religious extremism, he suppressed Protestant conventicles in Essex; in 1551 he was a reluctant witness at the trial of Gardiner. Although he spent considerable time presiding over Chancery in person, he could not avoid the factional strife within the Council. He took the formal lead in prosecuting Admiral Seymour, and in the coup d’état of October 1549 he joined the Councillors against the Protector and used his good relations with the mayor and aldermen of London to win their support: a contemporary witness also judged that Rich’s use of letters under the great seal to countermand the Protector’s appeals for assistance to sheriffs and justices was decisive in securing the Council’s victory. His signature is to be found on four Acts, including one for the fine and ransom of Somerset, passed during the third session of Parliament in the autumn of 1549.12

Rich did not support John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, in his political manoeuvring during 1551. He sealed the warrants for the arrest and trial of Somerset and, when he fell ill, established a commission to hear causes in Chancery in his absence. The illness may have been genuine but it was also timely in that Rich retained office while avoiding the final conflict between Somerset and Warwick. Yet it was not enough to save him. Following a rumour that Somerset, taught by the experience of 1549, had attempted to obtain the great seal, Rich was visited on 31 Dec. at his house in Smithfield by Dudley, newly created Duke of Northumberland, and had the seal taken from him. It was to be almost a year before he attended another meeting of the Council, and he was never to hold great office again. One of his last acts as chancellor had been to sign a bill for the city of London which was to be enacted in the fourth session of Parliament, which met early in 1552.13

Rich was one of those who subscribed on 21 June 1553 to the device settling the crown on Lady Jane Grey. Three days later he received the honor of Rayleigh, clearly a reward for his acquiescence and an attempt to ensure his support. It failed of its purpose, for on Edward VI’s death he quickly declared for Mary. He was confirmed as a Privy Councillor and one of his first tasks was as a commissioner of claims for the Queen’s coronation. He appears to have attended Council meetings infrequently during Mary’s reign, but even if in Parliament he opposed one ecclesiastical measure probably for fear it would cost him his monastic properties, as a justice in Essex he enforced the Catholic restoration so ruthlessly that Strype denounced him as a ‘severe persecutor’. With the 16th Earl of Oxford and other Essex notables he supervised the burning of heretics, and in 1556 he served on the commission inquiring into the property of those who fled the realm on religious grounds. Rich’s primary concern in breaking up conventicles and suppressing heresy among the artisans of Essex seems to have been for the preservation of order and the maintenance of authority: he was more interested in conformity than in theology. One of his daughters is said to have entered the revived Bridgettine house at Syon as a nun. During the first session of the Parliament of 1558 the bill whereby he granted the manor of Rayleigh to the Queen was debated and enacted (4 and 5 Phil. and Mary, no. 11). He was obliged to surrender further properties but to compensate him for their loss he was soon afterwards made steward of the manor.14

At the accession of Elizabeth, Rich accompanied her on her leisurely progress to London. The new Queen did not confirm his appointment as a Privy Councillor but she retained his services and he continued to be styled Councillor until his death. It is possible that at one time he was nominated to the order of the Garter, for on a licence of January 1563 he is styled KG. In the new conditions he was able to repurchase several of the properties surrendered earlier, notably St. Bartholomew’s priory for which he had originally paid £1,605 in 1544 and which he had surrendered in December 1555 without compensation. Excluded from authority at the centre Rich played a prominent role in Essex, where he had become a principal landowner. He was an active justice of the peace and intervened in parliamentary elections, as when in 1563 he sought unsuccessfully to have his heir Robert chosen a knight of the shire. In the Parliament of 1559 Rich voted against the Act of Uniformity, and in 1566 he was a member of a delegation from both Houses which addressed the Queen on the subject of her marriage and the succession.

Rich died at Rochford on 12 June 1567 and was buried at Felstead on 8 July. By the terms of his will, dated 12 May 1567 but with two codicils added nearly a month later, he devised most of his estates upon his surviving son Robert. His nine surviving daughters, all married, were to share the movable goods. An illegitimate son Richard was also provided for, with a stipulation that he was to be brought up in the study of the common law. The will arranged for the establishment of an almshouse in Rochford, but Rich had already made his principal benefactions. On the death of his eldest son Hugh he had founded a chantry at Felstead, licensed in April 1555, and a perpetual Lenten herring dole for the poor of Felstead and neighbouring parishes: in conformity with the Elizabethan settlement the chantry was converted into a grammar school and an almshouse established. Drawings of Rich and his wife made by Holbein survive.15

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Authors: M. E. Coyle / A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. LJ, i. 84-86.
  • 2. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2]; LJ, i. 124;
  • 3. House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 35 Hen. VIII, nos. 19, 21-23; LJ, i. 243.
  • 4. Aged 54 in Jan. 1551, Foxe, Acts and Mons. vi. 175-6. This biography rests on M. E. Coyle, ‘Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich (1496-1576): a political biog.’ (Harvard Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1967) and E. McIntyre, ‘Some aspects of the life and political career of Sir Richard Rich’ (Aberdeen Univ. M. Litt. thesis, 1968).
  • 5. LJ, i. 448, 465, 542, 580.
  • 6. EHR, lxvi. 176; Pprs. Geo. Wyatt (Cam. Soc. ser. 4, v), 159.
  • 7. Elton, Policy and Police, 343, 404, 408, 410-16.
  • 8. Hargrave 388, f. 135.
  • 9. LJ, i. 124, 243; House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 32 Hen. VIII, no. 73; 35 Hen. VIII, nos. 19, 21-23.
  • 10. Wealth and Power, ed. Ives, Knecht and Scarisbrick, 90, 101.
  • 11. M. A. R. Graves, ‘The Tudor House of Lords’ (Otago Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1974), ii. 340-5.
  • 12. House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 3 and 4 Edw. VI, nos. 23, 24, 30, 31.
  • 13. Ibid. 5 Edw. VI, no. 21.
  • 14. Graves, ii. 340-5.
  • 15. Holbein (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 1978-9), 114-16.