SMYTHE, John I (1557-1608), of Westenhanger, Kent.
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Family and Education
bap. 16 Sept. 1557, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Thomas Smythe I of Westenhanger by Alice (d.1593), da. of Sir Andrew Judd of London and Tonbridge; bro. of Richard and Thomas II. educ. G. Inn 1577. m. by Jan. 1577, Elizabeth, da. and h. of John Fyneux of Herne by Margaret, da. of Thomas Morley† of Glynde, Suss., 2s. 6da. suc. fa. 1591. Kntd. 1603.
J.p. Kent from c.1584, q. by 1601, sheriff 1600-1; dep. gov. mines royal by 1605.2
Smythe has remained an obscure figure in comparison with his father, the customer of London, his younger brother Thomas, who became governor of the East India Company, and his son, also Thomas, who was given a peerage by Charles I. For the most part he left the family’s business interests to his brother, he himself enjoying the life of a country gentleman on the estates which his father had acquired in Kent, either through marriage or financial acumen. Born after his father had moved to London from Wiltshire, he spent the early years of his life in the capital. By the time he entered an inn of court (if we have the right John Smythe here) he had already made a fortunate marriage to a Kent heiress.3
Smythe’s return at Aylesbury in 1584 was due to the connexion between the family and the Pakingtons, lords of the borough. The Scotts and the Sackvilles, both related by marriage to the Smythes, their Kent neighbours, also supplied MPs for the borough during Elizabeth’s reign, and it is evident that the four families knew each other well. During the rest of his parliamentary career Smythe sat for Hythe, always without payment. Though he had some dealings with the lord warden, there is no reason to suppose that he needed Cobham’s support to secure the seat. His principal residence was only a few miles away and he clearly took an interest in Hythe politics: when the corporation chose his brother Sir Richard as Member in 1614 they referred to ‘the continual love and affection of your good father and brother towards the town’. Smythe left no mark on the records of the House but he could have taken part in the work of the committee on the import of fish, 6 Mar. 1587.4
Smythe succeeded to his father’s property, apart from provision made for the widow, on Thomas’s death in June 1591. The principal manors were at Ostenhanger (now Westenhanger), near Hythe, and Ashford, which Customer Smythe had inherited from his father-in-law, but there were also at least half a dozen more manors and much other property scattered throughout Kent. In addition, Smythe acquired in 1592, through his wife, the manor of Herne in north Kent and other Fyneux lands in the county. With these extensive estates he became one of the richest men in Kent. As well as performing the duties expected of a man in his position, he took an interest in the affairs of the Cinque Ports, such as the reconstruction of Dover harbour, though it hardly seems likely that he was the ‘John Smith’ who became an associate of William Southland in his attempt to control the government of New Romney. As successor to the Fyneux family he also had to provide money to repair Herne and Reculver churches and to rebuild the sea wall at Whitstable.5
It is not easy to follow Smythe’s activities outside Kent, nor to estimate the extent to which he pursued his father’s active interest in the commercial life of London. The task is rendered more difficult by the presence, until his death in 1594, of a port of London official of the same name. Certainly Smythe was less occupied with business than was his brother Thomas, but he did not retire permanently to the country. In 1595, for instance, there occurs a reference to the removal of a large quantity of copper from his warehouse, and as late as 1605 he was still involved in claims by the Crown against his father’s estate for the period when he was customer. In ‘Smith and his brother’, presumably of this family, claimed that the customs officials had been negligent in their duties. Richard Camarden complained to Sir Robert Cecil that Smythe ‘seeketh to make show of service upon other men’s labours and in the end [will] prove nothing, as all his professed services hitherto have done’. The charges, on investigation, were rejected as groundless.6
Smythe followed his father as a shareholder in the mines royal, particularly the part of the company concerned with mining operations in Cornwall and Merioneth. He seems to have sold some or all of his shares by 1595, but ten years later he is found as one of the deputy-governors. In this capacity he was asked to collect some papers from the London house of Lord Cobham, then in the Tower for treason. Smythe may have known Cobham quite well, for he was on the list of permitted visitors. Thomas Smythe, John’s brother, who was sheriff of London in 1600-1, was accused of being involved in the Earl of Essex’s show of force in the city during his shrievalty, and John was closely questioned as to his brother’s activities, though he does not appear to have been involved himself.7
He died on 29 Nov. 1608 at the age of fifty-one, Although he urged his executors to avoid ‘vain funeral pomp as the world by custom in time of darkness has long used’—a phrase found almost verbatim in the will of Sir Walter Mildmay (1589)—and to prevent ‘superfluous cost’, they erected a magnificent monument to his memory in Ashford parish church. Dressed in armour, he is kneeling on a cushion, facing his wife, with their three surviving children in front of them. The heir, who was to become Viscount Strangford, was only nine years old when his father died and there was considerable competition for his wardship. One of Smythe’s executors, Christopher Toldervey, also sat in Parliament for Hythe.8