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Does Richard Rich deserve his bad reputation?

Richard Rich has been described as one of the Tudor period's worst villains – but was he really that bad? Historian Rupert Matthews considers the lawyer and statesman

Sketch of Lord Richard Rich
Published: December 14, 2021 at 9:05 am
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Richard Rich, Baron Rich, is certainly enigmatic. We can not confirm where or when he was born, but his actions as an adult show him to be a cunning, if Machiavellian, character.

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He rose to power as a lawyer until 1533, when he was made Solicitor General. In that role, he worked alongside King Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, and helped prosecute Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher, before turning on Cromwell following his downfall and giving evidence against him.

He went on to preside over the sale of the monastic lands seized by Henry, ensuring that a sizeable portion fell into his own hands.

What happened to Richard Rich after Henry VIII's death?

Under Edward VI, he became a baron and loudly supported Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, in the Protestant reforms of the later 1540s, going as far as prosecuting bishops who did not support reforms.

Yet in 1551, he was an important figure in the trial of Somerset, then switched back to Catholicism when Mary I came to the throne and joined her Privy Council.

When Mary died and her sister came to the throne as Elizabeth I, Rich somehow retained a position of influence, despite the huge political shift.

How a man so deeply mired in corruption, treachery and perjury managed to flourish through so many different regimes is unclear. It makes it difficult to question his skills as a lawyer as his services must have made up for his shortcomings.

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This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed and was answered by historian Rupert Matthews

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