SMITH, Thomas I (1513-77), of Ankerwyke, Bucks and Hill Hall, Theydon Mount, Essex.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. 23 Dec. 1513, 2nd s. of John Smith (d.1557) of Saffron Walden, Essex by Agnes, da. of one Charnock of Lancs. educ. Queens’, Camb. 1526, fellow 1530, BA 1530, MA 1532, LL.D 1542. m. (1) 15 Apr. 1548, Elizabeth (d.1552), da. of William Carkeke of London, s.p.; (2) 23 July 1554, Philippa (d.1578), da. of Henry Wilford of London, wid. of Sir John Hampden of Theydon Mount, s.p.; 1s. illegit. Kntd. Apr. 1549.3

Offices Held

King’s scholar, Camb. 1532/33, reader in nat. philosophy and Greek, Camb. 1533-50, public orator 1533, regius prof. of civil law 1540; v.-pres., Queens’; v.-chancellor, Camb. 1543-4; chancellor, bp. of Ely Jan. 1545; sec. to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset 1547; clerk to the Privy Council Mar. 1547-Apr. 1548; provost of Eton 29 Dec. 1547-12 July 1554, sec. of state 17 Apr. 1548-Oct. 1549, 13 July 1572-d., dean of Carlisle June 1548-54, 1559-d.; commr. heresy 1548, 1550, 1559, visit Eton and Cambridge 1548; envoy to Antwerp 1548, France 1550, 1562-6, 1567, 1571-2; j.p. Bucks., Essex 1558/59-d.; PC Mar. 1571-d.; chancellor, order of the Garter 1572; ld. privy seal by May 1573.


Thomas Smith was the precocious but sickly son of a small sheepfarmer. Although it is not known who introduced him to Cambridge, he would have had to leave after taking his master’s degree but for the royal physician William Butts, who probably obtained King’s scholarships both for him and John Cheke. At Cambridge he won praise for his learning and for his command of language, but he also showed aptitude for more worldly affairs: he joined Cheke in attracting Henry VIII’s notice with a dissertation on the King’s marriage in 1539, successfully undertook a journey through France to Padua in 1540-2 with the aim of increasing his prestige, and as vice-chancellor proved himself a methodical administrator and a valuable advocate for the university. His inaugural lectures as professor were notably self-congratulatory and his first book, De Recta et Emendata Linguae Graecae Pronuntiatione, exaggerated his own share, at the expense of Cheke’s, in introducing the new and controversial pronunciation of Greek. It was once thought that Smith had been ordained, but this was not the case: the provostship of Eton was conferred only after a royal command to the fellows to disregard the fact that he was a layman.

The rapidity of Smith’s rise after he reached the court in February 1547 testifies to his ability and perhaps also to the reputation which he had already gained. He joined the Duke of Somerset’s household at the same time as his pupil Cecil, and when another of his pupils, Roger Ascham, was helping Cheke to teach Edward VI. He was already receiving £40 a year as professor of civil law, a post which he continued to hold, as well as annuities of £50 as chancellor to the bishop of Ely and £36 from a benefice which he had acquired at Leverington in the Isle of Ely. In March 1547 he became a clerk to the Privy Council, with £40 a year and his diets, and he also acted as the master of Somerset’s unofficial court of requests until succeeded by Cecil in June 1548. The deanery of Carlisle was burdened with a pension to its former holder, but the provostship of Eton brought him a further £50 a year, with allowances of some £200; the secretaryship of state, in which he succeeded Paget in April 1548, raised his income by a further £200 a year, with perquisites that added thousands. The wealth thus suddenly accruing called for swift investment. In October 1547 Smith paid £300 for the reversion of the manor and advowson of Yarlington, Somerset, and in the following year 200 marks for the lease of a house in Cannon Row, Westminster; the date of this second transaction, 3 May 1548, seems to connect it with the dowry of 1,000 marks which had been brought by his 19 year-old bride, the daughter of a London printer, whom he married on 15 Apr. of that year. Twelve months later, in nominal association with Henry Needham, Smith paid some £700 for the late royal free chapel in the church of All Saints, Derby, with other property there and tithes.4

Smith’s long, if intermittent, career in the Commons began with his return as the senior Member for a Wiltshire borough: this he undoubtedly owed to the Protector Somerset, who presumably commended him to Queen Catherine Parr, lord of the borough. The indenture for Marlborough has not survived but Smith’s is one of the two names of its representatives appearing on a list of Members revised in 1552 and there is no reason to doubt that he and Humphrey Moseley had served from the beginning of the Parliament: he was, indeed, afterwards to refer to an attack made upon him ‘at the first Parliament’, that is, during the first session, by Bartholomew Traheron. As a confidant of Somerset, Smith was probably one of the government’s leading spokesmen and managers during the first two sessions: his hand has been seen in more than one of the Acts then passed, notably the Act of Repeal, the Treasons Act and the Vagabonds Act (1 Edw. VI, cc. 6, 11, 12), he was entrusted with the draft of the first Prayer Book after it had been read, and bills were committed to him dealing with the leather trade and with schools. On his appointment as secretary of state he may have also attended in the Lords, even though he is not known to have received a writ of assistance. He took no significant part in the next session which opened soon after Somerset’s fall and his own dismissal from the secretaryship, but during the last session the bill against bigamy was committed to him after its second reading.5

The eloquence which had won fame for Smith at Cambridge might have made him a powerful advocate of ecclesiastical and other changes in the Commons, but while interest and perhaps inclination had aligned him with reform he was impervious to any religious enthusiasm and so invited attacks from every quarter. In a letter of 1549 to the Duchess of Somerset he recalled the accusation of indifference made by Traheron, ‘whom yet I never spoke unto of it, for I had rather by deeds convince such men than by words’; he had always, he maintained, taken his stand openly, ‘in the university before all the learned men ... in the Parliament before all the lords and commons, and yet now they will make me a neutral, which I never yet was, since I was born’. Even his frankness could give offence, as it did to conservative-minded bishops and Councillors when he concluded a discussion on the eucharist by saying that the communion bread ‘could not be the true body, or else He must want His head or His legs.’ In 1549 he incurred the reproaches of Bishop Ridley by proposing, as an absentee member of a commission to visit the university, that Clare and Trinity halls should become a college of civil law at Cambridge; Ridley’s recall from the commission, at Smith’s instigation, did not prevent Parliament from rejecting a bill to unite the two halls. Both his friendship with Gardiner and his lay pluralism made Smith suspect to Protestants, while his high-handed action in imprisoning Bishop Bonner of London without reference to Cranmer brought almost universal condemnation.

Indifference was not the only ground for complaint. Smith successfully urged a suspension of all trade with Antwerp until the privileges of the English merchants were restored, but his criticism of (Sir) William Damsell’s raising of loans there brought a rebuke from Paget. When complaints of his behaviour reached the Duchess of Somerset he first enlisted the help of (Sir) John Thynne to refute his detractors, but then had to address himself personally to the duchess. He denied accusations of being haughty, ‘a severe and extreme man’ in litigation, ‘a great purchaser’ and ‘a great chopper and changer of lands’, as well as a ‘neutral’ in religion. He supplied details of his income to rebut charges of his harshness as a landlord and his indulgence in speculation and corruption; he had joined the ducal household with £300 saved from his wages at Cambridge, and apart from Yarlington and the lands in Derby his only property was the house in Cannon Row, which was sublet to Paget, and one, yet to be paid for, in Philpot Lane where he himself lodged with a brother. Smith’s presumably unsuccessful application through Thynne early in June 1549 for a vacant customership is an interesting commentary both on his financial position and on his notion of what was his due.6

Despite his well attested faults, Smith was a hardworking and efficient secretary of state. His duties ranged from the interrogation of Somerset’s brother Admiral Seymour and (Sir) William Sharington to the literary justification of the duke’s Scottish policy in An Epitome of the Title that the King’s Majesty of England hath to the Sovereignty of Scotland. It was after he had failed to convince the Protector of the necessity for monetary reform that he retired temporarily to Eton where he composed the ‘Discourse of the Commonweal’ in which the debased coinage was for the first time held responsible for rising prices and social unrest. He was summoned back to court in September 1549, only to share in his master’s fall. On 5 Oct. he drew up a proclamation against ‘the painted eloquence’ of the duke’s enemies, ‘come up but late from the dunghill’, and a few days later he sent the Earl of Warwick’s party a defiant letter, which was also signed by Cranmer and Paget. After being arrested with Somerset at Windsor castle, Smith was sent to the Tower as one of the Protector’s ‘principal instruments and counsellors’, and on 15 Oct. Nicholas Wotton replaced him as secretary of state.

Smith was saved from further punishment, including the loss of his chair, by Warwick’s leniency. Released in February 1550 on giving a bond of £3,000 to be of good behaviour, he busied himself with his private comfort and non-political concerns. He paid over £400 in part exchange for four manors, on one of which Ankerwyke, near Eton, he built a house where he lived until after Mary’s accession, devoting himself to the improved financial administration of Eton and to the life of a scholar and gentleman. He did not renew his ties with Somerset and so escaped implication in the duke’s tragic end. Attempts to bind him to the new order early in 1551, when he was appointed a commissioner to examine offences against the Prayer Book, were rebuffed by his refusal to incriminate Gardiner, brought to trial for a sermon preached after Smith had tried to persuade him to conform. Although he was the most active member of the embassy to negotiate peace with France in 1551, Smith was given no further public employment by Somerset’s supplanters.

His retirement spared Smith prosecution as an opponent of Mary but he was deprived as dean of Carlisle and provost of Eton. Bonner, restored to his see, hoped for vengeance and was probably cheated of it only by Gardiner, the new lord chancellor. It was probably Gardiner who secured Smith’s return for Grampound with William Smethwick on 8 Sept. 1553, as well as the grant of a pension of £100 a year on 12 May 1554. (Smith did not join the Protestant opposition in the House on this occasion, although his name was for a short time mistakenly noted among those standing ‘for the true religion’.) If, as has been suggested, it was Smith who about this time wrote the ‘Memorandum for the Understanding of the Exchange’ (alternatively ascribed to a later date and to different authorship, including Sir Thomas Gresham’s), this treatise could be regarded as a service proffered to Gardiner, who was much concerned with the monetary problem: the attribution derives some colour from the fact that Smith is not known to have sat in Mary’s second Parliament and could therefore have assumed, as does the writer of the ‘Memorandum’, that the sumptuary bill introduced in that Parliament became an Act, whereas it was in fact lost by the sudden dissolution of 5 May 1554. Assured of the chancellor’s goodwill Smith welcomed John Taylor, the deposed bishop of Lincoln, at Ankerwyke, received the 16th Earl of Oxford’s heir into his household and successfully answered accusations that as dean of Carlisle he had embezzled alms for the poor. Widowed in 1552, he married in July 1554 the daughter of another Londoner and thus acquired the extensive manor of Theydon Mount; in the following March he was granted a 30-year lease of the manor of Wyrardisbury, near Ankerwyke, as satisfaction for unpaid expenses on his French embassy.7

After his second marriage Smith left the imposing residence at Ankerwyke for Hill Hall, one of two houses which he was to rebuild at Theydon Mount. He spent the last years of Mary’s reign in outward conformity and in retirement: the first came easily to one of his secular outlook, but his renewed activity after 1558 shows how hard it must have been for him to turn his back on public life. His services to Elizabeth were rewarded in 1571 by a place on her Privy Council and in the following year he regained the secretaryship which he had lost nearly a quarter of a century before. He made his last appearance at a Council meeting early in 1576 and after a long illness he died at Hill Hall on 12 Aug. 1577.

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: T. F.T. Baker


  • 1. Hatfield 207.
  • 2. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 3. This biography rests on M. Dewar, Sir Thomas Smith and J. G. Nichols, ‘Some additions to the biographies of Sir John Cheke and Sir Thomas Smith’, Archaelogia, xxxviii. 98-127.
  • 4. Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 2, ff. 12-18v.
  • 5. Hatfield 207; C. S. L. Davies, ‘Slavery and Protector Somerset, The Vagrancy Act of 1547’, EHR (ser. 2), xix. 533-49; W. J. Fitzgerald, ‘Treason legislation in Eng. 1547-1603’ (London Univ. M.A. thesis, 1963), 20, 40; CJ, i. 5-6, 21; M. L. Bush Govt. Pol. Somerset, 52.
  • 6. Thynne pprs. 2, f. 74.
  • 7. Bodl. e Museo 17; Econ. Hist. Rev. (ser. 2), xvi. 481-4, 486.