The talented Mr. Rich

Not only did Henry VIII spend (and mostly waste) the vast fortunes accumulated by his father the first Tudor, in his youthful desire to be the king of kings in Europe; he also wasted the experience and talent of his best courtiers and advisers. They were men of varied skills, educated in a time when many could not read, ambitious yes, cruel and unjust yes, but they lived and died in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, when men’s lives could easily expire, as Shakespeare says, before the flowers in their caps. Henry VIII killed Thomas More, The Earl of Surrey, Edmund Dudley, Bishop Fisher, Thomas Cromwell and Cardinal Wolsey, though the last-named died of natural causes on his way to execution.

One such able-minded and gifted courtier who survived the tyrant king was a young man, son of a wealthy London draper, some twenty years younger than Thomas More. He was Richard Rich; the very talented Mr. Rich. His family were neighbours of the Mores, and the future saint knew Richard from his babyhood: he had no illusions about him.

As a law student in the Middle Temple Richard used his acquaintance with Thomas More to try to further his career, but the poor opinion the latter had of Richard Rich prevented him from helping his advancement: “You were always esteemed very light of your tongue, a great dicer and gamester, and not of any commendable fame either at my home or at your House in the Temple.”

So our hero tried with Cardinal Wolsey and other men prominent at the Court of Henry VIII but got nowhere, but in 1529 he managed to be elected Member of Parliament for Colchester in Essex, and was noticed by Thomas Cromwell, always on the lookout for men as unscrupulous and ambitious as himself.

Under the wing of the Master Secretary, Rich became upwardly mobile at breathless speed. His friend Wriothesley (‘call me Risley’) got him knighted in 1553, and he became Solicitor-General, from which position he could extend a finger towards Thomas More. In fact he would do a lot more in the future than show a finger to More.

Richard discovered he rather liked ‘interviewing’ or ‘interrogating’ political prisoners in the Tower, of which there was always a plentiful supply. He visited poor Fisher in his cell under the pretence of having been sent by the King to learn in secret the bishop’s views on royal supremacy. Fisher became confused (he was hungry and very frightened) and made a dangerous statement in support of the Pope’s authority. When the bishop appeared in court to answer accusations of treason (he had refused to recognise Henry as Supreme Head of the English Church) Rich naturally produced this statement. Fisher went to the block.

Not very long after this incident Rich called at the Tower again, this time to visit his ‘old friend and neighbour’ Thomas More. He tried the same tricks but More was far too clever for him. He said very little, and signed nothing. He was a better lawyer than Richard Rich, but this was not a problem for the Solicitor-General. When More stood accused before a Court presided over by a not unfriendly Duke of Norfolk, Rich unequivocally swore that More denied that Parliament could appoint anyone, including the King as Head of the English Church. This was perjury, and everyone knew it was, but the Duke, full of sadness because he knew and liked More, had no choice but to send More to the block too.

Once the King had got rid of his Spanish Queen and successfully married (and bedded) Anne Boleyn he and Cromwell turned their attention to the dissolution of the monasteries and confiscation of church property. This brought huge sums into the Treasury, left skinny monks wandering about the countryside begging alms, and gave Henry another chance to spend huge fortunes on himself – providing himself for example with perhaps a total of sixteen homes in and around London in which to spend a few days hunting and carousing, when he was not in the royal bed trying in vain to get himself a male heir with Anne. Rich shot upwards even faster and became Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, where he grabbed even more wealth. As Speaker of the House of Commons he opened the session of 1556 by clearly stating that the King combined all the gifts of Solomon, Samson and Absalom. This delighted the King who made Rich a member of his Council. Richard owed everything to Thomas Cromwell.

In 1540 Cromwell fell off his perch suddenly, and found himself in Court accused of high treason. There were a few reasons for this sudden change in Henry’s demented mind, but Cromwell is said to have commented negatively on Henry’s penchant for composing tuneful songs. Off with Cromwell’s head then, and Richard Rich it was who gave (almost certainly false) evidence against him at his trial.

Richard now needed a new protector. Norfolk told him in rustic terms to go away, but Stephen Gardiner suggested he might become a persecutor of heretics, by which I mean anyone of the Catholic persuasion. Trying hard to obtain evidence against the King’s last wife (the sixth) Catherine Parr, Rich’s men arrested one Anne Askew, a gentlewoman from the North known to everyone at Court. His intention was that Anne should sign damning evidence against the Queen. She refused to be cajoled or browbeaten and Wriothesley and Rich put her on the rack in the Tower. The Lieutenant of that gloomy place refused to work the infernal machinery, so ‘Risley’ and Rich took off their rich garments and did the job themselves.

Richard Rich, a malignant survivor if ever there was one, moved on to serve under the ill-fated young King Edward (Protestant and a burner), and Catholic Bloody Mary (also a burner). Rich was neither burned nor beheaded nor put on a rack. He was made a Baron, became Lord Chancellor of England, and died in his own bed. His working life under the Tudors had been deceitful, amoral, ruthless and cruel – but he, like the innocent Catherine Parr – survived.

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