In 1528 Rich wrote to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey with his suggestions to reform the common law. Later that year he was appointed to the commission of the peace for Essex and Hertfordshire. During this period he became friends with Thomas Audley, the speaker of the House of Commons. In 1529 Rich was elected to represent Colchester.
Rich was appointed attorney-general for Wales on 13th May 1532. The following year Audley, now the Lord Chancellor, arranged for him to become solicitor-general. In this post he helped draft legislation in the House of Lords. (1)
In March 1534 Pope Clement VII announced that Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was invalid. Henry reacted by declaring that the Pope no longer had authority in England. In November 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy. This gave Henry the title of the "Supreme head of the Church of England". A Treason Act was also passed that made it an offence to attempt by any means, including writing and speaking, to accuse the King and his heirs of heresy or tyranny. All subjects were ordered to take an oath accepting this. (2)
Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to take the oath and were imprisoned in the Tower of London. More was summoned before Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell at Lambeth Palace. More was happy to swear that the children of Anne Boleyn could succeed to the throne, but he could not declare on oath that all the previous Acts of Parliament had been valid. He could not deny the authority of the pope "without the jeoparding of my soul to perpetual damnation." (3)
Richard Rich was responsible for the prosecution of More and Fisher and other opponents of the royal supremacy. "He (Rich) participated in the examination of Fisher in the Tower of London in May 1535, having been sent to ascertain the bishop's opinion of the royal supremacy but promising him to divulge his views only to the king. Fisher's answers furnished the necessary evidence for his conviction of treason.... However, the sources recounting Rich's dealings with More are invariably hostile to him because they were written by members of More's family, their descendants, and Catholic apologists." (4)
In May 1535, Pope Paul III created Bishop John Fisher a Cardinal. This infuriated Henry VIII and he ordered him to be executed on 22nd June at the age of seventy-six. A shocked public blamed Queen Anne for his death, and it was partly for this reason that news of the stillbirth of her child was suppressed as people might have seen this as a sign of God's will. Anne herself suffered pangs of conscience on the day of Fisher's execution and attended a mass for the "repose of his soul". (5)
The trial of Sir Thomas More was held in Westminster Hall and began on 1st July. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley presided over the case. Unlike Bishop Fisher, More denied that he had ever said that the king was not Head of the Church, but claimed that he had always refused to answer the question, and that silence could never constitute an act of high treason. The prosecution argued that silence implied consent. As Jasper Ridley, the author of The Statesman and the Fanatic (1982) has pointed out, "while Fisher and the Carthusians, when facing their judges, took their stand for the Papal Supremacy, More rested his defence on a legal quibble". (6)
It was difficult for the prosecution to maintain that anything that More had said or done constituted a malicious denial of the king's title as Supreme Head. Richard Rich gave evidence that caused Thomas More considerable problems. Rich recalled a conversation that he had with More on 12th June, 1532, when he visited him in the Tower of London. According to P. R. N. Carter: "The two lawyers engaged in a hypothetical discussion of the power of parliament to make the king supreme head of the church.... and Rich testified (falsely) that during their conversation the former lord chancellor had explicitly denied the supremacy. The alternative view is that More relaxed somewhat during the interrogation by Rich in what was a bit of professional jousting, but that Rich did not see or report this as something new. However, someone, possibly Cromwell, saw that More's statements could be used to convict him of denying the royal supremacy. Hence Rich's evidence was not dishonest, merely used in a way he never foresaw." (7)
Thomas More denied that he had said any such thing, "making the valid point that since he had refrained from saying anything so incriminating in the course of interrogations, he was unlikely to have made such an observation in the course of casual conservation". (8) The court chose to believe Rich and More was convicted of treason. Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley "passed sentence of death - the full sentence required by law, that More was to be hanged, cut down while still living, castrated, his entrails cut out and burned before his eyes, and then beheaded. Henry VIII commuted the sentence to death by the headsman's axe and he was executed on 6th July, 1535. (9)
It has been argued that it was Rich's evidence that resulted in the conviction and execution of More. "His alleged perjury received its full reward: on 27 July 1535 Rich was named chirographer of the court of common pleas, but at the cost of his historical reputation.... The fiscal and legal consequences of the Henrician reformation soon brought Rich fresh responsibilities. Having resigned as solicitor-general, on 20 April 1536 he was appointed surveyor of liveries, and four days later was named chancellor of the newly erected court of augmentations, charged with overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, a task for which he showed a particular relish and acquisitiveness that has contributed to the tarnishing of his posthumous reputation." (10)
In April 1536, Richard Rich, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Audley were given the task of investigating claims made against Queen Anne Boleyn. (11) This included interviewing Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton and George Boleyn. It has been suggested that Rich might have tortured Smeaton in order to get a confession. This information was used to gain a conviction and execution of the Queen and her five suggested lovers.
Rich was a protégé of Thomas Cromwell, but he hastily abandoned his patron when he was arrested on 10th June, 1540. (12) Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy and Rich willingly provided damaging testimony against him. On 28th July, Cromwell walked out onto Tower Green for his execution. In his speech from the scaffold he denied that he had aided heretics, but acknowledged the judgment of the law. The executioner bungled his work, and took two strokes to sever the neck of Cromwell. He suffered a particularly gruesome execution before what was left of his head was set upon a pike on London Bridge. (13)
Rich was rewarded by being made a Privy Councillor in August 1540. Over the next few years he achieved great success as chancellor of the court of augmentations (the largest of the royal revenue courts). As P. R. N. Carter has pointed out: "The possibilities of such an office were great, and Rich managed to amass a considerable landed estate in Essex, centred on Leighs Priory (a gift from the king in 1536), which he enlarged. The temptations it presented were equally great, however, and several times Rich was called to clear himself of accusations of corruption, as in April 1541 when John Hillary alleged (unsuccessfully) that Rich had defrauded the crown." (14)
On 2nd November, 1541, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, presented a written statement of the allegations against Queen Catherine Howard to Henry VIII. Cranmer wrote that Catherine had been accused by Mary Hall of "dissolute living before her marriage with Francis Dereham, and that was not secret, but many knew it." (15) Henry reacted with disbelief and told Cranmer that he did not think there was any foundation in these malicious accusations; nevertheless, Cranmer was to investigate the matter more thoroughly. "You are not to desist until you have got to the bottom of the pot."
Richard Rich and Sir John Gage were given the task of questioning Thomas Culpeper, Francis Dereham and Henry Manox. According to Alison Weir, the author of The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) Rich and Gage "had supervised the torturing, with instructions to proceed to the execution of the prisoners, if they felt that no more was to be gained from them by further interrogation." (16)
In February 1546 conservatives in the Church of England, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, and Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, began plotting to destroy the radical Protestants. (17) They gained the support of Henry VIII. As Alison Weir has pointed out: "Henry himself had never approved of Lutheranism. In spite of all he had done to reform the church of England, he was still Catholic in his ways and determined for the present to keep England that way. Protestant heresies would not be tolerated, and he would make that very clear to his subjects." (18) In May 1546 Henry gave permission for twenty-three people suspected of heresy to be arrested.
Richard Rich took part in this prosecution of heretics. One of those arrested was Anne Askew. Bishop Gardiner instructed Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Queen Catherine Parr and other leading Protestants as heretics. Kingston complained about having to torture a woman (it was in fact illegal to torture a woman at the time) and Richard Rich and Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley took over operating the rack.
Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (19) Afterwards, Anne's broken body was laid on the bare floor, and Wriothesley sat there for two hours longer, questioning her about her heresy and her suspected involvement with the royal household. (20)
Despite conservative religious sympathies, Rich consolidated his position by keeping on good terms with Edward Seymour and Thomas Seymour, and by collaborating in the destruction of the conservative Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, and his son Henry Howard, earl of Surrey, in the months before the death on Henry VIII on 28th January 1547. He held the post of Lord Chancellor until January 1552.
Rich and his wife entertained Queen Mary on her progress to the capital early in August 1553, and was named a Privy Councillor on 28th August. Having profited greatly from the dissolution of the monasteries, Rich was forced by Mary to restore some properties. He took part in the persecution of Protestants and was involved in the burning of Thomas Watts, in June 1555, after he refused to attend Mass. (21) According to P. R. N. Carter "it seems clear that Rich remained a conservative in religion throughout his life, and his earlier endorsement of reform was motivated more by politics and greed than by personal faith". (22)
Richard Rich supported the restoration of the royal supremacy under Queen Elizabeth, but his Catholic faith prompted him to vote against the Act of Uniformity in 1559. Although he was excluded from the privy council, he was not imprisoned. He died at Rochford on 12th June, 1567.
More was brought to trial on 1st July before special Commissioners sitting with a London jury. The judges were hardly impartial, for Cromwell, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Anne Boleyn's father and brother, Wiltshire and Rochford, were among the commissioners, with the Lord Chancellor, Audley, presiding. Unlike Fisher and the Carthusians, More denied that he had ever said that the king was not Head of the Church, but claimed that he had always refused to answer the question, and that silence could never constitute an act of high treason. When the prosecution argued that silence implied consent, he replied that if this was so, his silence must be interpeted as consenting to the Act which made Henry Head of the Church. Thus while Fisher and the Carthusians, when facing their judges, took their stand for the Papal Supremacy, More rested his defence on a legal quibble. The prosecution cited the statement that he had made to Cromwell and the other commissioners on 3 June, and in his letter to Fisher, that the Act was like a two-edged sword in requiring a man either to swear against his conscience or to suffer death for high treason; but More had been careful, in making this statement, to put it as a hypothetical case, without admitting that he himself was in this predicament.
It was difficult for the prosecution to maintain that anything that More had said or done constituted a malicious denial of the king's title as Supreme Head. But the Solicitor-General, Sir Richard Rich, then gave evidence of a conversation that he had had with More on 12 June, when he visited More in the Tower in another attempt to persuade him to take the oath of supremacy, and also, apparently, to remove More's writing materials and books.
Rich said to More that the king in Parliament could enact ally law and that all subjects were bound to obey. He asked More whether, it Parliament passed an Act requiring everyone to swear allegiance to Rich as king, More would be compelled by law to comply. More admitted that he would be forced to obey such a law, but said that this was a light case, and he would put a higher case to Rich: if Parliament passed an Act that God should no longer be God, would this Act take effect? Rich agreed that no Act of Parliament could prevent God from being God, but put a half-way case to More: if Parliament enacted that the king was Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England, why should not More accept this, just as he would accept an Act which made Rich king? According to Rich, More replied that the cases were not similar, because a king can be made by Parliament and deprived by Parliament, `to which every subject present in Parliament could give his consent'; but as to the supremacy over the Church, a subject cannot be bound, "because he cannot give his consent to that in Parliament; and although the king is so accepted in England, yet many foreign countries do not affirm the same".
More denied that Rich was speaking the truth, but, adhering to his policy of silence, did not give his own account of the conversation. It has generally been assumed that Rich committed perjury, in connivance with Cromwell and the prosecution, in order to provide the evidence necessary to convict More. This is, on the whole, the most likely explanation. Rich was at the beginning of a long career in which he would do all that was required of him by the authorities at every turn in royal policy. After providing the evidence which Cromwell needed to convict More in 1535, he and his associate, Wriothesley, gave evidence against Cromwell when Cromwell was executed in 1540; in 1547 he stepped in to become Lord Chancellor when Wriothesley fell; and he played his part in enforcing the royal supremacy against Catholics under Edward VI, in burning Protestants under Mary, and once more in enforcing the royal supremacy under Elizabeth, before he died, a respected JP and landowner in Essex, in 1567.
It is unlikely that Rich succeeded in trapping More into making an unguarded statement on 12 June; but his evidence that, on this occasion, More said that the king was accepted as Supreme Head of the Church only in England and not in many foreign countries, is very similar to the statement which More himself, in his letter to Margaret Roper, states that he made to Cromwell and the commissioners on 3 June. He then argued that it was legitimate to force a man to violate his conscience as the alternative to being burned, in order to uphold a law which was universally recognised throughout Christendom, but not in the case of a law that was recognised only in England. His argument meant that a law of the English Parliament did not in all circumstances have the binding effect of the accepted doctrines of the international Church; and it did not perhaps need a very great exaggeration by Rich to distort what More really said on 12 June into what Rich said that he said. But even if Rich's evidence had been true, it was obviously straining the law to hold that a man was maliciously seeking to deprive the king of his title, and was consequently to be hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor, because he had said to the Solicitor-General, in a private conversation, that a subject is not bound on the question of the supremacy over the Church "because he cannot give his consent to that in Parliament".
The jury were out for only a quarter of an hour before giving their verdict of "Guilty". There is no evidence that the jury was packed; but although most Londoners had a high opinion of More and a low opinion of Queen Anne Boleyn, they had no sympathy with anyone who resisted the king's proceedings against that foreign priest, the Bishop of Rome. More and the handful of Papalist supporters who opposed the breach with Rome had even less support in London than the obstinate heretics who preached doctrinal innovation in religion and preferred to be burned rather than to recant. The jury were obviously not impressed by More's legalistic hair-splitting; it was clear enough, from his whole conduct during the preliminary examinations and at the trial, that he was refusing to accept the king as Supreme Head of the Church of England.
Audley was about to sentence him to death, when More reminded him that in the days when he was a judge it was usual to ask a convicted prisoner if he had anything to say before sentence was passed. After Audley had given him leave to speak, he said everything that he believed about the supremacy but had been careful not to say until the jury had given their verdict. There are two versions of his speech. One was published in Paris a few weeks after the trial; the other is Roper's version in his book about More, written about twenty years later, and repeated shortly afterwards by Harpsfield. The two accounts agree in substance. More declared that Parliament had no power to abolish the Papal supremacy over the Church. When Audley interrupted to say that most learned doctors took the opposite view, More said that for every bishop supporting the royal supremacy, there were a hundred learned men throughout Christendom who supported his position; and that against the Act of Parliament were the opinions of all the General Councils of the Church for the last thousand years. "Not only have you no authority, without the common consent of Christians all over the world, to make laws and frame statutes, Acts of Parliament or Councils against the said union of Christendom, but you and the others sin capitally in doing so."
Lord Chancellor Wriothesley was in charge of the interrogation, and he saw this chance as another to incriminate the Queen. When Anne Askew proved obdurate, he ordered her to be put on the rack, and, with Sir Richard Rich, personally conducted the examination. Anne Askew later dictated an account of the proceedings, in which she testified to being questioned as to whether she knew anything about the beliefs of the ladies of the Queen's household. She replied that she knew nothing. It was put to her that she had received gifts from these ladies, but she denied it. For her obstinacy, she was racked for a long time, but bravely refused to cry out, and when she swooned with the pain, the Lord Chancellor himself brought her round, and with his own hands turned the wheels of the machine, Rich assisting. Afterwards, Anne's broken body was laid on the bare floor, and Wriothesley sat there for two hours longer, questioning her about her heresy and her suspected involvement with the royal household. All in vain. Anne refused to deny her Protestant faith, and would not or could not implicate anyone near the Queen. On 18th June, she was arraigned at the Guildhall in London, and sentenced to death. She was burned at the stake on 16th July at Smithfield, along with John Lascelles, another Protestant, he who had first alerted Cranmer to Catherine Howard's pre-marital activities. Anne died bravely and quickly: the bag of gunpowder hung about her neck by a humane executioner to facilitate a quick end exploded almost immediately.
Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith.