Kemp was born in Gissing, Norfolk, England, in or about 1600. He was the third of Robert and Dorothy Kemp’s seven sons. In August 1634, Charles I named Richard Kemp secretary of the Virginia colony, replacing. As secretary, Kemp would oversee all official correspondence with the king, issue permits, grant passes to leave Virginia, and handle all of the colony’s legal paperwork. The secretary collected fees for performing his duties and also received land and servants as further compensation.
Almost immediately after Kemp arrived in Virginia, however, he became entangled in a bitter struggle between the royal governor, Sir John Harvey, and the governor’s Council. Harvey wished to curtail land settlement and expansion, fearing retaliation from the Indians in the vein of the 1622 attack that had launched the(1622–1632), while most councilors were eager to patent former Indian lands; Harvey had also helped Cecil Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, to settle Maryland, a colony established in what many Virginians considered their territory. Harvey was also simply unpopular, seen by many as a despot. The Council impeached Harvey in 1635 (though not before he knocked out the teeth of one of the councilors) and replaced him with John West. The king restored Harvey’s gubernatorial appointment in 1636.
Kemp had sided with Harvey in these disputes, even helping Harvey punish his opponents. When Harvey was again deposed in 1639, Kemp assumed a low profile and eventually escaped from the colony by stowing away on a ship bound for England. There he pleaded his case to Charles I and convinced the king to allow him to resume his role as the secretary of the colony. He returned to Virginia in 1642 with the colony’s new governor, Sir William Berkeley. By virtue of his position as senior member of the Council, Kemp served as acting governor from June 1644 to June 1645, when Berkeley traveled to England to buy arms to defend the colony against Indian attacks. Soon after that, Kemp’s health began to decline, and he left office in 1649.
Kemp’s personal life was less fraught than his political one. Kemp may have been married when he arrived in Virginia, but if he was, his wife died shortly after her arrival in the colony. Kemp then married Elizabeth Wormeley, the daughter of Christopher Wormeley, a county justice. The couple had one daughter, Elizabeth. In Jamestown in 1638 and 1639, Kemp built what was probably the first all-brick house in Virginia, which Harvey described as “the fairest ever known in this country for substance and uniformity.” According to excavations of the house performed in 1934 by National Park Service archaeologists and in 1995 by Audrey Horning of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, it had a lobby entrance hall and parlor measuring twenty-five by thirty-four feet; the foundation’s bottom course was made up of unmortared broken bricks in no discernible pattern. The house at one time featured a ceramic tile roof.
In 1641, Kemp, hoping to escape the political infighting in the colonial capital, sold the house to then-governor Sir Francis Wyatt and moved to Rich Neck, a plantation located a few miles outside Jamestown, which Kemp had purchased from George Menefie in 1636. Kemp was credited with almost one hundred headrights in return for paying for laborers’ passages to Virginia, and was one of the first planters to use an enslaved workforce. At Rich Neck, Kemp constructed multiple structures, including a brick house almost identical to his Jamestown house and a large brick outbuilding that served as the plantation’s kitchen, servants’ quarters, and storage facility. In his will, which he wrote on January 4, 1649, he ordered his wife to sell Rich Neck and return to England. She did neither: though the exact date of Kemp’s death is unknown, it was sometime prior to October 24, 1650, when Elizabeth Wormeley Kemp married Sir Thomas Lunsford, who had come to Virginia as a Royalist refugee from the(1642–1648). Some sources cite the date of Richard Kemp’s death as December 6, 1656, the day his will reached authorities in England.