Richard Southwell, the eldest son of Francis Southwell, an auditor of the exchequer, and his wife, Dorothy, daughter of William Tendrin, was born in 1502. Southwell's father' died in 1512. He also acquired property after the death of his his uncle Sir Robert Southwell, chief butler to Henry VII, who died in 1514, leaving an estate based on the manor of Woodrising.
In 1526 Southwell entered Lincoln's Inn. A well-educated man he taught the son of Thomas Cromwell, who for a time lived with him in Norfolk. In 1531 he became a Justice of the Peace for Norfolk and Suffolk. He also became the member of the House of Commons.
On 20th April, 1532, Richard and a group of men killed Sir William Pennington, a cousin of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Cromwell was able to persuade Henry VIII to grant him a pardon on the payment of a fine of £1,000. He also gave the king his Essex manor of Coggeshall. (1)
In January 1535, Thomas Cromwell was appointed as Vicar-General. This made him the King's deputy as Supreme Head of the Church. On 3rd June he sent a letter to all the bishops ordering them to preach in support of the supremacy, and to ensure that the clergy in their dioceses did so as well. A week later he sent further letters to Justices of Peace ordering them to report any instances of his instructions being disobeyed. In the following month he turned his attention to the monasteries. In September he suspended the authority of every bishop in the country so that the six canon lawyers he had appointed as his agents could complete their surveys of the monasteries. (2)
The survey revealed that the total annual income of all the monasteries was about £165,500. The eleven thousand monks and nuns in this institutions also controlled about a quarter of all the cultivated land in England. The six lawyers provided detailed reports on the monasteries. According to David Starkey: "Their subsequent reports concentrated on two areas: the sexual failings of the monks, on which subject the visitors managed to combine intense disapproval with lip-smacking detail, and the false miracles and relics, of which they gave equally gloating accounts." (3)
A Parliament was called in February 1536 to discuss these reports. With the encouragement of Cromwell they agreed to pass the Act for the Dissolution of Monasteries. This stated that all religious houses with an annual income of less than £200 were to be "suppressed". A total of 419 monastic houses were obliged to close but the abbots made petitions for exemptions, and 176 of the monasteries were allowed to stay open. It is believed that Cromwell was bribed in money and goods to reach this agreement. (4)
Richard Southwell was involved in closing down the monasteries in East Anglia. He was rewarded by being granted lands formerly held by several religious houses in Norfolk. (5) Thomas Fuller, the author of The Church History of Britain: Volume IV (1845) has argued that dissolution of the monasteries was of great personal benefit to Southwell, Thomas Cromwell, Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley and Solicitor-General Richard Rich. (6)
In 1536 Southwell was painted by Hans Holbein. The art historian, Helen Langdon has argued that Southwell was involved in the arrest and execution of Holbein's friend, Sir Thomas More and this is reflected in the painting: "As might be surmised from the somewhat cold and sinister expression on Southwell's face, he has come down to posterity as one of the most calculating and treacherous members of Henry VIII's court. He became a creature of Thomas Cromwell and was instrumental in aiding Richard Rich in his attempts to force the imprisoned Sir Thomas More to incriminate himself in 1532." (7)
In 1536, a lawyer named Robert Aske formed an army to defend the monasteries in Yorkshire. Another outbreak of public disorder took place in Lincolnshire. The rebels were joined by priests carrying crosses and banners. Leading nobles in the area also began to give their support to the rebellion. The rebels marched to York and demanded that the monasteries should be reopened. This march, which contained over 30,000 people, became known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. (8)
Richard Southwell helped Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, to raise forces from his region. (9) Howard reported to Henry VIII that although he believed he could raise 2,500 men he was desperately short of equipment for his archers and asked him to send "two or three carts of bows and arrows". A week later he was more specific and insisted he needed "at least 400 bows and 500 sheaves of arrows. This were better than gold or silver for, for money, I cannot get bows nor arrows." Howard and Southwell were also short of horses and it took him some time to get his troops to the troublesome areas. (10)
The Duke of Norfolk's army was not strong enough to fight the rebels and he was forced to negotiate a peace with Robert Aske. Howard was forced to promise that he would pardon the rebels and hold a parliament in York to discuss their demands. The rebels were convinced that this parliament would reopen the monasteries and therefore went back to their homes. However, as soon as the rebel army had dispersed. Henry ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace. About 200 people were executed for their part in the rebellion. This included Robert Aske, who was burnt at the stake. Abbots of the four largest monasteries in the north were also executed. (11)
According to his biographer, Stanford Lehmberg, Richard Southwell helped Henry VIII to get rid of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. "Southwell played a part in the fall of both Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.... More records that Southwell was sent to More's room in the Tower to take away his books. While there he heard the famous exchange between More and Sir Richard Rich in which the former chancellor denied that parliament could make the king head of the church.... In March 1540 Southwell (who was presumably still loyal to Cromwell) was one of six men who took a deposition from one Thomas Molton, who was charged with having said that the world would never be quiet so long as one so base in birth as Cromwell served on the king's council." (12)
Now considered one of Henry's trusted advisers, in 1542 he was appointed as one of the three general surveyors of the king's lands. Southwell was also several times sent on administrative and diplomatic missions. In 1542 Henry sent him to view the fortifications at Berwick. In January 1543 he was again involved in Scottish affairs, being sent with Earl of Bothwell to Darlington, for discussions with Scottish nobles who had recently pledged loyalty to Henry VIII. In 1544 received more than £65,000 for wages and other expenses. On Henry's death in January, 1547, he was granted an annuity of £100, and the king's will included a bequest of £200 in token of his "special love and favour".
Edward VI was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward VI in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. (13) According to David Starkey, Southwell provided information that resulted in the arrest of Henry Howard for treason. (14) Southwell gave evidence against Howard but the new government, committed to religious reform, had doubts about his loyalty and was not appointed to the Privy Council. (15)
Edward Seymour was blamed by the nobility and gentry for the Kett Rebellion during the summer of 1549 . They believed his statements about political reform had encouraged social unrest. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. Seymour's critics also disliked his popularity with the common people and considered him to be a potential revolutionary. His main opponents, including John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton and Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, met in London to demand his removal as lord protector. Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. (16)
According to Stanford Lehmberg this move was supported by Richard Southwell and he became a member of the Privy Council. However, the Earl of Warwick, the new lord protector, did not trust Southwell and in January 1550 he was sent to the Tower of London, and charged with writing seditious bills. Bishop John Ponet claimed that Southwell had done enough to be hanged for treason, but he was soon released, but remained excluded from the House of Commons. (17)
In 1553 Southwell initially gave his support to Lady Jane Grey as Edward VI's heir, but he changed sides and helped Queen Mary to gain power. (18) For his services he was rewarded on 4th December with an annuity of £100. Mary restored him to the Privy Council and made him Master of the Ordnance. Within her administration Southwell served on a number of commissions. Southwell helped to prosecute protestants and according to John Foxe he argued that they should be "put on the rack". (19)
After the death of Mary, Elizabeth decided not to appoint him to the Privy Council and in 1559 surrendered his offices in exchange for an annuity of £165. He was in poor health and was too weak to sign his long will, dated 24th July 1561. However, he did not die until 11th January 1564. His landholdings were substantial and included more than thirty manors in Norfolk alone, together with over 10,000 sheep. (20)
Southwell played a part in the fall of both Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.... More records that Southwell was sent to More's room in the Tower to take away his books. While there he heard the famous exchange between More and Sir Richard Rich in which the former chancellor denied that parliament could make the king head of the church.... In March 1540 Southwell (who was presumably still loyal to Cromwell) was one of six men who took a deposition from one Thomas Molton, who was charged with having said that the world would never be quiet so long as one so base in birth as Cromwell served on the king's council.
As might be surmised from the somewhat cold and sinister expression on Southwell's face, he has come down to posterity as one of the most calculating and treacherous members of Henry VIII's court. He became a creature of Thomas Cromwell and was instrumental in aiding Richard Rich in his attempts to force the imprisoned Sir Thomas More to incriminate himself in 1532.