Friday 14 January 2011

Sir Richard Rich, Baron Rich of Leighs (1496/7-1567)

Yes, folks, the original Richie Rich was not some awkwardly-drawn cartoon boy with a dog named Dollar, but a cold-hearted early-modern baron.
            Richard Rich was a lawyer, which was one strike against him.  He became attorney-general for Wales in 1532 and solicitor-general in 1533 (when he was also knighted).  He worked hand-in-glove with Thomas Cromwell in the destruction of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.  In 1536 Rich was appointed chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, which disposed of monastic property.  He made out quite well in the ensuing property scramble, securing for himself about one hundred manors in Essex.  He was also Speaker of the House of Commons in 1536, giving vocal support to Henry VIII’s new religious policies.  He became a privy councilor in the 1540s and was an executor of Henry VIII’s will.  He received a baronage in 1548 at the beginning of the reign of Edward VI, and was appointed chancellor proper soon thereafter.  Rich partially received these rewards for supporting the protector, Edward Seymour, but, when push came to shove, he was instrumental in ousting Seymour from power in 1549.  In essence, he was a two-timing politician: strike two.
            As a politician/bureaucrat, Rich also had a role in less savory activities, such as the torture of Anne Askew, a religious dissident and the only (recorded) woman tortured at the Tower of London.  Supposedly, Rich even used his own hands to turn the screws of the rack, which is a new level of dickishness.
            Given his enthusiasm for screwing Anne, who was too-Protestant for the tastes of Henry VIII, one might think Rich was a pretty militant Catholic.  Think again!  He was a militant whatever-religion-was-in-power, meaning he supported Henry’s dislike of whoever didn’t agree with him enough, Edward’s reformed religion, and Mary’s persecution of Protestants.  He probably enjoyed the latter activity the most, though, as he was reputed to be a vigorous seeker of heretics.  Despite the irritating opportunism of his behavior, Rich had a sensible plan.  The best way not to get executed was to follow the changing tides of religion, so follow he did.  Of course, keeping your own head on or body unroasted didn’t necessarily entail persecuting others, but Rich was not one to half-ass it.  He merrily persecuted while the getting was good.  So we have strike three: religious persecutor.
            And those three strikes don’t even touch upon the act for which Rich is probably most infamous: testifying against Sir Thomas More.  Basically, Rich repeated friendly, what-would-you-do-in-this-situation hypothetical conversations he had had with More, giving More’s words an ominous twist.  Despite More casting aspersions on Rich’s character, the evidence stood and More was eventually executed.  Not one to jump ships in the middle of the river, Rich used this same tactic to help bring about the downfalls and executions of Bishop John Fisher and Thomas Cromwell (the latter of which he used to work for).  So we have strike four: he was a heartless bastard who still managed to come out on top.
            Lest you think Rich has truly succeeded in hiding his dickish character from the world, watch the movie A Man for All Seasons about Thomas More.  (If you haven’t seen this movie, you really should.)  Rich is portrayed as a two-faced cretin, obtaining preferment through the good offices of More only to turn around and stab him in the back in the end.  But the icing on the cake is that in 2005 Rich was declared the worst Briton of the sixteenth century by historians in BBC History Magazine.  Yes, in a century containing Henry VIII (no doubt one of the worst husbands ever) and lots of religious persecutions, Richard Rich is considered the worst man of the whole lot.  Even worse than Bloody Mary (maybe because he failed to inspire an eponymous alcoholic beverage?)!  If historians have voted you the worst person of your century, you have truly hit a new low.
            So while Richard Rich might have been a successful lawyer and politician, made a fortune dissolving monasteries, became a baron, sired fifteen children, and died (presumably peacefully) at home, he’s the worst Briton of the 1500s.  Somewhere, Thomas More is laughing.  Or possibly crying at the injustice of it all.

Don’t believe me when I say Richard Rich was voted worst Britain of 1500-1600?  Get it straight from the horse’s mouth here at BBC News:

As you might suspect from the comparative brevity of this entry, I am not as familiar with Richard Rich as I am with certain other notable Richards.  Therefore, I cannot offer a very good list of sources for further reading.  Your best bet is probably the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where I got my information (with a little help from Wikipedia!).  The Oxford DNB is a truly magical resource, containing biographies of all the genuinely famous Britons.  It’s a great place to start learning about someone who’s British and famous.

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