Sir Richard Rich

The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1. Originally published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1921.

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E A Webb, 'Sir Richard Rich', in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1, (Oxford, 1921) pp. 289-297. British History Online [accessed 23 May 2024].

E A Webb. "Sir Richard Rich", in The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1, (Oxford, 1921) 289-297. British History Online, accessed May 23, 2024,

Webb, E A. "Sir Richard Rich", The Records of St. Bartholomew's Priory and St. Bartholomew the Great, West Smithfield: Volume 1, (Oxford, 1921). 289-297. British History Online. Web. 23 May 2024,

In this section



The last chapter closed the chronological history of the priory, but as Sir Richard Rich had so much to do with its suppression and resuscitation, and was the purchaser of the whole of the monastic site and buildings, a short account of him may not be considered out of place here before describing the fair and the other possessions of the prior and convent.

Richard Rich was born in London about the year 1496, and as a boy he was intimate with Sir Thomas More, who, when he was on trial through Rich's treachery, said, 'Of no small while I have been acquainted with you and your conversation, who have known you from your youth hitherto. For we long dwelled both in one parish together, where, as yourself can tell, you were esteemed very light of your tongue, a great dicer and not of commendable fame. And so at your house in the Temple (where hath been your chief bringing up) were you likewise accounted.' (fn. 1) He was brought up to the Bar and entered at the Middle Temple, where, from what More said, he did not reform his character. He does not seem to have been a deeply read lawyer, but such knowledge as he had, added to great astuteness, carried him a long way.

In 1526 he competed, but unsuccessfully, for the post of Common Serjeant of the City of London against William Walsingham, the father of Sir Francis, Queen Elizabeth's Secretary. He was early associated with the county of Essex, and in 1530 he was, with others, appointed to make a return of Wolsey's possessions in that county. He then began to rise somewhat rapidly, and in 1532 he was made Attorney-General for Wales, a post he held until 1558. In 1533 he became Solicitor-General and was knighted, when he took a leading part with Thomas Cromwell in the persecution of those accused of violating the Act of Succession of 1534, which declared Elizabeth to be heir to the throne and Katharine's marriage unlawful. For denying the latter, Sir Thomas More and Bishop Fisher were committed to the Tower and many friaries suppressed. Rich was also especially active in prosecuting those who could not subscribe to the Act of Supremacy passed in the same year: thus he assisted at the examination of the Carthusian monks of the Charterhouse, who were brutally executed at Tyburn in 1535; and by the basest treachery he obtained Bishop Fisher's views on supremacy, which, in violation of his promise, he used as the evidence on which Fisher was condemned and executed. In the same way he brought Sir Thomas More to the block, who at his trial said, 'If this oath of yours, Mr. Rich, be true, then pray I that I may never see God in the face . . . . In faith, Mr. Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril, and you shall understand that neither I, nor no man else to my knowledge, ever took you to be a man of such credit as in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you.' At the same time Rich was persecuting the Lutherans for not conforming to the Six Articles.

In 1536 he was made the first chancellor of the newly-created Court of Augmentations. In this capacity he had to deal with the revenues, at first of the smaller, and later of the greater, monasteries. In this same year he was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, and as such he did much to reconcile the Commons to the suppression of the greater monasteries.

In the country he was greatly detested. The first of the articles addressed to the king by the leaders of the Northern Rebellion, or Pilgrimage of Grace, was: 'By the suppression of so many religious houses the service of God is not well performed and the people unrelieved.' The fourth was: 'The king takes for his council and has about him persons of low birth and small reputation, who have procured these times to their own advantage, whom we suspect to be Lord Cromwell and Sir Richard Rich, chancellor of the Augmentations.' (fn. 2) His name was also associated with those of Cromwell (Crim) and Cranmer (Crame) in the verses written for the rebels on the occasion of the rebellion. (fn. 3) It was stated by Philip Trotter, one of the Lincolnshire rebels, at his examination in the Tower, that if they had prospered in their journey they had intended to have slain, among others, the Lord Cromwell and the Chancellor of the Augmentations, whom they called two false pen clerks and considered were the devisers of all the false laws. (fn. 4)

On the suppression of the monasteries Rich acquired large possessions by purchase from the king on most favourable terms, in addition to his purchase of St. Bartholomew's. In this way, in the year 1536, he secured a grant of the priory of Lighes or Leez, with the manors of Lighes Parva, Magna Lighes, Folsted (Felsted), Fyfield in Essex, (fn. 5) and other property there, (fn. 6) from which he later took his title of Lord Rich of Leez. At Felsted he added to his estate by purchases from the nunnery of St. Bride at Syon, Middlesex. (fn. 7) After the suppression of the greater monasteries in 1539 he made application to purchase many manors in Essex, some of which had belonged to Christ Church, Canterbury, others to St. Osyth's at Chic, and some to the monastery of Holywell, Middlesex. (fn. 8)

When Thomas Cromwell was accused of treason and executed in 1540 (the same year as he was created Earl of Essex) Rich was one of the chief witnesses against his friend and benefactor. On the 12th June Cromwell wrote to the king: 'What master chancellor has been to me, God and he knows best; what I have been to him your Majesty knows.' After Cromwell's death, Rich took an active part in the persecution of the reformers, and of those who would not subscribe to the king's supremacy; thus in July 1540 Robert Barnes, William Hierome, vicar of Stepney, and Thomas Garret were burnt in front of the church of St. Bartholomew in Smithfield for preaching doctrines contrary to the Six Articles; (fn. 9) and on the same day three others, Powel, Fetherstone, and Abel, were hanged, drawn, and quartered for denying the royal supremacy. (fn. 10) In 1546 it was Sir Richard Rich who sent Anne Askew to the Tower, and there, because she would confess no ladies or gentlewomen to be of her opinion, Fox says that Lord Chancellor Wriothesley and Rich racked her with their own hands, Sir Edmund Walsingham, the Lieutenant of the Tower, having refused to do so. (fn. 11)

We have already shown (fn. 12) how, at the end of 1539, or early in 1540, Rich made the prior's house at St. Bartholomew's his town residence, and was granted the suppressed monastery by the king in 1544. At that time he was always at the Privy Council meetings, signed many of the dispatches, and was actively engaged in the examination of those concerned in the accusations against Katharine Howard; and in that connexion he was on the special Commission for the trial of Culpeper and Derham in the Guildhall in December 1541. (fn. 13)

Henry VIII, who died on the 28th January, 1547, arranged in his will for a barony for Sir Richard Rich, and on the 15th February following, the Privy Council (fn. 14) decided that he should be so created, whereupon he took the title of Baron Rich of Leez, Essex. The king also by his will appointed him an assistant councillor and one of the assistants to the executors, (fn. 15) and bequeathed to him £200. In January 1547 he was amongst those deputed to have special charge of the coronation (fn. 16) of Edward VI.

Though the fall of Lord Chancellor Wriothesley is supposed to have been brought about by the intrigues of Rich, Paulet succeeded to the post. His incompetence, however, Rich had no difficulty in demonstrating, and on the 23rd October, 1548, Lord Rich was made Lord Chancellor of England.

Rich was, no doubt, a papist at heart, but he always acted with the party that was uppermost; thus in 1547 he concurred in the acts of the Council which commanded the destruction of images in churches. Those in St. Paul's were pulled down in September 1547, and the great rood, by night, in November 1548. In the latter year the Council laid down rules for the celebration of the Holy Communion in the Anglican form, which was to take place only at the high altar: the decree was signed by the Protector Somerset and Lord Rich, with four others. (fn. 17) All churches were ordered to be white-limed and the Commandments to be written on the walls. In the next year, 1549, the first Prayer Book of Edward VI was issued and written in English. Four years later, 1552, saw the issue of the second Prayer Book. In 1553 the 42 Articles of Faith (converted by Elizabeth to 39) were set forth; so that Rich was in the active service of the Crown during the whole period of the Reformation.

As soon as Edward's first Parliament met it repealed the Six Articles and all laws against heresy, but still two executions took place in Smithfield, as has been seen, (fn. 18) the lawyers having discovered that heresy was punishable by the common law.

When in 1549 the disturbance occurred between Protector Somerset and his brother Lord Admiral Seymour, it was under the direction of Lord Chancellor Rich that the articles for treason were drawn up against Seymour, and it was Rich who announced to the young king the decision for the execution of his uncle, and who, with others, signed the warrant for the same. It was Rich who, in October 1549, led the agitation against Somerset and declared to the Lord Mayor and aldermen at Ely House, Holborn, the abuses of the Lord Protector. This led to the deprivation of Somerset in 1550, who was eventually, in 1552, executed on a charge of conspiracy.

Rich took part in the proceedings against Bonner and Gardiner in the year 1550, the eighth session of the court appointed to try the latter being held at Lord Rich's house at St. Bartholomew's (20th January, 1551). (fn. 19)

A positive order was at this time issued that mass should not be celebrated, and Rich had the chief conduct of the steps taken against the Princess Mary in the matter. He was present in March 1550 at the Council at which Sir Anthony Browne was committed to the Fleet for hearing mass when the Lady Mary was coming to New Hall and Romford. (fn. 20) He was again present in April 1551 when Dr. Mallet, chaplain to the princess, was committed to the Tower for saying mass, (fn. 21) and again in the following August, when the Council prohibited any divine service from being used in the Lady Mary's house other than that allowed by the law of the land. (fn. 22) Rochester and Walgrave, having declined to deliver this last instruction to the chaplain of the princess, it was decided that Lord Chancellor Rich, with Mr. Secretary Peter and Sir Anthony Wingfield, should themselves go to her and present a letter from the king, (fn. 23) and this they did. She received the letter graciously as coming from the king, but she declined to consent to the instructions regarding the masses or to allow the new services to be held in her house. As Rich began his speech she prayed him to be short, saying she was not well at ease and would make him a short answer.

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, (fn. 24) 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. He was subsequently made Lieutenant for the county of Essex. (fn. 25)

On the 6th July, 1553, King Edward died. Northumberland had persuaded him to leave the crown to Lady Jane Grey, but omitted to obtain the sanction of Parliament. Strype has preserved a letter, written by the Privy Council of Queen Jane to Lord Rich as Lieutenant of Essex, thanking him for a speedy notice of the fact that the Earl of Oxford had gone over to Mary, and exhorting him to remain steadfast in his promise to Queen Jane. (fn. 26) But this exhortation Rich did not heed, for he again went over to the winning side, and this time probably with real pleasure. On the 21st July, two days after Mary had secured the throne, instructions were sent to Lord Rich and the Earl of Oxford to retire with their companies and bands towards Ipswich until her pleasure should be further known. (fn. 27) The queen then stayed some days at Rich's house at Wanstead before her entry into London. We next hear of him as being present at the queen's Council on the 12th and 13th August, (fn. 28) and also on the 14th September (fn. 29) of that year (1553), when Archbishop Cranmer was sent to the Tower 'for treason committed by him against the Queen's Highness'.

Rich was now put to general use: he was sent to Syon, Middlesex, to secure the goods of the Duke of Northumberland, who had been executed; (fn. 30) and he was a commissioner for hearing claims for offices at the coming coronation. (fn. 31)

After this Rich was very active in assisting in the burning of heretics in his own county of Essex. On the 18th March, 1554, letters were sent to him and the Earl of Oxford to be present at the burning 'of such obstinate persons' about to be sent down for burning in divers parts of the county of Essex. (fn. 32) On the 3rd June, 1555, a letter was sent to him 'to be present at Colchester, Manytree (Manningtree) and Hardwicke at such tyme as thoffenders that are already condempned for heresie shalbe there executed'. (fn. 33) On the 15th June a letter of thanks was sent to him in this connexion. (fn. 34) In February 1555 he was requested to stop a stage play at Hatfield Broad Oak, in Essex, and to examine who were to be the players and the effect of the play. (fn. 35) Five days later he was thanked for stopping the play, was requested to set the players at liberty and to prevent people assembling for such hereafter. (fn. 36) In the March following he was desired to call the farmers dwelling about Braintree (fn. 37) before him, to order them to furnish the market with grain, and to sell the same at reasonable prices.

When Mary declared war with France in 1557, because her husband Philip was at war with that country, Lord Rich raised forces for the purpose and for the defence of Essex.

He favoured the return to the Roman allegiance in religion, and assisted Queen Mary in resuscitating the monasteries, more especially by making her, in September 1555, a grant (as already stated (fn. 38) ) of what remained of the monastery of St. Bartholomew, in which she set up the Black Friars. Previous to that, in April 1554, he ordered the first deed of the Felsted foundation to be prepared, by which a chaplaincy was founded for singing masses and dirges for the dead in the parish church of Felsted (about five miles north from Little Leez). (fn. 39)

On the death of Queen Mary in November 1558 Rich, though retired from court, once more prepared to tack, and was appointed to accompany Elizabeth to London; but he did not see his way to support her Act of Uniformity: in fact, in Elizabeth's first momentous Parliament of 1559 he voted, as a member of the House of Lords, with the Roman Catholic minority. (fn. 40)

The accession of Elizabeth led to the abolition of those observances which Rich had enjoined for his chaplain at Felsted; accordingly in May 1564 he made provision for a stipend for a priest to be chaplain and schoolmaster with an usher under him. He was to teach four score male children born in Essex 'in lernyng of Grammer and other vertues and godly lernyng according to Christes religion'. (fn. 41) Rich and his descendants acted as the governing body until 1851, when a new one was established by the Court of Chancery. This scheme only lasted until 1876, when it was repealed by the Charity Commissioners, who formed a new governing body representative of the whole county of Essex, and Felsted school is now a flourishing institution.

The advice of Lord Rich in affairs of state was sought up to the last, for in 1566 he was summoned to discuss the question of Queen Elizabeth's marriage. He died at Rochford, in Essex, on the 12th June, 1567, and was buried in Felsted church, 'where', says Sargeaunt, (fn. 42) 'the recumbent figure of the Chancellor is most characteristic. The small head and keen features mark the skill of the lawyer and the wariness of the statesman'. Lloyd, in his Worthies, says of him: 'His decrees were just, his dispatches quick, his judgment, speedy, his sentences irrevocable.' (fn. 43)

His will, (fn. 44) dated the 12th May, with a codicil dated the 10th June, 1567, was proved the 6th June, 1568. He bequeathed his 'faire of greate Seint Bartholomewes with all the proffitts of the same' for a term of six years to pay his debts and legacies. He made provision for his base-born son Richard Rich. The will was witnessed, among others, by his wife, Elizabeth Lady Rich, who survived him. She was the sister of William Jenks, citizen and grocer. She died in her house at St. Bartholomew's and was buried at Rochford. Rich was succeeded in the peerage by his eldest son Robert, at that time thirty years old, who appears in effigy kneeling at a prayer desk (pl. XI) at the west end of his father's monument, a full description of which is given below. His descendants were patrons of the church of St. Bartholomew the Great until the nineteenth century, and are described further on. (fn. 45)


(The following is from two framed descriptions in the church.)

'Canopied tomb of Richard, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, Lord High Chancellor, 1547–1551; founder of Felsted School and of Felsted Almshouses. Died 1567.

The statue, originally coloured to the life, represents him in the robes, round cap and ornaments of a Lord Chancellor, with elbow resting on a cushion, holding a book of prayers.

Above the statue is a panel for inscription, but it was never carved. Over this is the coat of arms, with reindeer supporters and motto Garde Ta Foy (keep thy faith).

I. The carved panel at the east end of the tomb facing the figure shows Lord Rich as a youth holding a book with two seals in one hand and a long rod or pole with a short crosspiece in the other, and with a dog on his left. By his side stands a female figure with a mirror and a serpent for Truth, one of the cardinal virtues.

II. The carved panel on the spectator's left denotes his office as Speaker of the House of Commons; carrying a mace and wearing a sword and a short robe. Behind him are two females: the one to the east carrying a column for Fortitude; the other bearing the sword and scales for Justice.

III. The similar panel on the right has, in the centre, his figure as Lord Chancellor displaying the purse of the Great Seal; Hope with anchor on the one hand, Charity carrying one child and holding the hand of another, on the other hand, balance Fortitude and Justice in the other panel.

Beneath, slightly incised on black marble (originally set out in vermilion), are two groups. That on the left shows him arriving at Westminster Hall in state in Lord Chancellor's robes, mounted on a horse with foot-cloths, attended by the bearer of the Great Seal and other officials. That on the right shows him lying in state, hands clasped in prayer, on a bed under a canopy. A female watcher kneels at each side, a male watcher stands at the head.

Above the monument a winged figure, gilded, with trumpet, represents Fame publishing abroad Lord Rich's high estate and noble charity.


The statue, formerly coloured to the life, represents him kneeling at a prayer desk, which is dovetailed into his father's monument.

He wears the court dress of the period, consisting partly of rich embroidered padded clothes, partly of light ornamental armour. His right hand has been ungloved to turn over the leaves of the book of prayers which lies on the desk before him. The gloved left hand held the right-hand glove and rested on the buckle of the girdle. The left arm has been broken off, but the hand is preserved and is now laid on the pedestal.

On the wall beside the statue is the rest of the monument, including (in a grotto) a skull lying sideways in a shroud and watched by cherubs, as emblem of Mortality; a black plate for inscription but never carved. Above a coat of arms with supporters and motto, implements of war (drum, target, shield, cuirass, arrows, musket, helmet, sword, etc.); the coat is hung by a strap from a tree trunk; the crest (now missing) was on the top of the pediment.

These monuments were repaired in 1915 by the Governors of Felsted School of Lord Rich's foundation.'


  • 1. Roper, Life of More.
  • 2. L. and P., For. and Dom. xi, No. 705.
  • 3. Ib., No. 786.
  • 4. Ib., xii, pt. i, No. 70.
  • 5. Ib., x, No. 1015 (33).
  • 6. L. and P., For. and Dom. xii, pt. ii, No. 191 (40).
  • 7. Ib., pt. i, No. 1330 (54). Also xv, No. 144 (16).
  • 8. Aug. Off. Partics. for grants Hen. VIII, Nos. 930–1. There is a concise list of grants to Rich in the 10th report of Roy. Com. Pub. Records, R. O.
  • 9. Fox, A. and M. ii, 435, ed. 1684.
  • 10. Ib., 446.
  • 11. Ib., 488.
  • 12. See p. 263.
  • 13. L. and P., For. and Dom. xvi, No. 1395.
  • 14. Acts of P.C., 15 Feb. 1547.
  • 15. Archaeologia, xxx. 465.
  • 16. Acts of P.C., 31 Jan. 1546/7.
  • 17. Milman, Annals of St. Paul's.
  • 18. See above, p. 284.
  • 19. D.N.B.
  • 20. Acts of P.C., 1550, p. 239.
  • 21. Ib., 267.
  • 22. Ib., 328.
  • 23. Ib., 347.
  • 24. Rapin de Thoyras, Hist. Eng. ii, 248.
  • 25. Acts of P.C. iv, 277.
  • 26. Strype, Cranmer, p. 913.
  • 27. Acts of P.C. iv, 300.
  • 28. Ib., 318.
  • 29. Ib., 347.
  • 30. Ib., 333.
  • 31. Ib., 335.
  • 32. Ib., v, 104.
  • 33. Ib., 140–1.
  • 34. Ib., 149.
  • 35. Ib., 234.
  • 36. Ib., 237.
  • 37. Ib., 247.
  • 38. See above, p. 277.
  • 39. Sargeaunt, Felsted School, p. 2.
  • 40. Birt, Eliz. Relig. Settlement.
  • 41. Andrew Clark, Foundation Deeds, pp. xxviii, 15.
  • 42. Sargeaunt, Felsted School, p. 87.
  • 43. For a fuller account of Sir Richard Rich the reader is referred to the Dictionary of National Biography, to Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, to John Sargeaunt's History of Felsted School, and to Andrew Clark's Foundation Deeds of Felsted.
  • 44. App. I, p. 545.
  • 45. See Vol. II, p. 292.