Sir Richard Empson
Sir Richard Empson (c.1450-1510)Sir Richard Empson (c.1450-1510)

by Peter and Janet Gooding

Reprinted from the Towcester Local History Society Journal, Number 2, April 1984

One of the more famous, or perhaps, infamous of Towcester's sons was Sir Richard Empson, who became an important associate of King Henry VII and, in the course of helping Henry to establish a wealthy and secure monarchy, made himself one of the most hated men of his day. Together with his associate Sir Edmund Dudley he caused annoyance and suffering to the landowners without gaining the sympathy of the common people. The sources of our narrative are listed at the end; some of the early ones may well be biased, and the illumination that they give is fitful; some parts of Empson's life are shown in vivid detail - elsewhere there is only darkness. We have very little information on his early life, but much more later when he became an important political figure. It is worth noting that he is called EMSON in all deeds and conveyances, but EMPSON in all printed authorities.

Empson's father is always said to have been a sieve maker of Towcester. While this sounds a rather lowly occupation, he must in fact have been a man of some consequence locally as his name frequently appears as a feoffee in documents or as a witness to deeds relating to Towcester and the neighbourhood; and some sources describe him as "a wealthy citizen of Towcester". "Peter is sometimes described of Pavelispury or Westbury, but in 27 Hen VI (1449) Simon Ruff of Westbury and Eleanor his wife demised to him for 110 years a cottage in 'Tovecester' containing in length along 'Myllelane' 90ft. in breadth along 'Parkelane' 20ft. which probably became his future residence and birthplace of his son. He died at Towcester in 13 Edw IV (1473) and administration of his goods was granted to his executors by the official of the archdeacon of Northampton. His son was primarily led into the paths of law, and by what pecuniary means he was able to prosecute his studies, it would now be vain to inquire; but the purchase of Bacon's lands in Estneston, Hulcote and Shutlanger in 16 Edw IV (1476) may be presumed to have been effected with the first fruits of his professional success." (See Baker)

The actual position of the house in which Richard Empson was presumed to have been born is uncertain. Baker gives the corner of Myllelane and Parkelane. In the Victoria County History (p225) where the foundation of Towcester Grammar School is described, there is a discussion of a "messuage on the corner opposite the Rectory gate by the Mill Lane between Watlynge Strete and the gate of the manor house". Did Parkelane run where Moat Lane now runs, and Myllelane towards what is now Easton Neston park? The old road to Northampton ran down what is now Church Lane, across Easton Neston estate, and there was a water mill in mediaeval times where this road crossed the Tove. Whellan certainly implies this location when discussing the Sponne Charity and the land and cottages belonging to it. If this is so, then Empson was born near to the church, in the early centre of the town. Certainly this is where one would expect the manor house to be. Most of Towcester is built on clay, but there is a small outcropping of limestone on which the church was built; the manor house, being second in importance to the church, might also be built on this outcrop. Some tradition also has it that Empson was born in the Old Mint House in Park Street, but it is difficult to reconcile Baker's evidence with this location.

The date of Empson's birth is unknown. We know that his father was alive in 1448 and that he died in 1473, and that his mother died in 1475. He seems to have been an intelligent boy and received a good early education (Baker suggests at Towcester); he later studied for the bar and became a distinguished Common Lawyer, being successful enough to be able to purchase his estates, as Baker mentions in the quotations above.

Empson's career developed rapidly. He represented the county of Northamptonshire in the Parliament which met on 17th October 1471, and was Speaker until its dissolution in March 1472. In February 1504 Empson was knighted and later in the same year he was nominated High Steward of Cambridge University and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and in 1507 he was granted land and tenements in the parish of St. Bride, Fleet Street.

From the opening of the reign of Henry VII in 1485 Empson was energetic in the exaction of taxes and penalties to swell the king's coffers: in this cause he was closely associated with Sir Edmund Dudley. Baker suggests that Empson's introduction to the king may have been effected by Sir Reginald Bray, who had considerable estates in Northamptonshire and was a favourite of the king. Empson was one of the trustees when Bray purchased Edgcote in 1492, which implies some degree of friendship. Empson is said by Stow to have resided in St. Swithin's Lane in a house adjoining Dudley's and communicating with it through the garden. Bacon has a description of the two men, which implies that Empson was the less polite (and perhaps the less hypocritical) of the two. "Dudley was of good family, eloquent, and one that could put hateful business into good language. But Empson, that was the son of a sieve-maker triumphed always upon the deed done; putting off all other respects whatsoever." King Henry VII became more greedy for money as his reign advanced, and Empson and Dudley became more rapacious in his cause, and more hated by those they oppressed. Generally they kept within the law, but by using old statutes which had fallen into disuse and had never been repealed they revived earlier methods of obtaining money for the king. Baker denounces them in thunderous prose: "Cardinal Morton and Bray reluctantly yielded to, and endeavoured 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 colour of law though with an utter disregard of equity or justice. They commenced their extortionate career by instituting harassing and vexatious prosecutions for the offence against antiquated and obsolete penal statutes, in which they listened to no defence or mitigating circumstance, but unrelentingly enforced the letter of the law in violation of its spirit."

Towards the end of the reign Empson and Dudley became more ruthless:- "Neither did they, 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." (Bacon) Empson had obviously used his knowledge of the law to good effect, at least in so far as his studies led to the enrichment of the monarchy and himself. Indeed, at Henry VII's death the monarchy was more wealthy than it has ever been before or since. Bacon again, on Empson and Dudley "like tame hawks for their master and wild hawks for themselves, insomuch as they grew to great riches and substance." There is much evidence of this increase of wealth attaching to Empson. He enlarged the estates he had started to acquire in Northamptonshire in 1476, adding land belonging to Sewardsley Priory in 1483, and Hulcote Manor in 1485. He leased Towcester Manor and Hundred from Richard Earl of Kent, eventually coming into ownership of these in 1507. He was now ready to become a country gentleman, for from Baker we have:- "Sir Richard Empson in 14 Hen VII (1499) obtained licence to empark 400 acres of land and 30 acres of wood in Estneston and Hulcote with free warren and free fishery in those lordships, and permission to embattle his manor house at Estneston. This house stood between the church and the river Tove, and is memorable as the place where King James I first met his queen, Anne of Denmark and his son Prince Henry on their coming to England after his accession to the throne; and also as the place where both their majesties met their second son, after Charles I, on his first arrival in England."

However Empson's start was only in the ascendant while Henry VII lived. He was making many enemies, though acting throughout with the full knowledge of the king. Bacon was fortunate enough to have sight of one of Empson's account books which had the king's signature on almost every page and the king had in some places also written on the margins. Generally some kind of justice was shown in gathering of the taxes. But Empson was even notorious among the common people. Camden tells the story that Empson, while chaffing a blind man, reputed to be a sure prognosticator of changes of the weather, asked "when doth the Sun change?" Blind man - "When such a wicked lawyer as you goeth to Heaven," came the reply. The king repented somewhat of his activities when nearing the end of his reign and directed restitution by proclamation, but did not punish Empson or Dudley, who were by now the most powerful men in the kingdom, indeed he appointed Empson as executor under his will.

When Henry VIII came to the throne he yielded to popular clamour and consigned Empson and Dudley to the Tower then published a proclamation asking for complaints against them to be made. At his trial, Empson seems to have been courageous and clever. He said that he had only obeyed the previous king's commands and that it was unjust to prosecute him for enforcing statutes which had been enacted and never repealed. The charges against Empson and Dudley were not capital ones, so finally a charge of constructive treason was brought against them on the grounds that their friends had borne weapons during Henry VII's last illness, according to some witnesses, the implication being that they intended to take over the government. Baker regards this as improbable and absurd. In other words this seems to have been a trumped-up charge to appease their enemies and to give Henry VIII a secure start to his reign. Empson was tried at Northampton Castle before Sir Robert Brudenell, Sir John Fisher and other justices, and convicted of conspiracy against the state.

Various measures were then taken to prevent similar oppression from taking place under future kings, and to put right the worst offences Empson and Dudley had committed. They remained in prison while the king considered their fate. He seems to have been half inclined to keep such useful men alive, but during his summer progress he found that the country would not tolerate their release, and he signed a warrant for their execution. Empson and Dudley were both beheaded on Tower Hill on 17th August 1510. Empson was buried at Whitefriars and Dudley at Blackfriars.

When Empson was attainted by Parliament in January 1510 it was found by inquisitions then and later that he owned the Manor and Hundred of Towcester; the manors of Easton Neston, Hulcote, Alderton, Stoke Bruerne, Shutlanger, Bradden, Cold Higham, Grimscote, Potcote and Burton Latimer; the advowsons of Bradden and Cold Higham, and lands in various other parts of the country. In a comparatively few years he had risen to a very powerful position and acquired much land, and then lost everything including his life. His lands became forfeit and were mostly granted to Sir William Compton, an ancestor of the Marquess of Northampton. A year later Empson's son. Thomas Empson Esquire successfully petitioned the crown for the restitution of his father's lands. He seems to have enjoyed his father's properties for only nine years, for, labouring under a heavy debt to the king, he finally sold his lands to William Fermor, who was possibly acting in trust for his brother Richard.

An estimate of Empson's character must be based very largely on guesswork; he was greedy, of a quick intelligence, having wit rather than wisdom, and was hungry for wealth and power whilst being unafraid of the hatred that this generated. The work which he did, though no doubt with his own advancement and wealth in mind, greatly strengthened the position of the monarchy. Henry VII's aim throughout his reign had been to reduce dissension within the realm following the upheavals caused by the Wars of the Roses, and to pass on a secure throne to his descendants. When he died he had, with Empson's and Dudley's help, amassed more ready money, in real terms, than any king before or since - about £1.8 million, which left Henry VIII independent of both Parliament and the nobility.

We have no evidence for any particular attachment to Towcester apart from his purchasing these local estates; Empson's life was spent in the political centre of the country, mainly in London. Locally, the most obvious result of Empson's activities was the establishment of a relationship between the Manor of Towcester and what had, by the time of his death become the estate of Easton Neston - a relationship which has influenced Towcester up to the present day.

Empson's coat of arms as shown at the beginning of this article is described as GULES, a chevron between 3 pears OR, the striped part is red (GULES) and the dotted areas gold (OR)
  1. Bacon - King Henry VII
  2. Baker - History of the County of Northampton
  3. Brewer - Reign of Henry VIII
  4. Bridges - History of the County of Northampton
  5. Camden - Remains 1870
  6. Dictionary of National Biography
  7. Mackie - The Earlier Tudors
  8. Victoria County History
  9. Whellan - Directory of Northamptonshire