Richard Empson's date of birth is estimated to be about 1450 but since he was ultimately executed in the Tower of London along with Edmund Dudley, we know that he died on August 17, 1510.

Empson was raised in wealth in Towcester in Northamptonshire, the son of local lord, Peter Empson. Richard Empson was educated and trained as a barrister, practicing law in the Midlands. Records show that he was Justice of the Peace and in 1478, he was appointed Attorney General for the Duchy of Lancaster.

Empson lived and thrived on a dangerous roller-coaster of political life as England writhed in the War of the Roses (1455-1485), which only ended with the accession Henry VII who defeated Richard III in battle in 1485. In 1483, when Richard III had taken power, Empson had lost his position as Attorney General.

Henry VII returned Empson to the attorney-generalship of Lancaster. Henry VII also wanted to consolidate his reign and for that, he wanted money. He began to squeeze his subjects by relentless and heavy taxation.Empson, Henry VII and Dudley

Empson was elected for Northamptonshire and sat in the House of Commons in 1491, elected Speaker, and later Recorder of Coventry, attracting the attention of Henry VII as a taxation henchman.

Empson befriended Edmund Dudley and together, they became forever associated with the implementation of Henry VII's ruthless scheme of taxation and fine collection.

Empson was knighted on February 18, 1504 concurrent with his appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and, later, High Steward of the University of Cambridge.

But at his day job, he was ruthless in collecting fines and taxes and quickly became unpopular, one contemporary writer calling him a caitiff and villain. He and Dudley organized a secret committee which had the ongoing and attentive approval of Henry VII, who carefully monitored and wrote in Empson's account books, through which the coordination of tax collection was organized. As taxes grew the enforcement became increasingly cruel and ruthless.

In his History of the County of Northampton, Baker writes:

"Cardinal Morton and Bray reluctantly yielded to, and endeavored to check the ruling passion of their sovereign. Empson and Dudley not merely acquiesced in but fostered his mercenary and tyrannical inclinations. Henry found in them the willing and eager instruments of regal rapacity, and by the abuse of their legal knowledge and authority during the last ten years of his reign, they contrived to fill his coffers under the color of law though with an utter disregard of equity or justice. They commenced their extortionate career by instituting harassing and vexatious prosecutions for the offense against antiquated and obsolete penal statutes, in which they listened to no defense or mitigating circumstance, but unrelentingly enforced the letter of the law in violation of its spirit."

In his history of Henry VII, Francis Bacon wrote:

"Neither did (Empson and Dudley) towards the end observe so much as the half face of justice, in proceeding by indictment; but sent forth their precepts to attach men and convert them before themselves and some others at their private houses, in a court of commission; and there used to shuffle up a summary proceeding by examination, without trial of jury; assuming to themselves there to deal both in pleas of the crown and controversies civil."

The Goodings, in their 1984 article, related the incident of Empson holding an inquisition of a blind man who owed money to the Crown and who was known to forecast the weather. Empson mocked him by asking: "When does the sun change?", to which the blind man replied:

"When such a wicked lawyer as you goeth to Heaven."

Unfortunately for Empson, Henry VII died in April of 1509 and he discovered that the list of Empson/Dudley-haters was long indeed - especially since the Crown was now fabulously wealthy at their expense, as had become both Empson and Dudley. Henry VII had taken good care of his effective tax collectors. Empson's rise in the ranks was obvious when Henry VII's will was read: Empson was the appointed executor.

When his son became king, Henry VIII sought to mark the beginning of his reign by some good deed. He chose to have Empson and Dudley arrested and sent to the Tower and a proclamation published encouraging citizens to make known their complaints. The testimonials were numerous and were soon translated into formal charges of treason.

Empson's trial was before several judges including Robert Brudenell and John Fisher, Both he and Dudley were convicted of conspiracy against the state. They were sent back to the Tower to await word from the new king as to whether the Royal prerogative of mercy would be exercised. Henry VIII was not insensitive to the value to the Crown of two such experienced and effective tax collectors.

But the public outcry against these two men, now that their protector Henry VII was dead, was relentless. Even Parliament became involved invoking, in January of 1510, their rarely used power of a bill of attainder calling for the execution of both tax collectors especially when, during the course of the Parliamentary investigation, the full extent of Empson's significant land-holdings was revealed. The barrister from Towcester had become rich almost beyond imagination.

When Henry VIII visited the countryside in 1510, it was clear that even his people hated both men. The king bowed to public pressure, signed the warrant for execution, and both Empson and Dudley were beheaded.

Because of his conviction, his estate was forfeited to the Crown but in 1513, it was restored to his eldest son Thomas.

REFERENCES:

  • Bacon, Francis, History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1622)
  • Baker, George, The History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton (London, J.B. Nichols and Son, 1822)
  • Cannon, John, ed., The Oxford Companion to British History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), page 348
  • Gooding, Peter and Janet, Sir Richrad Empson, 2 Towcester Local History Society Journal (1984)