You are currently viewing Essex Bad Boys: Richard Rich

Essex Bad Boys: Richard Rich

Baron Rich’s tomb, Felsted Church.Photo-thanks to Acabashi.

What would you call a man who betrayed all who helped him when first starting out in life, and who dropped his friends at the first whiff of trouble?  Who committed perjury, not to save his own skin, but to climb higher up the greasy pole? Someone who personally tortured a woman on the rack, when others refused? 

What do you call a man who gleefully scooped up the rich pickings on offer following the break-up of a  great national institution, to make a financial killing? Someone who fiddled his expenses and was sacked from his cushy job, but still lived to thrive yet another day? Who, in an affront to the law of Karma, died in his own bed, a rich and respected man?

You’d call him ‘Sir’.  Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Felsted, in Essex.

Bad Boys

It’s hard to find a pantomime villain more evil than Richard. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper described him as a man “of whom nobody has ever spoken a good word”. You’ll perhaps remember Sean Bean, as a bad boy in the film  “Essex Boys” . With a passable estuary accent. He really had nothing on this Tudor Essex boy.

The signs were there from early on. Rich had a very dodgy start, as a bit of a poor student at law school in London, in the 1520s. In fact, in his first job as a lawyer, his master, Thomas More had a very poor opinion of him. 

Sir Thomas More

This came out at More’s show-trial for treason.  More had opposed Henry VIII’s attempt to break with the Rome and make himself head of the Church of England. More wasn’t a big fan of Anne Boleyn, and so became a mortal enemy of Henry. 

Richard Rich was never one to dwell on the kindness and favours bestowed upon him by More, his first employer. He actually committed perjury at More’s trial.  Rich misconstrued and distorted comments made by More in casual conversations, to cast him in a very bad light. (He did the same at the trial of Bishop John Fisher around the same time. Despicably, he tricked Fisher into confiding his doubts about the king’s second marriage and  twisted Fisher’s words to condemn him). 


At his trial, after hearing Rich’s distortions, More said of him, more in sorrow than in anger,  that he was too “light of tongue”, too fond of dicing and gaming, and “not of commendable fame”. 

Inevitably, both More and Fisher were found guilty of treason and executed at Tower Hill, with their heads impaled on spikes at the end of London Bridge. Richard, having given the authorities exactly what they wanted, got his leg-up to bigger and better things. His reward was to be made Attorney General of Wales.

 In the Film A Man for All Seasons, Paul Schofield as More says to John Hurt, playing Rich,

“Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wales?”

The great Tudor sell-off

RIch then went on to work for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII chief fixer. Cromwell’s great stroke of genius was to break the power of the church and raise revenue for the king through what’s called the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The vast majority of the religious houses in England were dismantled – over 800 in all.  The monks and nuns who inhabited them were dispersed, and the church lands sold off, proceeds going to the king’s coffers. 

Rich was a key player in this selling-off enterprise, executed by what we’d call nowadays a “quango”, the Court of Augmentation. In the time-honoured way in which corrupt officials make sure that their own pockets are well filled, Rich made certain that he was first in line when the bargains were distributed.

You can still see the results of this great Tudor sell-off today, all over England. So many old religious houses were sold, and  became private properties. The clues are often in the names, which show their religious origins. 

“He’s gone to Jericho”

Loyal readers of this blog may  remember me writing about another Tudor Essex Boy: Henry, Duke of Richmond, son of Henry VIII and Bessie Blount, and born in Blackmore, Essex. 

That post was called, “He’s gone to Jericho”, because that’s where Henry used to sneak off to, on his visits to Bessie. The place was originally the old Augustinian Jericho Priory, very swiftly sequestered to the king during the Dissolution, and turned into a private residence, though keeping its old name. 

Richard got in on the act too. He was sent by the Court of Augmentation to dissolve the Augustinian Priory at Great Leighs, near Felsted in Essex, just a few miles north of Blackmore. 

Tower at Leez Priory. Photo thanks to Andy Potter.

And, you’ll never believe it, he ended up owning the priory and its lands himself ! What a coincidence. Again, the name gives us the clue to its former owners. Great Leighs Priory (or Great Leez, as it’s sometimes quirkily spelled) is still in private hands – and available for weddings and other functions, if you’re interested.

Asset stripping

And his carpet-bagging didn’t end there. Another hundred or so manors in Essex previously in church ownership found their way into his portfolio. He acquired the site of Saint Bartholomew’s priory in Smithfield, London, now the site of  Bart’s hospital. He then set about selling off unprofitable parts, and developing the rest as tenements. In fact, he built a new gatehouse, with a statue of the king above it, the ultimate toady gesture. You can still see the gatehouse today.

Rich’s gatehouse at St. Barts, Smithfield. Photo: thanks to Michel Wal.

Once he got the taste of asset stripping, he went from strength to strength. Here’s an edict from the reign of Edward VI:

‘Grant to Lord Riche for £700 the Castle, Manor and Park of Hadleigh, Essex, with the advowson of the Church, lately part of the possessions of Catherine, Queen of England, deceased’. 

Once he got his hands on Hadleigh Castle, he proceeded to strip it – literally: making a profit by stripping the stones and selling them elsewhere for building materials. Their sorry remains overlook the Thames estuary to this day.

The sorry remains of Hadleigh Castle

A Game of Thrones

Hadleigh Castle. Little still remains.

Richard deftly hopped from side to side during the painful transition from catholicism to protestantism, across the reigns of four monarchs – Henry (mainly catholic), Edward (protestant), Mary (catholic),  and Elizabeth (protestant). 

Five, if you count poor Lady Jane Grey, who lost her head after reigning only 9 days. Richard, with his eye on the main chance, supported Jane’s (or rather, her family’s), bid for the throne. But, sensing the prevailing wind, he jumped ship and supported Mary Tudor, when it looked like she’d succeed to the throne after all.

So, Richard ducked and dived and thrived, by climbing over the bodies of those who had helped him. The list of those he betrayed, who ended on the scaffold, is chilling. Not only Thomas More and Bishop Fisher, but Thomas Cromwell, architect of the very project that enriched Mr Rich. He even had a hand in the downfall and execution of Edmund Seymour, the uncle and guardian of Edward VI, in order to further his fortunes with the Duke of Northumberland, Seymour’s enemy.

Burnt at the stake

Rich followed the prevailing wind. When protestantism looked as if it was triumphing, Rich was there, enforcing the removal of religious icons in church, liming walls to obliterate images and throwing dissenters in prison for attending mass. When catholicism gained the upper hand under “Bloody Mary”, Rich was back in Essex, supervising the burning at the stake of protestant dissenters at Harwich, Manningtree and Colchester. He was always on the winning side.

By now, you must be thinking that even such a monster as I’ve described couldn’t behave any worse than this. Well, think again…

On the rack

Ann Askew was a learned woman, in an age when not many men, let alone women were literate. She was a passionate adherent of the new protestant religion. She  took the unprecedented step of initiating divorce proceedings against her husband, because she didn’t like his religious views. He took exception to this, threw her out, and so she made her way to London. There, she attracted the attention of the authorities, by preaching her religious views in public. 

Inevitably, she ended up in the Tower of London, on charges of heresy. Under interrogation, she refused to recant her views, or to betray her accomplices. The order came to torture her, to obtain these other names. The Constable of the Tower refused to torture a woman. And so Rich rolled up his sleeves, and did the job himself. Ann Askew was stretched on a rack turned by Rich, until her hips and shoulders dislocated. She still refused to give up any names.

She was burned at Smithfield in London, a few days later. Ann had to be carried in a chair, because she couldn’t walk. Legend has it that a female friend smuggled in a container of gunpowder which Ann hid under her shift, so that her death might come mercifully sooner.

Fiddling the expenses

Rich went on to bigger and greater things,  including being sent as an envoy to France, by Henry VIII. When he submitted his falsified and overstated expenses for the trip, he was promptly sacked by the king, but of course lived to thrive another day. He was actually an executor of Henry’s will. Rich lived to a respectable old age and died in his own bed. So, he got away with it all, and Karma can’t exist.

But wait. Let’s look at what Rich did later in life. He set up a chaplaincy at the local church in Felsted, charged with singing masses and ringing bells. And then an endowment to feed the poor of Felsted, and neighbouring parishes, during Lent. Next, he established a school at Felsted for the education of local boys. I like to think that, as Richard aged, he increasingly smelled a whiff of sulphur, and started to contemplate the terrors of hell.

A forecast of the revolution ? 

Apart from these measures, probably attempts to save his soul from hell, are there no redeeming features to Rich’s life?  There is just the tiniest glimmer of light in this awfully dark picture. A paper by Leander Heldring and others of Harvard University suggests that there’s a strong correlation between where dissolved religious houses were sited in Tudor times, and where mills were set up during  the industrial revolution (especially in the north), two hundred years later. 

Their argument is that, where church lands were sold off, the estates thrived because of the entrepreneurial skills of the up and coming opportunists – like Rich – who acquired them. The churches, for all their good works, were inefficient  landlords who didn’t have the belief or inclination to make the best of their estates. 

So Rich, unwittingly of course, might have helped fuel the revolution which greatly contributed to England’s prosperity. Although I don’t think that alone would have saved him from the fires of hell.

Hiding in Plain Sight

All the  buildings and places touched by the long fingers of  Richard Rich  are still there today. You can view the gate-house at St. Bart’s, or wander around the ruins of Hadleigh Castle. Felsted School is still a school, and hosts a very good annual rugby tournament for boys. Jericho priory is in private hands, but Great Leighs priory is open to the public.  Felsted church still has the rather grand tombs to view of Rich and his son who succeeded him.

But the legacy of Rich and others like him is there further afield – in the ruins of the great monasteries, such as Jervaux, Rivaux and Fountains in Yorkshire. In the place names of grand country houses, obtained at knock-down prices in the great Tudor land-grab. And perhaps, he’s there in the enforced changes of the landscape of England, as the old money of the old English nobility gave way to the new money-men and amoral entrepreneurs. Rich was perhaps the first, but not the last, bad Essex boy?

Richard Rich, by Hans Holbein the Younger


P.S. A good read….if you haven’t already discovered them, it’s worth seeking out the Shardlake novels by C.J. Sansom. In the series, Richard Rich appears often, as the arch-enemy of our hero, lawyer Matthew Shardlake. Great lock-down reading.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Gill

    Love a bad boy. Really interesting blog and enjoyed the parallels with modern society.
    Selling off church land and the quick or sharp witted getting rich – then using some of their wealth for to feed the poor. Shades of tech titans today. Learnt a lot in a really informative interesting way. Great job. Gill

Leave a Reply